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How Zion Became Bigger Than the Basketball Machine That Built Him

He’s the best prospect since LeBron James, possibly the most famous 18-year-old basketball player ever, and about to go no. 1 to the Pelicans in the NBA draft. Somewhere along the way, he became bigger than any city or team or dunk—or even his own last name.

An illustration of Zion Williamson dunking a basketball surrounded by planets shaped like basketballs Pablo Iglesias

The house sits just off Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans, gorgeous and sprawling, stretching upward and outward with new layers of opulence in every room. Fletcher Mackel walks in one night this June, and as he stands in the foyer, he takes a moment to stare. Mackel is a local sports anchor at WDSU TV, and he’s been invited to a party hosted by James Carville, former Democratic operative and one of the world’s most famous Cajuns, a man known as much for his political cunning as his bayou drawl.

Mackel walks in with a colleague, scanning the house and finding a collection of his city’s rich and powerful. “Politicians, athletes, coaches, big-money people, everybody,” he says. Just inside the foyer, there’s a grand staircase, and up at the top, an LSU choir gathered in full uniform, singing to welcome guests into the party.

The soiree is intended to welcome Scott Woodward, the newly hired athletic director at LSU. The extravagance feels appropriate. Along with the Saints, LSU’s football and baseball teams inspire feverish devotion in this state. But when Mackel enters, no one greets him with any desire to talk about the Tigers. Instead, he will later remember Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor and once-rumored presidential candidate, walking directly toward him, eyes locked on Mackel’s, shouting a single word.

“Zion!” Landrieu says.

“Zion,” Mackel replies.

Right now, in New Orleans, few words elicit more joy.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Zion Williamson has a 40-inch vertical and more than 3 million Instagram followers. NBA teams from Phoenix to New York wasted their seasons for a sliver of a chance to draft him. Shoe companies from Portland (Nike) to Bavaria (Adidas) to Fujian province (Anta) are competing for the right to dress him. When he was in high school, he inspired Drake to post an Instagram wearing his jersey. In college, he drew President Obama to one of his games. When he blew out a shoe and injured his knee on the night Obama sat courtside, he inspired days of feverish chatter about his plight as an unpaid college player, with calls for him to sit out the rest of the season to protect his body and shame the NCAA.

Entering Thursday’s NBA draft, where the Pelicans have won the right to choose him first, he’s considered the best prospect since LeBron James. Williamson is so big that even calling him “Williamson” feels quaint. He is simply Zion, perhaps the most famous 18-year-old basketball player ever. He is the kid who turned a tiny private school into a powerhouse and made college basketball’s most-loathed program briefly cool. He may soon breathe life into the NBA’s most moribund franchise. Somewhere along the way he became bigger than any city or team. The churning machines of recruiting hype and social and traditional media built a young man into a phenom. But now, as he enters the professional ranks, Williamson has become the machine.

“It’s incredible,” says New Orleans radio host Gus Kattengell. “I can’t remotely imagine being 18 years old and knowing the kind of impact he has on thousands of people.”

Kattengell is sitting behind a desk in a small office in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, with headphones around his ears and a microphone in his face. He’s about an hour into his daily three-hour radio show, The Sports Hangover, on ESPN New Orleans 100.3. I’m sitting across from him, with my own headphones and my own mic, nodding as he speaks. I had reached out to Kattengell, one of relatively few local media figures as interested in the Pelicans as he is in the Saints, to ask for his thoughts about Williamson. Rather than merely answering a few questions, he invited me to talk with him, and his audience, for an entire hour of his show. “He’s an alpha dog,” says Lee, one of the show’s callers, of Williamson, explaining his own excitement. “He wants to build his legacy wherever he lands.”

I’m here talking to Lee for the same reason I’m talking to a lot of people in New Orleans, as well as in the Carolinas and anywhere else Williamson has been or may go: to understand the phenomenon of Zion, and the people and systems that both build and feed on his phenomenon. Whether I’m sitting with a mixtape maker in North Carolina or talking to an AAU coach from Georgia or listening to callers to Kattengell’s show or to the men who’ve coached Zion through his rise, I find the same relationship between Williamson and his environment: I find people who have helped build his legend and found their own lives altered in return.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This city is a perfect test case. New Orleans has never been known as a great NBA town. The Jazz left for Utah in 1979. The Hornets arrived in 2002, soon drafted Chris Paul, and later lost him. The franchise changed its name to the Pelicans in 2012, soon after drafting Anthony Davis, and now it will lose him, too, finally agreeing to send him to the Lakers months after he first requested a trade. Even if Davis drew criticism for his approach, few outsiders have blamed him for wanting to leave. The franchise has been mismanaged, and the fan base lukewarm, for years. “A lot of the criticism has been warranted,” says Kattengell. “It makes you ask, ‘What’s wrong with our franchise?’”

