'They're going to show it until we die': How Zion Williamson's shoe mishap hurts Nike

The highest-profile wardrobe malfunction since Janet Jackson in the Super Bowl hijacked the sports world on Wednesday night. And it may end up more costly.

Transcendent Duke freshman Zion Williamson’s left Nike sneaker blew up 33 seconds into the Blue Devils’ game with rival North Carolina. Williamson’s foot busted out of his Nike so awkwardly that he injured his right knee, limping to the locker room and never returning on Wednesday night.

The moment was summed up best by former President Barack Obama, in the house to witness the Zion show, who is seen in a GIF pointing to the floor and saying, “His shoe broke.”

Williamson suffered a mild knee sprain in the slip during No. 1 Duke’s 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina. But few people are feeling worse than Nike executives, as the seemingly defective shoe will dominate headlines until at least Williamson returns to the lineup.

“It’s already all over the world while we’re still watching the game he got hurt in,” said veteran shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro, whose observation came during halftime. “They’re going to show it until we die.”

Duke’s Zion Williamson sits on the floor following a injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Duke’s Zion Williamson sits on the floor following a injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Any potential injury to Williamson transcends business, as he’s the most tantalizing and popular prospect to come through the American basketball system since the one-and-done era started following the 2005 NBA draft. In addition to jaw-dropping athleticism, Williamson brings an energy, likability and aura that’s immediately lifted him to college basketball’s most captivating story.

“If I’m the shoe company that had the shoe on the kid tonight,” Vaccaro said. “I’m praying to God that everything is OK physically.”

The impact of Williamson’s injury will be felt through every corner of basketball – from college to the NBA front offices pining for his services. But it also lit up the phone lines in the shoe industry, as the sad shot of the shredded Paul George model Nikes under his seat on the Duke bench could end up haunting the company. The rip went from the middle of the front of the sneaker’s sole all the way to heel, appearing if it’d been sliced by a sickle rather than ruptured by a foot.

It certainly got the attention of the shoe world on social media. Puma’s official account quickly deleted a classless tweet that said: “Wouldn’t have happened in Pumas.” Celtics point guard Terry Rozier tweeted – “Come to Puma” – before quickly adding that he didn’t know Williamson was injured. At the very least, those tweets underscored what’s at stake for Williamson’s shoe deal.

That’s why Nike officials have to feel queasy. Not only is the health of the expected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in flux, but Nike is expected to be a major player in the bidding war for Williamson’s first professional shoe contract. Assuming he’s healthy, Williamson was expected to have one of the biggest – if not the biggest – shoe deals ever for an NBA rookie. Nike would obviously be a big player in any negotiation.

While shoe deals are often incentive-laden and difficult to project, Williamson is expected to make more than $5 million annually upon entering the NBA. With no other prospects in the marketability stratosphere of Williamson, that number could skyrocket up — especially if a company like Puma drives up the price.

“All they want to hear about is Zion,” said one shoe company source of his company’s executives. “There’s no silver. Zion is the gold.”

How much marketability could Williamson have? Vaccaro has seen every modern prospect go through the system and wasn’t shy about identifying his marketing potential.

“He’s the most valuable player to come out of high school or college since LeBron James, without question,” Vaccaro said.

If healthy, of course. And while the basketball world prays for Williamson’s health, the words of ESPN announcer Jay Bilas on the broadcast summed up the surreal night with infinite implications in myriad directions. “A blown shoe,” Bilas said, “and an injured right knee.”

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