Where it all began: Spartanburg excited for Zion’s return to SC

Zion Williamson’s highlight reel

Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.
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Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.

Keith Crocker entertains patrons in his three-chair Eastside Barber Shop with tales of a youngster named Zion Williamson before the Duke star became the king of college basketball.

Between snips of hair atop a customer’s head, Crocker tells of the time he and Williamson judged a dunk contest in town. Crocker’s uncle, Lee Sartor, happened to be Williamson’s high school coach at Spartanburg Day School. Thus, Crocker and Williamson became experts on judging dunks for this countywide get-together two years ago.

Williamson sat courtside in street clothes with judging cards in hand. Then chants of “Zio-on! Zi-on! Zi-on!” began cascading around the Spartanburg Day gymnasium. They wanted Williamson to at least throw down one dunk.

So, as Crocker tells it, Williamson calmly got to his feet and walked to center court, wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt. He kept a bookbag in place on his back.

“He tossed one against the backboard,” Crocker recalls, “jumped and slammed home a windmill dunk.”

And now he’s coming home.

Duke’s visit to Columbia for the NCAA tournament brings Williamson 90 minutes from home, where the fame he has now established nationally was long ago secure.

That same summer Crocker remembers so well, Williamson stood against the backdrop of a mural on the side of a downtown building that promotes “Sparkle City.” Slam magazine conducted a photo shoot of Williamson that day and decided a primitive goal attached to the wall would make a nice prop. In sports gear, Williamson obliged with standing dunks.

Williamson appeared on the cover of Slam’s June 6, 2017 cover. As a rising senior, he was already gaining social media recognition for thunderous dunks. His Instagram followers had soared past 500,000. The rapper Drake had posted a photo online sporting Williamson’s No. 12 Spartanburg Day School jersey.

Williamson had fast become another of this city’s favorite sons, in much the same manner running back Stephen Davis came out of a Spartanburg high school to first play at Auburn before an 11-season NFL career. Baseball great Al Rosen also hails from Spartanburg, as does longtime racecar driver David Pearson and The Marshall Tucker Band.

None came close to matching the national attention Williamson has garnered for Spartanburg less than one year after departing his hometown to play his requisite one season of college basketball.

Spartanburg is a rebounding city of 180,000 that serves as national headquarters for the Denny’s restaurant chain and is home to a BMW factory. Wofford College is located in Spartanburg, and it annually hosts the Carolina Panthers NFL training camp. Nearly one-quarter of South Carolina’s business investments over the past five years have landed in Spartanburg County, according to Allen Smith, president of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Smith said the Chamber of Commerce has attempted over the years to track media exposure for the city. He said periodic ESPN feeds from the Panthers training camp were easy to quantify.

“Then Zion came along,” Smith says. “We just gave up trying to track the media for our community. It was crazy. . . . We’d have to pay seven figures for that kind of exposure. What he was able to do was to really shine a light on our community.

“It’s just been great exposure for us. He’s an ambassador for us, also. He carries himself well. He’s mature beyond his years. So, we’re just delighted to take part in his success.”

Williamson was an occasional visitor during his high school years to Sugar N Spice Drive-In Restaurant, where adding “a-plenty” to an order means getting a pile of French fries and onion rings on top of a cheeseburger that might have been too much food for even the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson.

“He was well known,” Sugar N Spice owner Harry Stathakis says of Williamson. “We just didn’t know he was the real thing.”

Then there is the landmark Beacon Drive-In across town. It was founded in 1946 and was featured on TV’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” with host Guy Fieri in 2006. Presidential candidates have been holding rallies in the Beacon’s 300-seat dining area for decades.

No politician, even in the runup to the 2020 election, could possibly turn more heads than Williamson on his next visit.

“Your money is no good here,” Beacon owner Steve Duncan says he is prepared to tell Williamson. “Now, can you sign this?”

Sartor, his high school coach, is now the head coach at nearby Erskine College. On a recent weekday, he went to the Spartanburg County administration building to pay his car taxes. Nichelle Nichols, an administrator, asked about Williamson and mentioned she was not previously a college basketball fan, and never cottoned much to Duke hoops.

“With Zion on the team,” Sartor recalled his conversation with Nichols, “she follows Duke and college basketball.”

One would be hard pressed to find a Spartanburg resident who speaks a cross word about Williamson. Instead, they talk about his winsome personality and his unassuming nature.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a big, humble kid like that,” Duncan says. “His family comes through here. They are A1.”

The only fear for a kid like Williamson, according to Duncan, is a future NBA career fraught with potential pitfalls.

“I hope the NBA doesn’t ruin him,” Duncan says.

Then he pauses.

“It won’t.”

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