Whatever it is, they’re hoping Williamson can fix it. After some initial speculation that he wanted so badly to go to New York (or Atlanta) that he’d consider returning for a sophomore year at Duke after New Orleans won the draft lottery—“That drove us crazy,” Kattengell says—Williamson has reportedly scheduled a meeting with the Pelicans’ brass and seems likely to begin his career, as the no. 1 overall pick, in New Orleans. He’ll arrive in the wake of regime change. The team’s owner, Tom Benson, died in March 2018 and left control of the Pelicans—and the Saints—to his wife, Gayle. Soon after Davis requested a trade, Gayle Benson fired general manager Dell Demps, long considered one of the league’s worst GMs. The Pelicans replaced him by hiring former Cavaliers GM David Griffin as vice president of basketball operations and former Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon as general manager. The organizational overhaul, the trade, and the phenom’s impending arrival all add up to create an energy this fan base has never seen.

“AD, good riddance,” says Lee, one of Kattengell’s callers. “Bring on Zion.”

Watch Williamson, and it’s easy to understand the excitement. If you are a basketball diehard, you love the way he finds cutters from the top of the key or switches on defense, 1 through 5. If you are an old-school play-the-right-way grouser, you love how he treats every play of every game as if it holds the sport’s highest stakes. If you’ve never before seen the sport of basketball, a clip of his block against Virginia or any of his astonishing dunks will show you what’s possible within the game.

During my time in New Orleans, I don’t have to work hard to find conversations about Williamson. My driver in from the airport wonders whether he has a defined NBA position. My server at French Quarter institution Irene’s says Williamson is enough to make him care for once about the NBA. “Everyone is talking about him,” says Mackel. He then tells another story. A couple of nights after the lottery, he gave a speech to a local men’s club. Mackel gets these gigs often. Show up to a dinner, tell a few sports stories, take a few questions, collect a check, then go home. “Usually,” he says, “it’s nothing but Saints talk. That and LSU.” Mackel has long been an NBA fan, often frustrated by the tastes of his market. “I give these talks,” he says, “and I have to ask, ‘Anybody have any questions about the Pelicans?’ Because it’s nothing.” This time, though, Mackel stood at the lectern and watched hands shoot up across the room.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

What do you expect from Zion?

How big of a deal is the David Griffin hire?

Where do you think we should trade AD?

No one asked about the Saints’ offseason. No one wanted to speculate about how many years Drew Brees has left, or whether LSU football coach Ed Orgeron is truly the man for the job. Every single question centered on the Pelicans. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mackel says.

Here in the bayou, the luck of the lottery sent a charge through a dormant fan base. It’s not only that New Orleans is excited for Williamson. It’s that his impending arrival has made them excited about the rest of the team too. Mackel mentions his mother. She is, he says, like a lot of 70-something women in New Orleans. “She can tell you the Saints’ entire offensive line,” he says, “and she can remember the down-and-distance of specific plays from 10 years ago, but she can only name a couple of players on the Pelicans.” In the wake of the lottery, he says, “She calls me up saying, ‘I went on Twitter and saw everything they’re saying about Zion! I’m so excited!,’ And I’m like, ‘Wait. You’re on Twitter?’”

Back in Kattengell’s studio, we reach the end of our allotted hour, and he asks if I want to keep talking Zion for one segment longer. Soon we come to a commercial break, and there’s a caller still on the line with more to say, and he asks if I mind hanging around to listen to that caller too. Once we near 90 minutes, I make way for a phone call from Marc Berman of the New York Post. He’s calling to talk Knicks, but he and Kattengell open by mentioning Zion. Here in New Orleans, like everywhere else in his orbit, Zion’s gravity seems to pull damn near every conversation back to himself.

