The education of Zion Williamson

A FEW HOURS before Duke’s NCAA tournament run begins in Columbia, South Carolina, Bill Pell sits in his living room and reminisces about his final year teaching at Spartanburg Day School, a tiny private school located about 100 miles from the arena where the Duke Blue Devils will play later tonight. Before retiring last spring, the 79-year-old taught a daily creative writing class, a yearlong elective for kids interested in developing their craft. Fewer than 10 students signed up for the course. One of them was 17-year-old Zion Williamson.

“I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but he’s a hell of a poet,” says Pell, smiling coyly as he adjusts his glasses. “The kid can write.”

Pell lives on a quiet country road in Spartanburg, in an airy, sun-filled house built in the 1800s. Before moving here several decades ago, he worked as an editor for the Modern Language Association in New York City. At Spartanburg Day, he wanted to create a space for his students to express their feelings through writing. “All teenagers are very emotional,” he says with a chuckle. “Early on, I said, ‘Do you know what you want to do, Zion?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He wasn’t 100 percent comfortable — he was feeling his way into the class.” While Pell usually let his students spend the period writing, he sometimes shared readings with them at the beginning of the hour so they could learn by example — works by Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas and Billy Collins.

At first, Williamson tried his hand at short stories, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results. Then he started writing poems. “He’d give them to me — he was very cautious,” Pell says. “I began making suggestions. Then all he did was write poems … and the deeper we got into the year, the more complicated and sophisticated they became. They were remarkable.”

Pell laughs. “I said, ‘Zion … you’re going to be as good a writer as you are a basketball player if you follow through on this.'”

While the students occasionally shared their writing for critiques, Williamson didn’t love reading his work out loud in front of the class. “He was shy about that,” Pell says, quickly adding: “He wasn’t the only one.” The retired teacher declines to elaborate on the content of Williamson’s poetry, aside from praising its structure and skill. But he saved one piece of writing that he feels comfortable sharing because it was read aloud at a school event. He opens a folder sitting on his lap and pulls out a sheet of paper.

“I was wondering how best I could communicate to you the kind of person he is,” Pell says. At the end of the school year, some of the senior athletes wrote letters to their teachers. A bit shyly, Pell hands over Williamson’s note, which was addressed to him. The writing, clear and artful, conveys a level of earnestness that echoes Pell’s description of his former student’s poetry. At the beginning, Williamson thanks his teacher for pushing him to grow outside of basketball. “As my high school journey ends, I wish you could go with me,” he wrote. “Instead, I will take the lessons you have taught me and apply them to my next chapter.”

Pell slips the letter back into his folder gingerly, as if it were made of glass. “See what I mean about the sensitivity?” he says.

NOW THAT HE’S officially headed to the NBA, Zion Williamson will enter the draft as the most talked about prospect in recent history, but we really don’t know very much about him. Think about it: During his college career, when Williamson accrued single-moniker celebrity status — his first name was as likely to be trending on Twitter on a random weeknight as any political issue or pet-friendly hashtag — what did we really learn? We know he likes anime, because his mother revealed as much in a sideline interview (bloggers were thrilled). We know he listens to Jay-Z, a preference that his young teammates have described, disturbingly to anyone born before 1990, as “old school.” But beyond those breadcrumbs of trivia, Williamson is still something of a cipher — a hook upon which sports fans can hang their hopes, their reaction gifs, and their predetermined opinions on everything ranging from dunking to amateurism.

While Williamson and his family emphatically avoided the spotlight during his time at Duke, turning down most interview requests — including one for this story — there are lessons to be gleaned from examining his years at Spartanburg Day, a K-12 school with just 450 students (Williamson’s graduating class had 45 kids). The mere fact that Williamson, one of the most hyped basketball recruits in a generation, attended Spartanburg Day, a school best known for its academics — and stayed there, shunning the advances of so-called basketball factories — makes him an anomaly.

