To the Wall Street Journal, he’s a mashup of a cement mixer and ballet dancer. To one legendary sportswriter, he’s the “newest human highlight film, a freak of nature.” All of these accolades have been heaped on basketball sensation Zion Williamson, who started seeing sports fame as a 16-year-old in Spartanburg, when Sports Illustrated named him the “Most Famous Prep Star Since LeBron.”
Williamson is now a college basketball superstar, a power forward at Duke University’s hoops dynasty, where he averages around 21 points and 9 rebounds per game. But to three of his former high school teammates, he’s just another one of the guys. “We all knew him before he was Zion,” says senior Rett Foust, 18, a 5’11’’ guard at the independent Spartanburg Day School. “I met him my eighth-grade year, his ninth, and he was only like 6’3”,” says Bishop Richardson, 19, a 5’11” guard, chuckling: “He had a huge growth spurt when he was 16”—before he grew into the 6’7’’ Mount Zion he is today at 18, weighing 285 pounds.
“He dunked on me,” Richardson says amid more laughs he shares with Foust and Clay Killoren, 16, a 6’6” junior who also played alongside Williamson. “After a while, you get used to it. The crazy thing is that when you saw his dunks—which everyone thought were so great, which they are, like a windmill—to us, that’s just normal.”
“They really prepared me for college, more than I know. The transition on me was very easy because my high school acts the same way that Duke does.”
“He does even crazier things in practice,” Killoren puts in: “He’s not like someone that’s very—”
“He’s not cocky,” Richardson says.
“That’s what a lot of coaches really like about him, too,” Killoren says. “He had this manner that he carried himself with, that people were really impressed by. He always addressed someone politely. He always had an infectious smile.”
Zion Williamson still smiles, about South Carolina and his high school.
“It was just a privilege to grow up there. Everywhere I went in South Carolina, it was love. What it meant for me to go to Spartanburg Day School, I didn’t know if a Division I offer would be in my future. Going to Spartanburg Day, they have a 100-percent college acceptance rate, so I felt like it was the best situation for me.”
Lee Sartor, now head coach of men’s basketball at Erskine College, coached Williamson at Spartanburg Day School, which has some 420 students, pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade.
“It’s a unique thing about Zion, that he’s a very humble person. He understood that he was a student first and an athlete after that. He didn’t expect any preferential treatment, nor did he get any,” he says. “Zion pretty much put Spartanburg Day on the map in terms of basketball. He brought our program to a whole different level.”
During his high school career, fans would call the school hoping to talk to him. College coaches and recruiters arrived in herds. The media went nuts; the Charlotte Observer called him the “most ballyhooed high school basketball recruit of the social-media era.”
“It was just like a movie from there,” Williamson says. “Ninth-grade year, we lost the championship. Sophomore year, we won the state championship. Then I picked up a lot of offers. Junior year was like a blockbuster.”
For the school, too.
“As a young student-athlete, Zion showed grace and poise under the national spotlight far beyond his years,” says Rachel Deems, head of the school. Joan Tobey, a math teacher who had gathered the three basketball players in her classroom, smiled at them and told them the same thing: “You guys held up under that kind of intense scrutiny really well.”
“Everyone wants to be a professional athlete,” Foust says, joining the others reminiscing about those heady Zion days that drew arena crowds, national TV coverage, and playing in such marquee events as the Tournament of Champions in Peoria, Illinois, in 2016. “But that’s as close as we’re going to get.”
As Williamson told ESPN a year ago last January, when he sat alongside the Blue Devils’ legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski: “Duke stood out because the brotherhood represents a family,” and as he told TOWN regarding Spartanburg Day: “They really prepared me for college, more than I know. The transition on me was very easy because my high school acts the same way that Duke does.”
Clearly, Williamson left an unforgettable mark on a place that left one on him.
“He is not only a tremendous basketball player but a kind and generous person we are honored to call an alumnus,” Deems says. “I am proud of how well he has represented our school, his family, and the sport of basketball. We look forward to seeing where this journey takes him.”