Once, he was no more than a promising prospect, a high school sophomore who barely ranked among the top 60 recruits in his class. His teammates, though, realized even then that he held powers few players could even imagine. Clay Killoren remembers making the varsity team at Spartanburg Day School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as an eighth-grader in 2015 and feeling awed. “Practicing against him was insane,” Killoren says. “Every practice was completely nonstop. He had a full head of steam going to the rim, every single play.” In one practice that year, Killoren was playing down low in a 2-3 zone on an inbounds play. The offense threw a lob to one player, who caught it midair and then tipped another lob, right in Killoren’s direction.

He jumped. It was a mistake. “You turn around, and all of a sudden you’re getting dunked on,” Killoren says, “and you can’t even figure out what’s going on.” Killoren did not fall, but Williamson’s force sent him staggering about 10 steps in the other direction. “All of a sudden,” he says, “everyone is making fun of me for getting dunked on. I’m just like, ‘You have no idea. He dunked on me, but he’s dunking on you too.’”

High School Basketball: Zion Williamson
Zion drives to the hoop against the Gray Collegiate War Eagles in 2016
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

By that point, Williamson was not yet a phenom, but was beginning to draw attention. He’d dunked on damn near everyone the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, when Williamson traveled to suburban Atlanta to play at the HoopSeen Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions, which draws AAU teams from around the Southeast, including Williamson’s local team, the SC Hornets. Tournaments like these attract coaches and reporters and now an army of videographers—some amateur, others professional—filming every moment of every game. “Any 14-year-old kid with a $200 camera is a production company now,” says Justin Young, a longtime recruiting analyst who now helps to run the tournament. “They come, they film, and it spreads from there.”

Williamson showed up with the Hornets’ 17-and-under team. They were a local community team, nothing like the AAU powerhouses that recruit from across the country; “the kind of team where it’s kids on the weekend raising money selling Krispy Kremes,” says Young. Yet Williamson immediately made his mark on the tournament. “The first two plays of the game, he came down the middle dunking like LeBron,” says Ryan Falker, who coached another team at the tournament, Atlanta-based Game Elite. “He was 6-4, about 185 pounds. Then I found out he was only 14.”

Falker and his coaching partner, Desmond Eastmond, approached Williamson’s stepfather with a pitch. “He needs to be on a bigger platform,” Eastmond remembers saying. Eastmond and Falker thought they could help turn Williamson into a star. “We had a marketing plan right away,” says Eastmond. “You watch him and you think, ‘This kid is phenomenal. But how would someone in California, in Alaska, in Mexico, ever know about a kid from South Carolina?’ We can be the ones who make sure that happens.”

So that’s what they did. Williamson joined Game Elite the next spring, and in April 2016 they traveled to Dallas to play in the Adidas Gauntlet, one of that circuit’s biggest events. Before they arrived, Falker called the tournament’s organizers. “We’ve got a kid who’s special,” he said. Williamson dominated. And soon he experienced the most important piece of Game Elite’s blueprint for their top players: They filmed his every move. Calls to tournament organizers could draw attention, guaranteeing his team played on the highest-profile courts at massive tournaments. A good word with coaches could boost his recruitment. But only video cameras could deliver fame.

Sure, Williamson’s box scores and advanced metrics can deliver a window into his impact. Anecdotes about his work ethic and personality can charm coaches and fans. But to fully appreciate Williamson, you have to see him. Handling on the perimeter one possession, dominating inside the next; contorting his limbs into impossible airborne angles; threatening to tear down the basket with damn near every dunk. Even as a 15-year-old, his highlights told a very specific story: Zion Williamson could redefine what’s possible on a basketball court.

Williamson returned to the Gibbons tournament between his sophomore and junior years, this time with Game Elite. That week, the coaches drew up a backdoor play for Williamson. He cut across the baseline while a teammate held the ball on the opposite wing. His teammate lobbed, and Williamson leaped, and right away, a defender made the same mistake Killoren had: He leaped too. Williamson caught the ball high above the rim, and he fell to the earth with violence, dunking the ball through the basket, sending his opponent to the floor, where he lay face down for several seconds, appearing to play dead.

Fans ran out of the stands and onto the court. Schoolchildren grabbed their friends and held them upright, as if they might faint from what they’d just seen. Teammates clutched their hearts, as if afraid they might jump out of their chests. Williamson stepped to the free throw line, and the whole time, cameras were watching. Within a day, the clip had gone viral.