The family was introduced to the school when Williamson’s stepfather, who played hoops at Clemson, met Spartanburg Day’s coach, Lee Sartor, through the AAU circuit. Sartor, now the coach at Erskine College, says Williamson wasn’t unusually big when he first saw him play in sixth grade. “He was definitely better than a lot of the kids from a basketball IQ perspective,” he says. “But physically, he was just like them.” Then, the summer before Williamson entered high school, he grew about 5 inches, sprouting so quickly that his mother, Sharonda, had to ice his knees to soothe his growing pains.

As a freshman, Williamson played point guard, honing the playmaking skills that surprised national audiences this season. He also started to dunk. Sartor remembers sending a video of one of Williamson’s early in-game yams to ESPN, then marveling at the ripple effect.

Before long, the segments of the internet that seek out the aforementioned yams began to buzz about the kid from South Carolina who played like a sentient sledgehammer. Donnie Bui, a 27-year-old videographer who cut highlight reels for the website BallIsLife.com, moved to Charlotte to cover Williamson. “The first dozen games I went to, there were, like, 50 people in the crowd,” he says. “He would be doing all this amazing stuff, and I’d be like” — he lowers his voice to a whisper — “‘What is going on? Why do people not show up to see this kid?'”

By the middle of Williamson’s junior year, after he scored 53 in the Chick-fil-A Classic in Columbia against top prospect Jalek Felton, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound teenager was a media sensation. That January, Drake posted a photograph of himself wearing a Spartanburg Day jersey; Williamson’s Instagram following exploded. Yet even as the high school student’s profile took off, his life in Spartanburg remained grounded. Sartor credits this dichotomy to the influence of Williamson’s family — Sharonda, who coached him in middle school, was a calming force — and the intimacy of his school environment. “I think it was an atmosphere where Zion could grow and be himself and just be a high school student,” he says.

On the court, Williamson was eager to entertain with 360-degree dunks and tomahawk jams. Off the court, Sartor remembers a teenager who mostly wanted to blend in with his friends. “He was playing in front of thousands, but if he had to walk out in front of 30 people … he didn’t like that,” he says. He recalls an instance when a college coach visited before a game; Williamson was sitting with his teammates in the stands. When Sartor motioned him over to speak with the coach, Williamson exited the arena, walked outside and came in through a side door so he wouldn’t attract extra attention.

When Williamson chose Duke, shocking locals who thought he’d end up at nearby Clemson, he joined one of the most star-studded recruiting classes in history. Some questioned whether Duke’s freshmen could suppress their egos. Williamson, for his part, quickly developed a reputation as an unselfish player — a characteristic, says Bui, that dates back to his high school days. Even when Williamson played alongside kids who weren’t destined for Division I schools, “it was always him wanting to get his teammates involved,” Bui says. Sartor agrees. “Sometimes you’d have to tell him: ‘You just need to take over the game.'”

While Williamson’s unusual high school résumé molded him in unexpected ways, it also made him a mystery in scouting circles. Because he played for a tiny school against other tiny schools (and missed some of the national showcases at which top prospects compete), his early tape occasionally evokes Gulliver stomping among the Lilliputians. As a result, critics questioned whether the SportsCenter favorite, a raw shooter, could dominate tougher competition. Coming out of high school, the forward wasn’t universally regarded as a future NBA star, in part because some saw him as little more than a dunker, the sort of human highlight reel condescendingly referred to as a mixtape player. This dynamic produced a paradox: The buzziest prospect in years was, in hindsight, underrated.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski, quick to praise Williamson’s passing and ballhandling, says the public was so focused on the young player’s high notes that everyone underestimated his range. “[People say], ‘Well, I didn’t know he could do that,'” he says. “You were only looking at one thing!”

WILLIAMSON SPENT HIS childhood in Florence, South Carolina, but his years in Spartanburg left an indelible image on the former textile town. Years from now, if the likely No. 1 pick achieves the level of NBA superstardom augured by his current trajectory, it’s easy to imagine tourists stopping to take pictures of the landmarks that defined Williamson’s high school years. There’s Wofford College, the first school to offer him a scholarship. It’s also where the Carolina Panthers train; a couple of summers ago, several NFL players paused their workouts to gawk at Williamson as he practiced in the gym. There’s the Beacon Drive-In, the diner where he celebrated with his teammates after winning the state championship. And there’s Spartanburg Day School, a redbrick building with an immaculate lawn that sits on a few acres just outside of town.

