CHARLOTTE — After scoring 81 points in three days and leading Duke to a 73-63 win over Florida State in the ACC Tournament championship game, Zion Williamson wasn’t quite ready to celebrate.
“The first thing I did before I cut down the nets was try to make eye contact with my mom,” the freshman said. “To tell her I loved her.”
After he’d received the Tournament MVP award and his piece of nylon from the Charlotte Spectrum Center net, Williamson finally got to hug his mother.
“I can’t go into too much detail about it,” he said, not wanting to cry in front of the crowd of reporters surrounding his locker, “but if it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
He’s college basketball’s biggest star, a social media — and standard media — sensation, and a surefire top pick in the NBA Draft. But he’s also an 18-year-old kid, and 24 days ago, that kid needed a mother’s love.
Just over half a minute into the first game against UNC, with the world watching, Williamson felt his shoe give way while planting his foot. Then he felt a sharp pain in his knee.
“They took me back (into the locker room) and looked at my knee,” Williamson recalled, while wearing a league champion’s hat, garnished with a strand from the net. “They said, ‘It’s up to you when you go back (into the game).’ I tried to jog in the back, but I couldn’t jog.”
His stepfather was the first person to arrive.
“I told him, ‘I can’t go.’ He said that was all right,” Williamson said. “Then they went to get my mom.”
It was a few minutes before Sharonda Sampson, Williamson’s mother, could make it to the locker room.
“I was sitting there, on the training table,” he said. “The game was on. My mom walks in, and I broke down. I’d been thinking about that game for so long. … I just cried in her arms. She told me that everything happens for a reason. She told me I’d be back.”
While the sports world debated whether he would risk NBA riches by returning to the court in college, Williamson and his mother never doubted it.
He didn’t rush, missing the last five games of the regular season.
“I could have come back a few games ago,” he said, “but I wouldn’t have been myself. So they sat me out, and I got into better condition. I practiced. I got some contact in. After practice, I’d get a lot of running in.”
When he returned to the hardwood for the tournament, he left no doubt that he was ready, scoring 29 in the opening game, 31 in the semifinals and 21 in the win over FSU to clinch the title. Williamson broke Art Heyman’s 58-year-old school record for most points in the ACC Tournament, as well as Phil Ford’s 44-year-old tournament scoring record for freshmen.
More importantly, he led the team back-to-back nights, when Duke found itself tied at halftime, with dynamic play on the court, including 11 dunks in the tournament and an impressive 40-foot bounce pass in traffic for the most impressive assist of the week of games in Charlotte.
“I was just feeling it,” he joked.
He made sure his tired teammates felt it as well.
“We came too far just to lose,” he said. “It’s a long bus ride. We don’t want to be on a quiet bus. We want to enjoy it.
First, however, he had to find the one special lady that stepped up when he was at his lowest point.
“I always have a smile on my face because my mom always tells me to enjoy life — the bad and the good,” he said. “She tells me to just thank God and enjoy yourself.”
So, before he climbed the ladder, he needed to make eye contact with mom.
“I wanted to thank her for everything,” he said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
There was just one problem.
“It took a while to find her,” he said, “and then she wasn’t looking at me.”