Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson shoots against Christian Academy. (Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-Journal)

They filed in on a Saturday to watch the performance, still free and intimate for now, one of those acts in which everyone believes it’s a matter of time before it goes national.

Two or three dozen basketball parents, fans and young people took their seats in the cozy venue as Zion Williamson began, rushing up the court and doing what has recently made him social media’s most famous teenage dunking sensation. A teammate tossed him an easy alley-oop, and Williamson, 6 feet 7 and in the neighborhood of 230 pounds, effortlessly slammed the ball home — effortlessly in part because defenders just moved out of his way. A few minutes later, he jumped and punished the hoop with a thundering tomahawk as a young spectator shook his head in disbelief. Maybe the kid would brag someday about seeing Williamson on this meager stage, the equivalent of U2 in a Dublin club or Springsteen along the Jersey Shore.

This was an early-afternoon Amateur Athletic Union practice at Spartanburg Day School, a private school of about 450 students that was best known athletically for its swim team. Now it’s where Zion plays, and he is something the locals — and recruiters and gawkers and leeches from much farther away — have never seen. He is 16, physically gifted and a bit mysterious; Williamson is the second-ranked player in the 2018 basketball recruiting class, but more than that he is a YouTube and Instagram curiosity who — at least so far — is virally famous for being visually compelling, a young man symbolically perfect for his time and place in the world.

Four of his mix-tape videos, with Williamson throwing down a variety of stunning dunks, have more than a million views. Another clip from late last month, showing him pulling off a 360-degree windmill during an AAU game, collected nearly 500,000 views in five days. The rapper Drake is a fan, and after the musician posted a photo a while back wearing Williamson’s No. 12 jersey, the kid became a true social media icon, verified and bona fide, his Instagram followers swelling to more than 550,000. The Zion Williamson show is, as Rivals recruiting analyst Eric Bossi put it, what it might have been like if LeBron James had grown up in the digital age.

“I shudder to think how crazy it would be,” Bossi said, “but maybe with Zion we’re getting a glimpse.”

All of which means — what, exactly? As a junior Williamson is so dominant on the basketball court, especially against the competition Spartanburg Day regularly faces, that it’s hard to know if he can actually play. Is he the next LeBron, or even something close, or a kind of Vegas street act? Is he a showman destined for college basketball’s biggest stage or meant to star someday in his own halftime show? Is this the mountaintop for him or a step toward the true peak?

Williamson, anyway, believes this is only the beginning of a career that’ll eventually make him a national champion, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and, in time, the winner of at least three NBA championships.

“You see those rings,” Williamson said with a smile, “and you’re like: ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind having one of those.’ ”

If nothing else, he knows how to give the audience what it wants, and during an otherwise dull sequence during what is ostensibly a practice for the S.C. Supreme travel team, Williamson smiles again before slicing through the lane, defenders stopping to watch and admire, for a dunk that — for better or worse — he made look way too easy.

‘I’ve been to his games, and you can’t go off that,’ one college assistant said of evaluating Williamson’s potential. (Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-Journal)

‘The pressure is squarely being put on Zion,’ said Rivals recruiting analyst Eric Bossi. (Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-Journal)
Can he actually play?

The college assistant has seen Williamson in high school games and seen his videos — “Oh my God,” he said, “they’re incredible” — and he’s experienced and disciplined enough to know that, even together, they mean almost nothing.

The coach is an assistant for one of college basketball’s top programs, a veteran who knows that, at a school the size of Spartanburg Day, average-sized opponents refuse to challenge the hulking Williamson, and on the AAU circuit, defense is an unpopular chore. The coach also understands the intersection of hype and reality, and his job is to find out where on that scatter plot Williamson actually belongs.

“I’ve been to his games, and you can’t go off that,” said the assistant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from publicly discussing unsigned players. “It doesn’t mean much.”

And so he — and others like him — look deeper. He goes on the road, paying particular attention to Williamson’s play while on travel teams, where he might encounter the Phoenix-area power forward Marvin Bagley, the only player listed higher than Williamson on the 2018 rankings. The coach is enchanted by the power and creativity of Williamson’s dunks — hard not to be, really — and has come to believe he is a versatile and elite athlete who could further develop his jump shot and tone his body.

But the coach looks closer at Williamson when he doesn’t have the ball. How does he react when his shots don’t fall or one of his dunks clangs off the iron? What does the young player do when his team is losing, or on those occasions when defenders actually do play defense and get in Williamson’s face?

“Expectations are really high for the highest-ranked kids,” the assistant coach said. “To watch a highlight video on YouTube and say this kid can really play — you can see if he’s athletic, how high he can jump, if he’s got pretty good form. But you can’t see if he can actually play.”

Even before the travel season begins in earnest later this month and Williamson begins to answer some of those recruiters’ questions, the competition for Williamson has begun. Kentucky Coach John Calipari visited last month, delivering a scholarship offer, and Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Kansas’s Bill Self have come to town. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams brought assistant C.B. McGrath to Spartanburg Day, and not to be outdone, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski brought his entire staff to watch.

Four years ago, another young sensation was introduced to the world on YouTube. Seventh Woods was a freshman guard at another small private school in Columbia, S.C., 115 miles or so from Spartanburg Day. Over triumphant music and slow-motion video, the 14-year-old Woods dunked and glided his way to nearly 15 million views and a kind of hysteria rarely seen with a young player. He hadn’t posted the video, but he and his future became caged within it.

The years passed, the hype grew, and in 2015, Woods was a top-50 recruit who signed with North Carolina. A freshman on this year’s national championship team, Woods averaged 1.5 points and played less than eight minutes per game. He became frustrated after an audition for more playing time in early December, and Williams told reporters then that it was time for the young player to “sink or swim.” Though it’s still early for Woods, and his role likely would increase if Joel Berry II leaves Chapel Hill for the NBA, his freshman season didn’t just fall short of the hype that YouTube video generated. It hadn’t come close, and it became easy for some fans to view Woods as a failure.