The morning before Duke takes on North Dakota State in the opening round of the tournament, Spartanburg Day holds a pep rally to celebrate its famous alumnus. Students of all ages pour into the gym, where Williamson’s most dazzling dunks play on a projector. The elementary schoolers won’t stop squealing. As a miniature marching band plays, a kid wearing a mascot costume that looks like a fuzzy eagle with wings and a tail — a mythical creature known as a griffin — shimmies across the auditorium.

Sitting inside the gym, with its 1,000-person capacity, it’s hard to imagine the larger-than-life Williamson rumbling down the court. Some of his old teammates are scattered in the bleachers. A slender senior named Jeet Patel, who hopes to study medicine at Yale, was on the varsity squad with Williamson last year. “He’s really nice,” Patel says. Sometimes, he adds, people ask him for his former classmate’s number. “I don’t have it!”

Patel misses playing with Williamson. “He would usually get double- or triple-teamed and still score. It made things a lot easier for other people,” he says with a laugh.

Once the drumming subsides, a kid wearing a Christian Laettner jersey passes the microphone to the head of the school, Rachel Deems. “When one Griffin is doing something special — out of the ordinary — we celebrate him,” she says as a couple of cheerleaders raise posters with “Go Zion” scribbled on the front in a bubbly font. “We’re here to celebrate the success of a Griffin who is fairly well-known around the country.”

After the pep rally, Deems sits in her office and reflects on the deluge of attention that flooded the school when Williamson was a student. “This fall, during one of our opening basketball games, I sat down, and I had this moment of realization,” she says. “It was the first time I sat at a basketball game in four years.”

A faraway look crosses her face. “I think by his sophomore year, we knew that it was getting bigger than any of us could imagine. … There’s a goodness about him that I think people want to celebrate.”

It’s not unusual, of course, for an athlete’s old teachers and coaches to shower him or her with praise; they know they’re being treated as character witnesses in the court of public opinion. But when the adults who crossed paths with Williamson share their memories of him, it’s striking how rarely they lean on the usual athlete-as-a-young-prodigy tropes (“When I showed up at the gym, he was already there!”), instead telling stories that paint a picture of an active, growing mind. Deems remembers him as a student who was passionate about history and wanted to join the school’s delegation to the capitol for a government immersion program — a logistical challenge, she recalls, because he couldn’t go anywhere at the time without being interrupted. Recently, she says, Williamson was excited to tell her about a photo essay he worked on in college documenting his own grueling schedule.

“There are some things you can shape and do for a child,” she says. “But there are also some things that are just innate.”

The next day, after Duke advances to the second round, Williamson sits in the locker room for his obligatory media availability, his boulder-sized chest caving in a little as a battalion of reporters descends. As cameras and tape recorders are thrust in front of his face, he patiently answers a question about dunking on Tacko Fall, the 7’6 star of Duke’s next opponent, UCF. A few minutes later, he answers it again. When he is asked how it feels to play so close to his old high school and how his years there shaped him, he pauses to gather his thoughts. “I think it helped with my personality,” he says. “It helped me bond with kids I probably wouldn’t have bonded with if I didn’t go to that school. It helped me become a more social person.”

Krzyzewski, who first visited Spartanburg Day when Williamson was a sophomore, says the teen star faced pressure to leave and play for more competitive prep schools. “But I think it was unbelievably important for him, as a person, to stay in that environment,” he says, among students who treated him “like a regular human being.” Today, he continues, Williamson is not only the most unique athlete he’s ever coached, but also possesses a rare emotional intellect.

“There are sunshine people and cloudy people,” Krzyzewski says. He smiles slightly, perhaps amused by his own poetic assessment, a deviation from his typically matter-of-fact tone. “He’s brilliant sunshine.”

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