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Zion Williamson’s Biggest Game Was the One He Didn’t Play

Wednesday was supposed to be the night Zion left his mark on the Duke–North Carolina rivalry. After a fluke injury caused by a busted shoe, it became the night basketball’s power structure left its mark on him.

Zion Williamson on the ground in pain, with a broken Nike sneaker and a twisted knee Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The world wanted to watch Zion Williamson play in Duke–North Carolina. Tickets were as expensive as those to the Super Bowl. Barack Obama flew in for the contest. ESPN made the game the highlight of its month and spent a solid week hyping up this Wednesday. Williamson is the most exciting college basketball player in years and has turned Duke into college basketball’s best team. And Duke–North Carolina is the sport’s biggest rivalry. Sure, people from North Carolina would watch Duke-UNC games if only the walk-ons showed up, but those of us from the other 49 states and 200 countries tuned in to see whether this future NBA superstar could deliver another iconic moment in his brief, NBA-mandated stop in the world of college hoops.

And then, in under a minute, Zion was gone. He suffered a knee injury just 33 seconds into the game, with his right leg buckling unnaturally while his left foot burst through the bottom of his Nike shoe. Williamson headed to the locker room, and the joy was immediately sucked out of every element of the proceedings. We got updates about Williamson’s family members looking grim. Shoe companies tried to capitalize on Nike’s failure before realizing they hadn’t read the room. In his grief, former Duke star Carlos Boozer wished well upon a national park. For some reason, the teams continued playing the basketball game deprived of its main draw. North Carolina’s 88-72 trouncing of Duke revealed just how big a Zion-sized hole there was. With no Zion down low, North Carolina scored as many points on 2-pointers as Duke scored total. Duke, with no interior presence, resorted to shooting 3s, a thing the team sucks at, going 8-for-39 from deep. The Cameron Crazies, some of whom waited in tents for months for their tickets, cheered half-heartedly as the game they’d eagerly awaited dragged into a demoralizing blowout. Darren Rovell tweeted about Nike stock prices.

The official word is that Williamson suffered a “mild knee sprain.” Even if Williamson wakes up Thursday ready to go, feeling the excitement drain from every player and fan involved in the game as he limped to the locker room is an experience I won’t soon forget.

I’m a college basketball fan, and Duke-Carolina is perennially the biggest thing in college basketball. But even as a college basketball fan, I can’t deny that Zion Williamson is bigger than the whole damn sport. Duke would be a great team without him; he has made the Blue Devils a juggernaut, the obvious best team in the game. He is otherworldly, built from moon rocks and interstellar dark matter, leaping and swatting and dunking with powers he simply couldn’t have if he were made from the same stuff as the rest of us. His college career is a fun but intriguing footnote in what will hopefully be a decade-plus of NBA greatness. We wanted to see what Williamson would do to Duke–North Carolina, not what Duke–North Carolina would do to Williamson.

Watching Zion fall was a reminder that his presence in this game is built on a foundation of farces. He is playing college basketball because of an NBA rule intended to give pro teams additional time to scout players—as if they need extra time to scout someone whose exceptional gifts are so evident. His presence caused those ticket prices and TV ratings to skyrocket—but he doesn’t receive any money from the box office or media contracts. He was wearing a Nike shoe because Nike pays Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski—and not the players who go on the court and serve as walking advertisements for Nike gear. He is compensated with a scholarship—even though Williamson will almost certainly play pro basketball next year instead of working toward completing a degree. The NCAA has successfully argued in court that college athletes aren’t entitled to the money their games generate because fans watch college sports to see teams and not players. That Williamson made Duke–North Carolina more of a draw than Duke–North Carolina already is serves as the ultimate evidence that this argument is a lie.

We already knew that there was some faulty reasoning behind an NBA rule making future All-Stars serve as unpaid interns for the most profitable branches of various universities. But Wednesday night laid bare one of the dangers of forcing those logically unsound rules on teenagers with great potential.

If the injury really is a “mild knee sprain,” Williamson should be fine long-term and could even play in the NCAA tournament. But after Wednesday night, I’m wondering whether Williamson should rush to suit up for Duke again. He would be the top pick in the NBA draft if he decided to hibernate from now until October. We know players like Williamson are destined for more—and for some reason, we ask them to risk that destiny to participate in this system we know doesn’t make sense.

Duke–North Carolina might be the biggest thing in college basketball, and it was genuinely thrilling to think about what Williamson’s presence might bring to the game. But even Duke–North Carolina isn’t worth the risk of Williamson wrecking his future for free.