Draft Lead

Zion Before Zion


If you saw last week’s Duke game, Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded, and now his knee is messed up.

Basketball fans everywhere have been in an uproar, incredulous at the thought that a sneaker almost cost the NBA a generational talent. Equipment malfunctions happen in every sport, and basketball is no exception, but we’ve never seen anything quite like this.


Not so fast.

Forty years ago, a sneaker ended the career of a potential NBA superstar. Sit down, kids. It’s story time.

Years ago, I worked at a municipal basketball court in the Philly area. By and large, it was a boring job, and I mostly passed the time just doing my homework with some headphones on.

But one day, I forgot my headphones. There was a badminton tournament that night, hosted by one of the old recreation department guys. The host didn’t really move all that well, so I helped him get all the nets set up. As we worked, we got to talking. If you’ve ever had a conversation with an old, Philly-blooded guy, then you probably know how it went. They tend to be pretty one-sided.

After a while, it somehow came up that I was learning how to drive a stick shift. The guy started to wax poetic about how he missed driving “standard” cars. He hadn’t had one since the 70s or 80s, when his Porsche’s interior got ruined. Naturally, I asked him how the interior got ruined.

“Oh, I had to drive a couple friends home from the airport, and one of ‘em wouldn’t fit with the roof up, so we had the convertible top down in the rain.”

I just kinda nodded, commenting that Porsches used to be pretty small, so that made sense.

The old guy snorted.

“Coulda been a Jeep. Darryl wasn’t gonna fit in any convertible.”

Now I was curious. Was this ‘Darryl’ tall?

“Darryl Dawkins? Yeah, I’d say he was pretty damn tall.”

Safe to say, from then on, I always left my headphones at home for badminton nights. This guy apparently used to be friends with half the old Sixers’ roster, and he had all the crazy stories you’d expect out of a peripheral member of basketball’s cocaine era. One of those stories popped into my head during the shoe game.

Some weeks later, the old guy (OG) brought an old picture album with him, to show off some of his old cars to “a clueless kid” like me. When he stopped on a page to show off some old Corvette, I saw one of his wedding pictures in the opposite sleeve. It was just him, his wife, his best man, and the bridesmaid. The best man looked vaguely familiar, so I asked him who it was.

“Oh, that’s my old friend. Dougie Collins.”

Doug had just finished his Doug cycle within the Sixers organization, so people had largely soured on him as a coach. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d bitched about Doug Collins to the OG himself in the weeks prior.

I pressed him for details, and he was happy to oblige. They’d played a ton of basketball together in Philly, and just hit it off from there. I knew that Collins had won Rookie of the Year, so I asked how good he was.

The OG claimed that Doug was the quickest player he’d ever seen. Collins used to keep three pairs of sneakers in his gym bag because he blew through them so quickly. Apparently this used to be somewhat common with the old Converses that players used to play in.

I think I said something along the lines of “That doesn’t seem safe.”

The OG explained that it actually wasn’t that big of a deal. Collins was used to the feeling of the shoe bursting, so he could handle it. But, one day, Adidas (I could be remembering the specific company incorrectly) approached him with a shoe deal. They said that they could provide him with a sneaker that would never blow apart. Collins was all about it, and started playing in the Adidas.

And they were right. The shoe never did blow apart. It gripped, more than any basketball sneaker that Doug had ever worn. So, when Doug went to use his insane quickness and burst on the court, his shoe didn’t slip or explode. It gripped, glueing his foot to the ground. His body couldn’t handle it. The change in sneakers resulted in a legendary string of injuries that had Collins out of basketball before his 30th birthday. His feet, ankles, and knees all went, and the OG swore that none of it ever would have happened in some good old Chuck Taylors. He saw that first injury live, and he claims that he’d seen Doug blow through his shoes dozens of times making the exact same play.

A slippery pair of Hyperdunks cost me a chunk of my Achilles tendon, so I believe it. You can take it however you like. But sneakers are wildly important on the court and players need to be wise in choosing their game kicks. That much has always been true. It’s not all about style.




About Jeff Weissman

I'll be shouting Philly Philly from the rooftops until the day I die.

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