Up in North Carolina, Donnie Bui was watching. He worked as a videographer for Ballislife, a media company dedicated in large part to finding and building high school basketball stars. “Yo,” he says, remembering his own reaction. “We gotta get a camera on this kid.” It’s one thing to have a team’s own cameraperson filming every game. But consistent virality is built by the lords of the mixtape game—Ballislife, SLAMonline, et al. They’re the ones with the YouTube subscribers and the social media followers, the ones with the power to turn an anonymous teenager into a star.

Bui is sitting at a table in a Caribou Coffee in Raleigh one Thursday afternoon in May. He is wearing a blue windbreaker and a backward hat, his laptop open, his eyes ignited, his voice racing to keep up with his thoughts. He’s excited. He loves talking Zion. He loves talking highlights. “Dude,” he says of his job, “it’s a rush.”

Bui first encountered Williamson in person that August, at the Elite 24 camp in Brooklyn, after Zion’s star had been building across the summer circuit. There, Williamson dominated, just as he had all summer, making other top prospects look like children, dunking hard enough that most defenders knew to get the hell out of the way. There and back in Spartanburg, Bui filmed several of Williamson’s games, stunned by what he saw. “I see this reverse oop off an inbounds pass,” he says, voice racing, “and I’m blowing up my boss’s phone, saying, ‘We gotta go to all this kid’s games!’”

In the fall of 2016, he moved from Raleigh to Charlotte, which put him close enough to Spartanburg to commute an hour into South Carolina to all of Williamson’s games. “It’s crazy how much he changed my life,” says Bui. “My life was all about Zion for two full years.”

High School Basketball: McDonalds High School All American Games
Zion goes one-on-one against Nassir Little in the 2018 McDonald’s High School All American Game
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Bui showed up to the first game of the season, one of about 100 people in the gym, and he began to follow the same routine, week after week. Record the game, tagging any moments—massive dunks, vicious blocks—he wanted to post. Then use a portable hotspot to upload the footage to YouTube, sitting outside in his car, just after saying goodbye to Williamson—who always stayed after games to take pictures with fans.

As the season progressed, though, he noticed the gym filling up. Other web video services would send their people to town. Local TV stations became fixtures at every game.

But two moments in December 2016 lifted Williamson to new levels of notoriety. One night, he threw down an alley-oop windmill that landed at no. 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10. A few days later, he scored 53 points against UNC commit Jalek Felton on 25-of-28 shooting, showing off an outrageous array of dunks and blocks and transition in-and-out dribbles, all against one of the best teams his small private school had ever faced. That game’s highlights went more viral than anything he’d ever done. (Three years later, more than a million people have watched highlights on YouTube.)

“After that,” Bui says, “everything changed.”

There are levels to viral fame. Dunk on a kid in a regional tournament and you’ll start getting attention on the corners of the internet reserved for recruiting obsessives. Dominate the AAU circuit and you’ll get crowds lining the floor at your games. But now that Williamson had landed on SportsCenter’s Top 10, and now that he’d dropped 53 against another top recruit, Spartanburg Day’s gym became a scene. All of a sudden, Bui had to show up three hours in advance to get a decent spot in the gym. He would sit in the stands, watching Netflix while the school’s JV and girls’ teams played. Now, mixtape makers and local TV reporters lined whichever baseline Williamson could dunk on, racing each other across the court at halftime to get a decent spot on the other side of the floor. In January 2017, less than a month after the 53-point game, Drake posted the Instagram of himself in Williamson’s jersey. Says Killoren, Williamson’s teammate who was at this point a freshman on varsity: “It kind of felt like we were all in the NBA.”

Williamson himself seemed to appreciate the attention, but he worried about getting cast as no more than a viral dunking sensation, that the highlights would obscure the rest of his game. “The highlight videos brought all the fame and accolades,” he said, “but my work brought all the highlight videos. That’s the part that people miss.”

Williamson had shot up the recruiting rankings between his sophomore and junior years, climbing into the top 20, then the top 10. Despite his viral fame, he remained shorter than most 4s, a weaker shooter than most 3s. Even as the most famous high school basketball player in years, Williamson never reached the no. 1 ranking in his class. He committed to Duke as the third-highest-ranked member of the Blue Devils’ class, behind R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, in the 247sports composite rankings. “His competition was so bad that you didn’t know what to think,” says Young. “He never had to defend. He didn’t shoot much because he was just dunking on 5-9 kids. Some pieces of his game still felt like unknowns.”

