Long before Zion Williamson became a national sensation, throwing down monster dunks and making regular appearances on ESPN’s SportsCenter, he was a kid in Florence who loved attending high school basketball games.
The Spartanburg Day star would go with his family to watch his favorite high school players put on a show.
After the games he would wait to get autographs. Sometimes he would. Often the players would leave before he had a chance to get a picture or signature. After leaving disappointed a few times, Williamson made a promise.
“If I’m ever in that situation I’m going to sign everybody’s autograph no matter how long it takes me,” he said.
That time has come for Williamson.
The 16-year-old is drawing comparisons to LeBron James, for his dunking ability and for the crowds he is drawing to his games. Williamson has stayed as long as an hour and a half after games, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
Fans have packed into gyms to watch Williamson no matter where he is playing, and it started before the 2016-17 season began.
The gym at Spartanburg Day was nearly full when the Griffins were scrimmaging teams in the preseason.
“After that, I started to figure out it was going to be a pretty different year,” SDS coach Lee Sartor said.
At the end of November, Williamson and Spartanburg Day played in the Tournament of Champions in Peoria, Ill., against teams from around the country. Even more than 700 miles away from Spartanburg, fans crowded into the gym to watch Williamson.
Then came the Chick-Fil-A Classic in Columbia. Fans who came to watch Williamson were turned away at the Richland Northeast gymnasium because the arena was sold out.
It has been that way all season – home and away.
“It’s a good thing for our kids. It’s a wonderful thing for our school. It’s great for Zion and all the hard work that he’s put in to getting himself prepared for a situation like this,” Sartor said. “I’m proud of him, and I’m proud of the way our team has gotten better and been able to deal with all the excitement.”
Added Williamson, “We put Spartanburg on the map.”
Kids aren’t the only ones trying to see Williamson.
Celebrities have flocked to his games, including Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley and former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.
And some of the best college basketball coaches frequently take trips to watch the five-star prospect. North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Kansas’ Bill Self have seen Williamson in a game or at a practice this season.
“I love it knowing that they took time out of their schedule to just come watch a high school basketball game,” Williamson said. “People usually say is it pressure for me to perform every night and it’s not. I love playing the game of basketball. I train for it every day.”
Beasley played in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, then came to watch Williamson play later that week. He was treated to a 49-point performance.
“When Beasley was here and came to see him play, all of the kids wanted Beasley’s autograph. Then, after the game, he and all of those kids wanted Zion’s autograph,” Sartor recalled. “Vic Beasley got his autograph and took a picture with him.”
Williamson has a celebrity following that is continuing to grow. He has heard from numerous NBA players, including Atlanta’s Dwight Howard, and he woke up Jan. 15 to learn famous rapper Drake had posted a picture on his Instagram of himself wearing a Williamson Spartanburg Day jersey.
Drake, who had the jersey custom made, later spoke with Williamson .
“I was asleep when it all happened. I woke up with like a hundred messages and a lot of notifications. People were like, ‘Bro, Drake wore your jersey,’ ” Williamson said. “Drake told me he’s a big fan of mine and he hopes I reach my goal of making it to the NBA.”
Williamson has experienced a number of unique situations throughout his junior season, including this past Monday when he was greeted by three men from Cleveland asking for autographs and to attend practice.
They were visiting family at Clemson and made a stop in Spartanburg on their way back to Ohio.
“You see the hype on ESPN and YouTube and Instagram. We wanted to check him out and see what the hype is all about,” 31-year-old Adam Bolinger said.
Bolinger watched LeBron James play in high school and was eager to compare the two.
“When LeBron played in high school, he was just a man amongst boys. You could just tell the difference. You could see what he was going to be in the future,” Bolinger recalled. “You can see the same thing with Zion.”
The latest stop for Williamson and Spartanburg Day is the Sumter Civic Center for the SCISA state tournament. The Griffins are trying to win their second consecutive SCISA 2A state title.
Williamson is expected to be back at Spartanburg Day next season, despite being courted by several elite teams from around the country.
He enjoys Spartanburg Day, his teammates and coaching staff and sees no reason to leave. Williamson’s mother, Sharonda Sampson, said players who transfer to places like Oak Hill (Va.) Academy do so for exposure, but Williamson receives plenty of exposure now.
“As I’ve told Zion before, ‘You’ve worked hard. People know you’re out there. So we don’t see a point in you moving … People know you’re here, so they’re coming to see you,’ ” Sampson said.
Williamson and his teammates will play a challenging schedule next season featuring games against some of the top teams in the nation.
“We’re in a situation where we’re being invited all over the country to play,” Sartor said. “I know at least four tournaments will be far away, where we have to fly to get there. I think other people in other parts of the country will have opportunities to see his talents next year.”
Meeting new people, taking pictures and signing autographs during his senior season sounds like a blast to Williamson.
“I never get tired of it,” he said. “I love it.”