In the minutes after Duke didn’t win, the walk from the court to the locker room was quiet. Coach Mike Krzyzewski led the pack, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him. Then came Zion Williamson, chest still heaving as he caught his breath. His teammates followed: Alex O’Connell, biting his lip; Jordan Goldwire, one arm around a thunderstruck RJ Barrett; Cam Reddish, chewing one end of his jersey; Jack White, consoling a visibly distraught Javin DeLaurier. There was no talking. The door closed behind them, the bank of reporters and their cameras held, for now, at bay. Back down the hall, the cheers grew louder, and there was a voice on the floor of the Capital One Arena introducing your new NCAA tournament East Region champions ...
On Sunday night, Duke, which had won close games against UCF and Virginia Tech to reach the Elite Eight, finally ran out of luck, and so it’s Michigan State—a team beset by injuries this season, and which masterfully withstood every Blue Devils attempt to wrest control of the game—that will journey on to the Final Four after a 68-67 win. It’s a disappointing ending for Zion, one of college basketball’s most electric players in recent memory—to say nothing of a program that will go on without him as he inevitably enters the NBA draft, where he will almost certainly be the no. 1 pick.
“It hurts,” said DeLaurier, who had a brilliant night with 10 points and 11 rebounds. As he talked to reporters, he swallowed back tears. “It hurts.”
If you, like me, like the many basketball fans who’ve watched Duke beat the stuffing out of their opponents over the years, like everyone tired of the Cascada dance and the light-up devil horns and the Cameron Crazies’ campouts and all these freaking years of winning, are disinclined to pity the kids from Durham—well, you’re not alone. Obviously. I will not tell you to open your heart to the blue and white; rooting against Duke for the simple fact that it’s Duke is your right, plus a proud American tradition.
But Duke in 2019 is a curious creature, a fearsome beast that molts in near entirety each summer to give way to the next cohort of one-and-done stars. The Blue Devils remain the standard-bearer for excellence, but in recent years they’ve morphed into a different, much more modern college basketball entity. These days, to root for Duke—much less to play for Duke, to stick around long enough to reach the 200s or 300s or even, what a world, the 400s of Spanish or chemistry—is to give yourself over to the shifting sands of five-star recruits and the vagaries of the NBA draft. There’s no picking yourself up and trying it again next year. Each year is your one shot. While someone else snips the net, the Blue Devils are readying the dynamite. This is it. This was it.
This year’s team was the apotheosis of the program’s evolution: The top three recruits in the country, including Zion, perhaps the most imposing and exhilarating freshman ever seen in college basketball. So to lose with this team—to lose with Zion and Barrett and Reddish, an über-talented trio who are all near-locks to head for the draft this June—is, if you can summon up just a fleck of empathy, a disaster. Duke has had many transcendently gifted teams in the Coach K era, but Duke has maybe never had one this gifted. Zion is a generational talent, and that is great for everyone except Duke, where a generation now lasts precisely one collegiate season.
“I don’t regret nothing about this,” Zion said Sunday after the game. “Even if the one-and-done rule wasn’t there.”
In person, Zion is unbelievable. I mean this in the most literal of senses. He’s unbelievable in all the same ways he is on the broadcast: the why-even-bother blocks and the monster dunks, the way that he is everywhere on the court at once. (His Sweet 16 teardown against poor Virginia Tech made me yelp in fear that he would snap the basket and poke out an eye, a thing I do not think is possible but which I believe strongly only Zion might be capable of testing.) Up close, he is, somehow, even bigger than he seems from afar, even bigger than all the soon-to-be professional athletes around him, even bigger than you tell yourself 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds will be. Frequently—more frequently than you would think, given the tournament’s demands on someone who became eligible to drive a car two years ago—sporting an impish smile, like he knows something that you do not. As with so many defenders before you, he probably does.
Going into Sunday’s game, this Duke team had lost just twice with Zion on the court, but against Michigan State, Zion was not enough. His teammates—“my brothers,” he called them in the locker room after the game, summoning a calmness on a night when many of his fellow teenagers were still fighting off tears—couldn’t seal the deal. Barrett missed a crucial free throw and bricked a 3-pointer. He scored just one point in the closing two and a half minutes of the game, and it came on Duke’s last possession.
Duke’s stars will scatter now; this time next year, Zion may well be changing the fortunes of an NBA franchise. He knows that this was it for his time in Durham, as do his teammates and coach and fans, as does anyone who has watched college basketball this decade. We will, in all likelihood, be treated to many more years of watching Zion rearrange opposing players under their basket like toy soldiers. But it’s unlikely that he, or any player, will feel as transcendent, as awe-inspiring, as he did this season. And that’s a tragedy—not just for Duke, but for all basketball fans.