The compulsion of Zion Williamson and our fixation on immediacy in all things.
Up here in winter, three hours north of the city tucked under Algonquin, the only spectacle is what the natural world will offer and even then, it’s slow. There was one winter where working through the morning I didn’t look up until Captain, his resting state stoically mute, started growling at the window. Three deer were tentatively working their way out onto the frozen lake. The next winter, the closest neighbour watched a pack of wolves drag down one of the deer out on the same lake, the ice stained red for weeks even under all the new snow, a femur poking up that Captain would eventually find and try to flee with, maniacal.
It takes me a few days every time to slow, to get used to the quiet, the dark, the brittle and booming sound of ice cracking and reforming. Water so cold from the taps at first that even liquid soap won’t lather; the hornet menace buzz of snowmobiles miles off, echoes carried fast and clear and ominous in the deep stillness of a world that’s frozen and waiting. Feats become the way the sun sinks in this season at the exact narrowing point where the channel opens out into the next lake, or staying awake past 9pm. I become aware of how far away from everything I am, and the gloaming privilege of that.
There’s no eligibility for spectacle, no qualifications, it assumes we have no memory beyond the moment. Think of the amnesia of each season, winter a betrayal, spring a miracle. Gawking at a game winner, a car crash, at the moon through your kitchen window when you fumble for a glass of water at 3am, all in motion before you arrived.
Our holdover brains, from when the present was the only thing that mattered, make us forgetful, apt to repeat habits and history, to dig deep tracts in circular conversations for comfort. I can’t think of why else it makes sense to rake Zion Williamson over the coals of public opinion again and again, when the variables around him haven’t changed in coming on three seasons.
Is the compulsion in impatience? Is it rooted deeper, like an OCD tic, a ritualized habit that brings some comfort in reexamining, reordering, restating the same set of facts over and over? On a deeper, psychological level I even get it as a safeguard against the low- to high-grade PTSD everyone has since Covid, this need to set to rights a perfect stranger, if only because of the way his rookie season aligned with the pandemic’s arrival. I also seriously doubt it.
But these are the lengths I let myself go to to try and explain the mania for a person who has played just over 2,500 minutes in the NBA.
Nothing has changed in New Orleans. Not the ownership or its well-reported problems with the care of its players, the secondary nature of their bodies to the preeminent focus of the Saints. There is no developmental aim or pipeline, not even a lazy river, to identify, grow and compliment the skills of young players, role players, any players. There is a track record not only of distrust, but of injury, proof in bodies at their should-be peaks breaking down. This was the team Williamson was drafted into. There is plenty of reason for his wariness, and when has he ever been someone who’s outspoken? Anthony Davis was like that, too, until things got so bad for him that he bore his intentions as best and boldly as he could — on a shirt. It’s not a dig, lifelines can feel less and less the more a person is repeatedly told something on the verge of combusting is fine.
When Davis left, felt the fetid air forever swelling the colonial French houses for the last time, it was like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Could it have been simple enough, easy enough to explain, that one had? Walk too long under the weight of spectacle and it will warp you, brain and body.
Williamson has been hearing, likely since he can remember it mattering, that he’d go, be, number one. The fault is not in the Draft, but the system it’s borne out of. One that demands spectacle keen as blood sacrifice. If you mean to do away with the Draft, you need to do away with the NCAA, with the entirety of the American college system. Bloated and obfuscated by decades of greed and an appetite for profit above all, pandering dreams in exchange for live bodies. A meaningful change could be in shortening rookie contracts but how, then, should smaller market franchises incentivize players to stay? Decency, deferring from treating an athlete as a bargaining chip, a model more intrinsic to the collective health and chemistry of the team as an entity, but then these changes assume that either the league sheds speed, the breakneck pace of competition and consumption, or becomes not strictly superficially moralistic. You can’t have both, and even picking one feels like holding your breath.
To divert to a European academy model would require infrastructural overhauls in tandem with NBA teams, but more than that, an investment of money and trust in athletes as young as children without any hard and fast promise on a return of that investment. American ideology — well, no, actually America more generally — was not made that way. The proudest, freest leech still shrinks from salt.