Still, those dunks delivered a level of visibility far beyond anyone else in his class. By the time Williamson arrived at Duke, he already seemed like a bigger deal than the vast majority of NBA players. He scored 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting in Duke’s first game of the season, a blowout of Kentucky, proving immediately that his game could translate against bigger and better athletes.

Williamson was not only great; he was the rarest of Duke stars. Someone beloved. He made Duke—home of Coach K, alma mater of Christian Laettner, site of a million try-hard floor smacks; that Duke—actually cool. “We’re not used to it,” says Derek Saul, the sports editor of the Duke student newspaper. “Having the cool factor. Having people really liking Duke.”

And no one felt this reality more harshly than fans of the Blue Devils’ rival, North Carolina. “JJ Redick, Jon Scheyer, Grayson Allen; they were all so easy to hate,” says Davis Harper, a Carolina fan who teaches high school in Durham. “It was thrilling to hate them. It’s like Democrats and Trump. Sharks and blood.” Williamson, though, presented a previously unheard-of challenge: Harper couldn’t find a way to hate Duke’s best player. “I tried,” he says. “I really tried.”

Over the past year, Williamson gave extra life to a sport whose regular season has increasingly slipped from mainstream consciousness. Jay-Z went to one of his games in Pittsburgh; President Obama went to the Duke-Carolina game at Cameron Indoor, then wished Willliamson well after he blew out his sneaker and injured his knee. No matter who the Blue Devils played, every single game felt like a marquee event. Scheyer, who was once one of the Devils’ most hated stars and is now the team’s associate head coach, noticed a shift, starting at the very beginning of the year. “When we show up on the road and get to the hotel, there’s always people waiting for Coach,” he says of the fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Mike Krzyzewski. “Now there’s also people waiting for Zion.”

Scheyer found himself paying attention to TV ratings, noticing a spike in viewership for the Blue Devils’ games. He felt a new energy in the NCAA tournament, with neutral fans sticking around the arena, cheering for Zion each time down the floor. “We had the entire arena standing on their feet cheering in a second-round game,” he says, referring to the Blue Devils’ narrow win over UCF. “I’ve never been in an environment like that.”

All of it was a bit much for Carolina fans to handle. “There was a lot of frustration,” says Sherrell McMillan, a writer for Inside Carolina. “Duke has never had anyone with that skill set. They’ve never had anyone with that kind of athleticism, that ferocity as a dunker. And beyond all that, you know, he loves his teammates. He’s fiercely loyal. He’s hard for people to dislike.”

Even if Duke felt to observers like Williamson’s way station on his way to the NBA, he seemed to embrace the campus fully. Saul says that most students and staff at Duke have at least one story about encountering Zion. Williamson himself said, after declaring for the draft, “I love Duke, and honestly, I don’t want to leave. If I didn’t have as much at stake, I would probably stay for another year. But I can’t.”

The revelation that he’s a true-blue Dukie should have been enough for any Carolina fan to hate him. Harper tried. He went to the second Duke-UNC game, in Chapel Hill, a couple of weeks after Williamson blew out his shoe and injured his knee at Cameron. He sat in the stands, trying to pay attention to the game, but every minute or two, he felt his eyes drifting to the sideline. To Zion. “I was just waiting for him to do something that might suggest he’s an asshole,” Harper says. But he never did. Williamson sat. He cheered. He patted his teammates’ backs. He looked engaged in every huddle. Harper left the arena that night, thrilled with a Carolina win, but disappointed that Duke had finally been unable to arouse his loathing.

“It’s like he distracted us from our hatred,” Harper says, “because he’s perceived as otherworldly.”

So many of the Tobacco Road rivalry’s greats remain attached to their schools in the collective memory long after they’re gone. Even some who go on to success in the NBA—Redick, Laettner, Grant Hill—will remain etched for decades in most fans’ minds as collegians. Williamson, though, felt bigger than Duke. “It was really like this is too bizarre to even include in the annals of the rivalry,” says Harper. “He always knew, and we all knew, Cameron Indoor wasn’t going to be his final destination.”

