Holding out for a hero in the evening light

Published 3:38 pm Friday, January 24, 2020

It was the most hyped basketball debut since Lebron James … no, since Michael Jordan … no, since Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And, just like the clouds-and-lightning-in-the-sky transfiguration it was supposed to be, it delivered.

Well, sort of.

Former Duke star Zion Williamson played 18 minutes in this heavily-anticipated January affair last Wednesday night. After not playing since the NBA Summer League, he brought the most athleticism, confidence, and effort in his first shift when he scored 17 straight points for the New Orleans Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs. That ferocious effort gave his team – and city – something not seen in the Vieux Carre since the coming of Drew Brees, or maybe Andrew Jackson.

Face it, New Orleans is a football town. Just ask George Shinn, who went from most-beloved in Carolina’s Queen City to most-hated, and all for hijacking the original Hornets out of the Tar Heel state and moving them to the Delta. After a couple of years, the new locale wasn’t drawing any fans.

But like the debuts of that aforementioned trio, it didn’t end in a win, but years – maybe even decades – from now, some wag will say Zion’s coming-out party was – would you believe – epic!?!

As the Pelicans and Zion himself acknowledged, there’ll be a learning curve for the rookie following knee surgery that had sidelined him for four months. What no one knew, though, was that the curve would last only about three quarters. Or, to be more precise, about 15 minutes.

The fourth quarter began much like the first three: Zion in the game and he starts things off by turning the ball over.

Maybe that was just the preliminary, because not long after is when the coming-out party began.

Three minutes into the quarter, Zion drained a 3. On the next possession, he finished a layup off with an alley-oop. Then he hit another 3; and, in the span of one minute he had scored eight points. And he wasn’t done. Zion’s next shot attempt was a layup that got blocked, but he was able to snatch the rebound and get the second-chance points.

Since he’s on a limited schedule, now would have been the time to sub him out, finishing his night. But with the score close, Pelicans down three, the coaches opted to leave him in. Zion went on to nail two more 3’s (making him 4-for-4 beyond the arc in one night after making just a single three in preseason). By the time he made his way to the free throw line after drawing a foul on the next possession, he had scored 16 straight points. He dropped in one of two at the stripe bringing his total to 22 points in 18 minutes, and as he walked off the court, he heard a chant that was often ringing in his ears back in Durham….

“MVP! … MVP!”

But before you sell playoff tickets, patience should be in order here. Zion’s still a 19-year-old rookie, and the expected Zion bump seems like it’s going to take some time to fully gauge its effect.

With Zion on the bench in those closing minutes of the fourth quarter and his team trailing, fans chanted for him to come back in the game, giving you the feeling had he remained on the court, New Orleans could have won the game. During postgame, coaches revealed it was the team’s medical staff that told them to take Zion out when they did (just so we know whom to blame!).

In the end, the Pelicans lost 121-117, and they remain four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But this is about the long game, and maybe even the longer career. But in those seven-minutes Zion gave this football-mad town, that’s experienced so much heartache the past 12 months, a ray of hope. He may have turned some skeptics to believers, and once he gets his rhythm fully back, we’re going to be left with anticipation all over again.

Sorry, Lebron, but 17 years between the birth of a hero has been way too long for some of us fans to wait.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.