The Zion Williamson legend and freak show now has its iconic stage

DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Krzyzewski has been making the sacred secular pilgrimage for more than 50 years, starting when he was a junior at West Point, the Black Knights fighting Notre Dame to the final minute of the NIT’s opening round. He’s been back plenty as a coach, too, notably the day in January 2015 when he won his 1,000th game.

“It’s every player’s dream to play at Madison Square Garden,” Krzyzewski said the other night, “and it’s every coach’s dream to coach there. It’s still a thrill for me.”

So, yes, the plan on Wednesday was for the Duke University Blue Devils to practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then hop a flight for New York, where on Thursday they will bring their 10-1 record and their No. 2 national ranking and play what Krzyzewski called “a big-boy game” against 10-0 Texas Tech, ranked 12th.

There will be a team dinner Wednesday night, and that’s where Krzyzewski was planning to regale them with tales of the Garden, tales of the city, how meaningful the building has been to him and to so many of the bold-faced names who have written basketball’s history across the past 80 years.

“The ball bouncing, it sounds different in there,” he said. “The public-address system sounds different. At 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, the basketball gods all play pickup games there.”

He smiled.

“When they can’t get into Cameron, that is.”

His players know, though. Even if they’ve only seen it on television, they know what the Garden is, they know what it means. Growing up in Spartanburg, S.C., Zion Williamson never played a game there, never came within a few hundred miles of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue. But he knew. He knows. He understands the dais that awaits him.

“That’s the big stage,” Williamson said, quietly, solemnly, after he’d gone for 17 points and 10 rebounds in a 101-50 wipeout of Princeton Tuesday night.

“The Garden?” he said, smiling.

“That’s where big names are made.”

There is no bigger name in college basketball right now than Zion Williamson. He is, in fact, so big that all you need is the first name, followed by proper punctuation — Zion! — to get a basketball fan’s blood percolating. This isn’t to say he’s the biggest talent, or the best player; it is entirely possible, in fact, that he’s the second-best player on his own team, because R.J. Barrett has scored more points than any Duke freshman ever has across the first 11 games of a career.

Barrett’s excellence, though, comes with an almost metronomic ease. After he does something extraordinary — and he does that quite often, inside and outside, with a smooth delivery that belies powerful athleticism — THAT’S when a crowd will explode, once they’ve seen him do it with their own eyes.

Zion?

The buzz starts BEFORE he does anything. He is a player who creates a murmur simply by walking onto the court, because there’s a belief he can not only do everything, but anything.

Part of that legend preceded him to campus — he has 2.1 million Instagram followers, and his viral exploits are the stuff of legend even in an era when it’s hard to impress the skeptical digital masses. But he is also a player who, in real life, against Princeton, hit his head on the bottom of the backboard while blocking a Tiger’s shot. He completed an alley-oop three-point play without ever once looking at the basket. When he rebounds, he often grabs with one hand and slams with the other, old-school playground style, and you can hear the thwack! from Durham to Raleigh to Chapel Hill and back again.

“Let me ask you a question,” a longtime NBA executive who’s seen every game Williamson has played so far, either in person or on TV, asked not long ago. “How many players do you know who can dominate a game without touching the ball? Listen to the crowd when he’s on the floor. They’re anticipating what he’s going to do next, even before he does it.”

He paused to catch his breath. This is what Zion does even to seasoned basketball men who have seen 10,000 games. “Every year, someone is going to be the 1-1,” he said, referring to the top pick in the NBA draft. “But there’s a difference between going No. 1 and being a No. 1. This kid, unless I’m very wrong, IS a No. 1.”

But he is also a kid, only five months past his 18th birthday, with a babyish face and an affinity to fit in with his teammates. In a postgame media scrum, someone mentions the difference between Williamson’s style and Barrett’s.

“How do you mean?” he asks.

Well, Barrett’s points are generally a little quieter …

“Quiet? R.J.! Are you kidding?” He snaps around to where Barrett is sitting, yells at him “Hey, R.J.! These guys are saying you score quiet buckets. Tell ’em how loud your game is!”