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina
Zion dunks against North Carolina in the ACC tournament in March
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe New Orleans will be. In truth, probably not—few players ever spend their entire careers in one place. But New Orleans can be the next step in his ascent, and perhaps even a place he decides to stay for a while, a place he loves that loves him in return. Last week Williamson reportedly scheduled a trip to town to meet with Pelicans brass. Soon after the lottery, his stepfather told a Baton Rouge radio station that he’s “excited” to join the Pelicans. New Orleans is preparing accordingly. “I was hyped,” says Cam Jordan, the Saints defensive end, of the lottery. “That guy is poised to be the next generational talent. He’s the automatic face of the franchise.”

Jordan has emerged as one of the faces of his own franchise, a man nearly as beloved in town as Sean Payton and Drew Brees. One June afternoon at the Saints’ practice facility in Metairie, he bounds up and down the halls, mustache twirled into a handlebar, massive smile locked on his face. After growing up in Arizona and going to college at Cal, Jordan knew little of what to expect when the Saints drafted him 24th overall in 2011. “You get here and one thing leads to another,” says Jordan, who just signed a contract extension to keep him in town until 2023. “You get pulled into the city.”

Jordan has become a regular at Pelicans games. Since the Bensons own both franchises, he says, “They’re an extension of the fam.” When asked what advice he might have for Williamson, Jordan pauses for a moment. “Just embrace the community,” he says. “Buy all the way in. If you buy in, they buy in. It’s organic. Nothing’s forced. It feels like family wherever you go.” He sees Williamson as having a unique opportunity to build a basketball tradition in a city starved for one. Paul forced his way out of town years ago, and now Davis will follow. Williamson, though, can build something new and lasting, something unlike New Orleans has experienced before.

“There’s just not the deep history with basketball here,” Jordan says. “It’s not like it is with guys who’ve been going to LSU games since they were little kids with their grandparents, and now they’re taking their grandkids to the games.” But he sees members of the younger generation as more eager to embrace the NBA. “They’re creating their own stories now,” he says. “Zion can be a huge part of those stories.”

The moment the Pelicans won the first pick, coach Alvin Gentry stood in the lottery room and shouted, in front of reporters, “Fuck yeah!” Watching back in New Orleans, the Pelicans’ ticket sales reps erupted in overwhelming joy. Immediately, the calculus of their jobs had shifted. Within 48 hours of the lottery, the Pelicans sold around 3,000 new ticket packages. Within days, local boutiques began selling T-shirts with Williamson’s name, including one from NOLA Republic T-Shirt Company that says, “Zion: The Legacy Begins.” A local candle company, Mose Mary and Me, has begun selling a white “altar candle” with Zion’s face painted on a wrapper around it, inviting customers to light the Pelicans’ “Patron Saint.”

Hours after his radio show, Kattengell takes a barstool at Tracey’s, a local Irish pub that serves the messiest and most spectacular roast beef po’boys in town. He’s joined by Todd Graffagnini, his friend and the voice of the Pelicans and Tulane athletics, and also a longtime Pelicans fan.

“All people want,” says Kattengell, “is for Zion to love the city like the city is ready to love him.”

Graffagnini jumps in. “If there is one picture—one picture!—of him eating a beignet, or a crawfish, then I’m telling you, it’s over. That’s it. New Orleans is in love forever.”

They both worry, a little, about whether the match will come together as the city dreams. The franchise has drafted and pushed away a future Hall of Famer, Paul; it drafted and pushed away a phenom, Davis; now it’ll invite to town someone with similar talent but far greater fame. Kattengell speaks often about Williamson’s potential global reach. “He can be even bigger than Drew Brees,” he says. Graffagnini, though, comes back to his dream that Zion will return the city’s affections; he is like so many now in New Orleans, hoping desperately that an 18-year-old kid will arrive in his city and decide to make it his home. “This city will suck you in,” he says. “It will suck you in. It can suck you into its darkness. Or it can suck you into its joy. I hope he lets himself get sucked into the joy.”

Soon, Williamson will arrive here, an 18-year-old star inspiring great hope and greater awe. He has grown more powerful than the forces that built him. Now he’ll contend with the pressures that come along the path from budding phenom to full-blown superstar, the expectations that follow anyone who outgrows their own hype-building machine.

Hours after I talk with Mackel, he sends me a text, just after midnight. He says he hopes he hasn’t woken me. He talks about Williamson and also about Davis, about their respective places in this city’s history, about the ways Davis’s star was sometimes overshadowed. Once again, New Orleans owns the top draft pick. Once again, a phenom sits atop the board. Now, though, Mackel says it feels different.

“Now,” he says, “Zion trumps all.”

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