Sumter, South Carolina, Saturday, February 24, 2018, 2:37 p.m.
This is my first use of this word in print ever. It was popular thirty years ago. I hated it the way I hate such modern redundant terms as “arguably” (i.e., “perhaps”; I always think to myself, okay, then argue it), and those gaudy sportscasters’ terms, such as “matriculating down the field” (presumably filling out paperwork and enrolling in school as one carries a football), that are misstated and then celebrated and plagiarized for their outlandish inaccuracy.
Zion Williamson is a manchild, perhaps the first I’ve ever seen. He is a man among boys, and soon he will join other men at Duke University, where Mike Krzyzewski will turn mean and others on the team will possess skills comparable to his own. For now, though, the Spartanburg Day School dynamo walks the earth and runs the floor high above the plane of other available mortals.
The Griffins (22-8) won their third consecutive Class 2A boys’ basketball championship, defeating Trinity-Byrnes of Darlington, 74-41. The first-half score was just 30-24, meaning that the second-half score was 44-17. Spartanburg Day has a good bit of talent to surround the human franchise. Williamson and has mates were as good as they needed to be for a half, then as good as they were for another.
My purpose for being at Sumter County Civic Center was the following game, matching the last local team still running and shooting, the Laurens Academy Lady Crusaders (31-1) against the Patrick Henry Lady Patriots (18-5) for the championship of Class A girls. LA won, 48-34, and I had my story.
The reason I arrived early wasn’t to watch Williamson. The reason I arrived early was that I am obsessively punctual. I usually beat the teams to the gym. It was my third drive to Sumter in a span of eight days. I’ve listened to lots of NPR because my car gets better mileage than my truck but doesn’t get satellite radio. I knew Spartanburg Day was playing and that I’d get there about the time its game started, and the crowd would already be there and the traffic wouldn’t be nettlesome. I found a spot behind the scoring table and took notes in the interest of writing this.
I haven’t seen Williamson do anything other than make thunderous dunks on the 11 o’clock news for two years, and this year I saw him put a Duke cap on in front of a live audience and make those who hate the Blue Devils unhappy. The decision surprised no one outside of South Carolina, but those who wear Clemson orange as standard garb were bitterly disappointed for a few minutes until they started thinking about football again. About 2,500 fans showed up for Williamson’s send-off to Durham.
There were no surprises. Williamson was a SCISA Magic Johnson who played every position he wanted to occupy. Sometimes he brought the ball upcourt with him. Sometimes he shot a three, though not with particular success. Inside the lane he was automatic. He didn’t need position to clean rebounds, and sometimes he’d grab one, fire an outlet pass, and walk upcourt while teammates passed the ball around and awaited his arrival or scored without him.
The dunks looked as if they were designed for judges’ cards instead of a scoreboard. Oh. My. God. I think lightning might have struck once, but I definitely heard thunder.
Williamson scored 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds. The Griffins, possessing a player of national renown, gave him occasional stimulation by taking part in prestigious tournaments against top-flight opposition, but nothing up to now will get him ready for the Atlantic Coast Conference and the National Basketball Association beyond. He won’t carry the next team he joins, but he won’t have to spend entire games dominating, either. Kryzyzewski will expect him to play harder in shorter spurts. If he doesn’t, there’ll be a problem.
All I have to compare with Saturday’s performance was the time I watched, more than two decades ago, Kevin Garnett, then playing for Mauldin, dominate Laurens in a fashion, as best I recall, similar to Williamson against Trinity-Byrnes. Garnett transferred to Farragut Career School in Chicago. The record books will substantiate that Garnett turned out all right.
A scrawny kid from Trinity-Byrnes named Sam Smith spent much of the afternoon trying to guard Williamson. It made me think of Jack and the Beanstalk. Williamson left me in awe. Smith left me in sympathy. His was a plight I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
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