‘He elevated everybody around him:’ Zion Williamson’s path to Duke

March 5, 2019
Duke's Zion Williamson during the Blue Devils' 72-70 victory over Virginia on Saturday, January 19, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. (Photo by Jack Morton)

Zion Williamson has captivated America with his must-see dunks, shoe controversy and ability to endlessly entertain a crowd.

But before Zion was a Duke Blue Devil, he was a just a kid from South Carolina.

Former Spartanburg Day School High school coach Lee Sartor first set eyes on Zion when he was in fifth grade.

“I knew he was special when I first saw him,” said Sartor. “I always thought he was a very good perimeter player, very good point guard.”

As Zion got older, his family decided to move him from Florence to Spartanburg Day School to be coached by Sartor.

Sartor explained, “They entrusted me to coach Zion for four years, and I truly feel honored and blessed and favored by God to have that opportunity.”

Between Zion’s eighth and ninth grade year is when Sartor asked him if he could dunk.

“He said ‘I think I can,’” said Sartor. “I said, well, from now on you need to be dunking in these drills so you know muscle memory.”

That muscle memory turned him into a freight train on game day.

Sartor smiled, ”Some of the dunks he does shock your soul because it’s something you’ve never seen before … I always think the dunk that kind of demoralizes the other team is my favorite dunk.”

By Zion’s tenth grade year, most colleges were calling. Coach K and his entire staff flew to Spartanburg Day School to watch him play.

Sartor said, “What Coach K told him by the presence of his whole staff is that you are the most important person that we’re recruiting.”

Sartor remembered one conversation that might’ve sealed the deal.

Sartor reflected, “I remember asking him, ‘Take away basketball. What degree do you want on your wall?’ And he said with the biggest smile, ‘A Duke degree.’”

It’s what Zion does when he’s off the court that makes him even more authentic.

During the summer, Zion didn’t have to take part in his high school’s team camps due to a busy AAU basketball schedule, but he would still show up.

“I called a timeout just to talk with the kids,” said Sartor. “I remember a hand giving kids water and I remember Zion saying, ‘Does anyone else need any water?’ This is a kid that was just on the cover of SLAM magazine!”

When Zion won the National Player of the Year award, he didn’t race to the stage to receive his trophy.

Sartor explained, “The first person he came to was me and he said, ‘Thank you coach.’ Then, he went to his assistant coaches and thanked them. Then he went to all of his teammates then he went to receive his award … I think about his heart. His heart can lift 1,000 pounds. I think that’s the most amazing thing about him.”

For a guy who seemingly has it all, he’s the first to acknowledge those who helped him along the way.

“He elevated everybody around him,” Sartor said. “He made his teammates better. He made me a better coach. Because of Zion a lot of things were better. He’s doing the same thing at Duke, which is the most amazing thing.”