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The education of Zion Williamson

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Columbia, South Carolina, Bill Pell sits in his living room and reminisces about his final year teaching at Spartanburg Day School, a tiny private school located about 100 miles from the arena where the Duke Blue Devils will play later tonight. Before retiring last spring, the 79-year-old taught a daily creative writing class, a yearlong elective for kids interested in developing their craft. Fewer than 10 students signed up for the course. One of them was 17-year-old Zion Williamson.

“I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but he’s a hell of a poet,” says Pell, smiling coyly as he adjusts his glasses. “The kid can write.”

Pell lives on a quiet country road in Spartanburg, in an airy, sun-filled house built in the 1800s. Before moving here several decades ago, he worked as an editor for the Modern Language Association in New York City. At Spartanburg Day, he wanted to create a space for his students to express their feelings through writing. “All teenagers are very emotional,” he says with a chuckle. “Early on, I said, ‘Do you know what you want to do, Zion?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He wasn’t 100 percent comfortable — he was feeling his way into the class.” While Pell usually let his students spend the period writing, he sometimes shared readings with them at the beginning of the hour so they could learn by example — works by Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas and Billy Collins.nike nfl jerseys cheap china
Pell laughs. “I said, ‘Zion … you’re going to be as good a writer as you are a basketball player if you follow through on this.'”

While the students occasionally shared their writing for critiques, Williamson didn’t love reading his work out loud in front of the class. “He was shy about that,” Pell says, quickly adding: “He wasn’t the only one.” The retired teacher declines to elaborate on the content of Williamson’s poetry, aside from praising its structure and skill. But he saved one piece of writing that he feels comfortable sharing because it was read aloud at a school event. He opens a folder sitting on his lap and pulls out a sheet of paper.4

“I was wondering how best I could communicate to you the kind of person he is,” Pell says. At the end of the school year, some of the senior athletes wrote letters to their teachers. A bit shyly, Pell hands over Williamson’s note, which was addressed to him. The writing, clear and artful, conveys a level of earnestness that echoes Pell’s description of his former student’s poetry. At the beginning, Williamson thanks his teacher for pushing him to grow outside of basketball. “As my high school journey ends, I wish you could go with me,” he wrote. “Instead, I will take the lessons you have taught me and apply them to my next chapter.”

While Williamson and his family emphatically avoided the spotlight during his time at Duke, turning down most interview requests — including one for this story — there are lessons to be gleaned from examining his years at Spartanburg Day, a K-12 school with just 450 students (Williamson’s graduating class had 45 kids). The mere fact that Williamson, one of the most hyped basketball recruits in a generation, attended Spartanburg Day, a school best known for its academics — and stayed there, shunning the advances of so-called basketball factories — makes him an anomaly.

The family was introduced to the school when Williamson’s stepfather, who played hoops at Clemson, met Spartanburg Day’s coach, Lee Sartor, through the AAU circuit. Sartor, now the coach at Erskine College, says Williamson wasn’t unusually big when he first saw him play in sixth grade. “He was definitely better than a lot of the kids from a basketball IQ perspective,” he says. “But physically, he was just like them.” Then, the summer before Williamson entered high school, he grew about 5 inches, sprouting so quickly that his mother, Sharonda, had to ice his knees to soothe his growing pains.

As a freshman, Williamson played point guard, honing the playmaking skills that surprised national audiences this season. He also started to dunk. Sartor remembers sending a video of one of Williamson’s early in-game yams to ESPN, then marveling at the ripple effect.china nike nfl jerseys cheap

Before long, the segments of the internet that seek out the aforementioned yams began to buzz about the kid from South Carolina who played like a sentient sledgehammer. Donnie Bui, a 27-year-old videographer who cut highlight reels for the website BallIsLife.com, moved to Charlotte to cover Williamson. “The first dozen games I went to, there were, like, 50 people in the crowd,” he says. “He would be doing all this amazing stuff, and I’d be like” — he lowers his voice to a whisper — “‘What is going on? Why do people not show up to see this kid?'”

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