Coaches have Woods in mind as they watch Williamson.

“The pressure is squarely being put on Zion,” said Bossi, the Rivals recruiting analyst. “If he gets to college and isn’t what he’s been built up to be in highlight videos … what they’re going to say is: ‘Zion’s a bust.’ ”

A group of young people react to Williamson’s dunk show during a local celebrity basketball game. (Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-Journal)
‘He’s still Zion.’

The hype reached Sharonda Sampson’s middle school classroom in neighboring Greenville, her students raving about this kid named Zion a few miles up the way.

Had Mrs. Sampson seen him? She lived in Spartanburg, right? When would she go and watch the young man they’d seen in the videos?

After a while, Sampson revealed her secret: She is Williamson’s mother, and imagine the power she had over her eighth-graders when she offered to bring Zion to meet them — but only if they behaved themselves.

“He’s still human,” Sampson said with a chuckle. “He’s still Zion.”

Which is how she, and almost no one else, sees him. To her, he is just a growing boy who raids the fridge at midnight, cleaning out his mother’s lunchtime leftovers for the next day. He is the young man who wishes he could sleep all day and talks about what growing four inches in a year feels like to a pair of teenage knees.

Then this past January, Zion showed Sampson his phone and his Instagram profile, where there was now a blue check mark and a few hundred thousand followers. Drake had just shared his photo and was among those now following Sampson’s son.

A thoughtful and learned woman, she saw both potential and toxicity in all this. She had seen what it did to Zion when opposing fans jeered him, accusing him of being a skilled dunker and nothing more, and now she found herself going down the rabbit hole of her son’s mentions. There were compliments and requests for autographs and photos, but because this was the collision of basketball and the Internet, she read the coaches courting Zion to leave Spartanburg Day and instead play for them. She saw the offers and the threats and the perversion and wondered what it would mean for her son and his innocence.

So she sneaked into his email account and, without his knowledge, directed a copy of each message — in or out — to her phone. She set up Twitter and Instagram profiles her son wouldn’t notice and became a filter for the strangers who, excited by the hype and emboldened by the anonymity, had no problem asking for all manner of favor.

She noticed the growing parade of videographers lined up on the Spartanburg Day baseline, each trying to capture the latest highlight and accumulate views, a small part of her son’s growing ecosystem. She allowed Zion to watch his highlight videos twice: once when they’re first posted and another time if he was having a bad day — then never again. She steered him away from the comments section and shielded him from social media’s omnipresent negativity.

Then there was the matter of real life, obscured almost by this new digital universe. One day she drove Zion to practice at Spartanburg Day and noticed a van with Ohio plates in the parking lot. Three men climbed out, sharing a story about a youth basketball camp, its underprivileged kids, and anyway, would Zion mind signing the 40 basketballs they had brought with them?

Sampson instructed her son inside before she scolded the strangers: In which parallel dimension was it okay for three adults to approach a 16-year-old without his parents’ permission?

She kept looking at Zion and seeing something no one else could, holding on to images such as when he offered his all-star jersey to the old man who’d asked for a memento; when he declined a college coach’s offer to attend last month’s NCAA tournament games in Greenville because he preferred to attend Spartanburg Day’s soccer game.

But she saw him nonetheless growing careful, if not yet cynical or jaded. He preferred to stay home on weekends when friends went to parties, watching documentaries about basketball players whose acquaintances had led them into bad situations. He broke up with his girlfriend because he came to see her as a distraction to his basketball dreams. He put up defenses when someone asked where he would play college basketball, the recruiting process still fun overall but for how much longer? He smiled for photos and signed autographs still, but she could see it eroding his patience and becoming a chore.

Sampson tried to shield him from most of it, hopeful she’d be able to see her son the way she always had for just a little while longer.

Rite of passage

He folds himself into a chair that looks too small for him, beginning a story he likes: Williamson was 10 or 11 when he first told Sampson he wanted to play in the NBA.

She was supportive but realistic; if he was serious, he would need to devote himself to basketball, working when others went home, studying the game long after his peers grew impatient, dealing with distractions that didn’t yet exist.

“My parents sat me down and said, ‘Okay, your life is going to be different,’ ” he said. “Hanging out, going places, you’re not going to be able to do that … People are going to be doing stuff that you might find off, but that’s just life.”

There was one more thing: Publicity was going to come with it. Was he ready for that?

He said he was, and Williamson believes that was the day his life changed. He went to work, lifting weights and staying late after practices and, with his stepfather (who’s also his AAU coach), studying college players on television.

He grew and felt his joints aching and popping, transitioning from guard to forward. He was 6-3 by the time he was a freshman, and all was going according to plan but for one thing: He was tall and athletic, flexible and quick — but he could not dunk. A rite of passage for any player, Williamson became consumed by this and, after a while, frustrated. Everyone else his size could dunk, yet he could not.

He spent the summer before his ninth-grade year in Spartanburg Day’s back gym, a room known more for the school’s annual talent show than elite basketball. Long before his life played out in public, seen in highlights and snippets, he spent hours alone — jumping but not quite high enough.

One day he tried something new: ricocheting the ball off the backboard as he ran, quieting his mind as he jumped, reached and … yes, it worked. Zion Williamson could, for the first of many times, dunk.

“This is amazing,” he recalled thinking, and he stood there a moment, a 14-year-old fulfilled, and couldn’t help but think of a question. With this goal accomplished, a ninth grader experiencing a long-awaited payoff, what might possibly await him in the future?