Not to say the European model is especially noble, or without its bodily quid pro quo. A professional soccer player’s contract is pure currency. The pitch can shift swiftly under even the biggest star’s cleats, tufts of it tangled, still fresh in the studs as they set down someplace new the next game.
But this is the joy of spectacle, why it’s so heady. It requires no examination of circumstance or the system that it springs from, only immediacy. The loudest voice, the clown on stilts, the scapegoat hoisted up on so many shoulders, a horse running through the streets on fire.
Maybe you’ve noticed the echo chambers where we spend half our time are offering up less and less air. The same voices repeating, overlapping, amplified and doled up via algorithm that aims to keep you engaged, breathless, oxygen starved, nodding your head in mute agreement. A medium made so it’s easier to react than to remain passive, lest you be cycled out of the feed. Spectacle at any hour in your hand, your pocket, lying down, hurtling between here and there, asking in return for you to surrender the logic you once held that it was better, sometimes, to wait.
Spectacle sucks us in, often right after it’s caused us shame, fear, hurt, revulsion. The compulsion we have now to gather up any detritus or cast-offs of spectacle, the idea being that maybe we’ll use these things later, tug on them like stray threads of memory. Nobly? Maybe. More likely in an argument. But threads are tools only if you feed them through a needle with some care and intention, otherwise all this is is junk.
Stupid, is the word that keeps thudding against the inside of my head, as I can listen to the BBC’s latest update on Ukraine and too politely ask the same smart speaker to play ‘Night Fever’ because it seems a quiet song, is all I can think of just then, and I’m not finished moisturizing.
The same stupid that lets me watch an emergency UN meeting with hundreds of thousands of other people live on Twitter, who comment with clapping hand emojis and send from their phones cascades of ethereal hearts to stream up the side of the video player as the Secretary General pleads for Putin to pull his troops back to Russia.
This is the world we’ve made to process spectacle. Social media just a lens and in moments like this a magnifier.
With Williamson a darker, more callous part of me thinks the disdain for him comes from a promise of spectacle, withheld. The talent, the optics of talent, the type, the rejection of type, the optics of type, of a body, all of it moving toward a mantle that was his if only he would step into it.
I remember at Summer League, when he took the floor for the first time on the first Friday night, a day before his bigger ticket marquee. Barely a quarter into the game and he cracked his left knee against another and waited on the bench, “We want Zion” chants rippling through the arena until 150 miles to the west the earth split and the ground shook in a 6.9 quake. Pressure, building up and seeking release.
The demand that night, it felt, was not to see him play so much as just to see him. The kind of celebrity that skips the prerequisite of fandom, that so few established NBA players have and keep, let alone a rookie who already went by one name.
But Williamson never rejected the promise outright, his body betrayed him in the most small, gradually damning ways. I wonder sometimes if I’ve drawn a psychic line (one-way, strictly) between us because of this night. How if that’s the case then I’m no better than everyone who feels, in some personal way, Williamson owes them their due. Going back now to his pre game media that night it’s impossible to ignore how rapid, short and shy his answers sound as the crowd roars impatiently behind him, how much he is a kid. How his body betrayed him there, too.
When I picture Williamson, maybe when you do too, he’s alone. Spectacle demands a crowd and in return the crowd demands a spectacle. Never do crowds turn into mobs as quickly as when they gather for grandeur and it comes up short or never shows. Very easily, violence slips in as compromise, a grinning truth as spectacle slinks out the back door.
Williamson was meant for something, he knew it in his bones at one point, I’m sure, the same way we all get that deep-set clairvoyance even if it’s only in the premonition of running into someone we’d rather not, or a stoplight up ahead changing. Soon though, so soon and before he even got started, intuition became spectacle. He knew it because everybody else did, they’d heard about it and kept telling him so — and repetition always weakens the hold.
Belief is harder.
What I can’t tell is if the people still holding onto him, clutching him close in that never-ending discourse, feel belief or resentment. We all know in the short-term which one is stronger.