One of Esquire’s last ESQ&As with an NBA player was in 2011, when Scott Raab interviewed Dwight Howard at a Manhattan steakhouse. There’s two bits in the interview that make you realize how the NBA has aged about 50 years this decade: 1) Howard muses on his upcoming free agency in a way that would be aggregated to oblivion in 2019, and 2) The then-Magic superstar talks about how he would smile so much when he was playing basketball that his dad told him to stop doing it.
That second part had me wondering: In an era when NBA stars hop-scotch teams at will, just about every other foul call earns the are-you-serious face from a Harden or a Westbrook, and the stray subtweet causes anything ranging from a three-day media parade to a global crisis…are these guys having fun anymore?
Enter Zion Williamson, who was a week away from the start of the season—and the rest of his life, really—when we talked (since then, he’s been ruled out from the first 6-8 weeks with a knee injury). Here’s a teenager with an all-dimple smile, who says he wants to be a Pelican for life, and thanks his mom every chance he can get. And beyond the dunks, past the Herculean build, here’s what I think has made Zion the most exciting NBA rookie since LeBron James: We haven’t seen someone that dominant play with so much joy since the Internet took over how we watch and talk about sports. A good guy who’s good at basketball—pretty cool, right?
Last week, Williamson did a round of interviews in advance of the news that he signed a partnership with Mountain Dew. It’ll kick off with a refurbishing of a basketball court in his old digs of Spartanburg, South Carolina—complete with a comic book-style mural of him. And with every Pelicans beat writer hammering Zion about playoff prospects and his knee, we figured we’d ask him, you know, how he’s doing with all this. Turns out he had a couple other things on his mind.
Early evening phone call a week before the start of the 2019-20 NBA season. Zion Williamson: New Orleans, after practice, undisclosed location. Brady Langmann: New York City, private office, not his.
Brady Langmann: I’m excited to talk to you, man. I mean, you’re literally about to accomplish your dream a week from today. That’s crazy.
Zion Williamson: Ah, it is crazy.
BL: You genuinely seem to enjoy the shit out of basketball. That’s such an obvious thing to say but I really feel that when I watch you play.
ZW: I like that! That’s good. It means I’m doing something right.
BL: Especially the interview right after you were drafted. So many men aren’t comfortable enough in their own skin to just feel what they’re feeling so publicly. Do you think it’s important for men to be that way in 2019? Just honest and open and vulnerable?
ZW: That’s a tricky question to answer. Everybody has their own personality. Some people? They can. Others, they don’t believe in it. It’s not a bad thing, to each his own. But for me, that moment was special because I’ve seen my mom go through so much, and make sacrifices for me to have a chance, that those emotions all hit at once. And I just couldn’t hold it back.
BL: Your mom did coach you for two years, right?
ZW: Yeah, she did. Hardest coach I ever had.
BL: What would happen if you went two for fifteen during a game or something? How would that ride home be?
ZW: That ride home would be… it’d be a rough ride home. Like, she would teach me lessons. She would somehow teach me a life lesson about a bad game. Yeah she would get on me, but she would also say like, “It just goes to show that everything, no matter how good you are, no matter the situation you’re in and everything—will not always go the way you want it to.” So you always have to have different plans, different strategies, on how you handle situations and adversity. So she would be on me hard, she’d be super tough on me. But she would teach me lessons.
BL: If you can remember the one or two best games you had when she was coaching you—would you go anywhere after one of those good games? Would you go out to eat?
ZW: [Hesitates and laughs] Nah. My best games, she’d be on me even more than she would if I had a bad game.
BL: Does your mom have anything in common with Coach K coaching-wise?
ZW: Yeah, they do. They both always have the competitive edge for a win. Like no matter the situation, no matter what’s going on, they’re both super competitive and they’re gonna mentally push themselves to different limits just to keep that edge of a warrior’s mindset.
BL: It must have been amazing to spend all that time with Coach K, like I couldn’t imagine just a better basketball experience than that.
ZW: It was crazy, like I watched him on TV growing up. And you know, I’d be a little starstruck sometimes, because we’d be in a game, and then you know, I’m looking over at Coach for the play. And I’m lookin’ like, Man, that’s Coach K right there! He’s my coach.
BL: What was the greatest non-basketball thing he taught you?
ZW: He taught me a lot about life in that one year that I was there. One thing that I would take away is just, carry yourself in a respectful way. It was almost like—you’re not just representing yourself. You’re representing your family, your friends, your community, where you’re from. Like, carry yourself as a proud member of where you’re from and do it with respect. And he would have a way of saying that where you’re from, think of all those people that were there along the road to ride with you. And carry yourself in a high manner for them.
BL: The one thing Kevin Durant gets up about is when he talks about the Rucker Park game. Do you have something from Spartanburg like that?
ZW: Those games are usually some of the most important, greatest memories of being a basketball player’s like, life journey. Right? Those games, it’s beyond basketball. It’s like you’re playing for respect. You’re earning your respect and when you’re feeling it, and the gym is just on fire, and everybody is hopping on you, hyping you up, you’re just in this zone of… It’s like you’re peaceful, but you’re hyped. And everything you’re doing is instinct, and you’re doing the thing you love. And it’s just something about those games that every basketball player, they’ll probably say some of those games are better than playing some of the NBA games. ‘Cause it’s just like, that’s where they grew up, and that’s just home turf there.
BL: Is there a moment from the past year that just really sticks out to you? Just something that you could really think could help maybe someone reading this.
ZW: I remember my senior year of high school, I went to my history class. You know, now it sounds kind of cliché, but it’s one of those things where you’re not really locked in, and so you just kind of, another day, you’re kind of cruising through the day.
So I was looking out the window. My history teacher, her name was Miss McGrath, she had a globe, you know a globe of the earth. You know, I remember looking at that globe, and I remember looking at the state of South Carolina. And I said, Wow, I’m in this small area, like, small area right here. If I could go on to do something to impact the world, country, state, city, I could go on and have a big impact. It’s one of those things, your body just kind of shakes in excitement. But yeah, I remember that day—that day really stands out to me. And there was something about that day that just made me go, you know what? It just added extra fuel to my fire.
BL: That’s beautiful, man. So you saw your history teacher and you’re saying—
ZW: Yeah, she just always had some kind of… she was always happy, you know? It was one of those things like, Okay… what’s going on? I remember one time I asked her, “You seem so like, so happy. You always have a positive flow, like you’re not positive one day, and you’re in-between the other days.” She was always positive. But, yeah, I had her class my junior and senior year, and she taught me a lot. But it was actually the little globe she had. It was really small, but it shows the whole Earth, and it shows how much impact somebody can have, even though they’re only a tiny part of the world.
BL: I love that, man. I just want to squeeze in one last question. So, it seems like you’re somewhat of a basketball movie buff. If you were to star in a movie sequel or a reboot, kind of like a Space Jam 2 thing, is there a movie that you’d pick?
ZW: Is there a movie that I’d wanna be in? As a sequel?
BL: Yeah, like are we gonna see an Air Bud movie starring Zion Williamson?
ZW: I would definitely wanna be in… I would wanna be in the sequel to He Got Game. I would definitely want to be like, in the part two of that movie.