“It doesn’t compare to yours, bro,” Barrett says, laughing.

“Naw, man. I’m a big softy. I’m telling you. Soft and quiet.”

Speaking of quiet …

“Who’s a luckier guy than me? Anybody? I get to sit courtside at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night and see Zion Williamson in person for the very first time? How incredible is that? And how incredible is this: They’re still paying me for this. I saw my bosses the other day and I said, you guys went to Harvard and Stanford but how smart can you be if you’re paying me something I’d do for free? I’m just a kid in a candy store!”

Yes, that’s Dick Vitale, and yes, he’s been doing this for 40 years at ESPN, exuding enthusiasm at every turn, and if he’s been accused of untapping the hyperbole faucet a time or 12 through the years — notably when it comes to Duke — nobody has ever questioned the genuine joy he brings to his seat on press row.

But this is different. Vitale has seen every great high-school player going back to Lew Alcindor at Power Memorial. He’s seen them spend four years in college, he’s seen the ones good enough to skip right to the NBA when that was allowed, he’s seen all the one-and-dones that have proliferated in recent years. Seen them all.

“I’m not going to say he’s the best kid I’ve ever seen come out of high school because he’s not,” Vitale said. “Alcindor and Magic Johnson, they were just so skilled, so polished at a young age.

“But Zion is the most unique player I’ve seen in 40 years, his size [6-foot-7, 285 pounds] and the way he gets around on a basketball court. His upside is unbelievable. Everyone I know who would know says his attitude is unbelievable, so he’s only going to get better and better and better …”

He’s rolling now. Vitale has only seen the televised version of Zion. Thursday, at the Garden, he gets the live-action version for the very first time. He is six months shy of his 80th birthday; talking about this kid knocks that number in half.

“He’s agile, he’s mobile, but he isn’t fragile!” he said, roaring. “Hey, he’d be a perfect tight end. Maybe the Giants can visit him and talk him into being a target for Eli!”

The Giants, of course, aren’t the Tanking Gotham team that will be following Williamson closest; that’s the Knicks, and they have been playing of late like a team that ardently wants to reach the maximum 14 percent chance that the NBA’s three worst teams will have at winning next spring’s lottery.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Williamson. He is undersized — but so was Charles Barkley. It is sometimes easy to focus so much on his dunks and lightning-quick moves around the basket that you can diminish his shooting touch, but he has the green light to fire when ready from 3 for the Blue Devils — and after making six of his eight shots from the field Tuesday, he has made 88 out of 132 for the season. That’s .667 in any league.

And he’s having a hell of a good time, too.

“I know how corny this sounds,” he said in a private moment, “because people just don’t believe me, and I get it. But I play basketball because it’s fun. I mean: I got to play basketball at DUKE UNIVERSITY! How many kids ever get to say that? It’s so enjoyable here. And, again, I mean it: The moment basketball stops being this fun, I’ll stop playing, I’ll do something else.”

He smiled.

“Of course, I hope that’s not for many years to come.”

He isn’t alone.

“He’s gonna be a box-office bonanza for somebody next year,” Vitale said. “The Garden on Thursday night is going to be bonkers.”

Krzyzewski wants this for his players. He wants the Garden, and he wants New York, and he wants ESPN’s cameras because he knows how good Duke can be, and this setting will only help push them there. He wants them to do what they do on what remains the grandest platform in the sport.

“It’s just such a different ambience at the Garden,” he said. “It’s an honor, it really is.”

For Knicks fans, it will almost be too tantalizing to endure, seeing Duke’s precocious kids doing their thing on the fifth floor at Penn Plaza. And look: Some team is going to be awfully happy to have R.J. Barrett fall to them, at second, at fourth, wherever. That will be a hell of a pick. But only one player is going 1. And only one player will be a 1.

That’s the big kid on Duke. The one who wears the only number befitting him. One.

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