WASHINGTON D.C. — Walking into Capital One Arena to cover the Sweet 16, I was nervous to step up to the media seating chart. Seeing Zion Williamson play in person for the first time, I wanted good seats… but not great ones. Secretly, everyone on media row is horrified of becoming the internet’s newest meme. And I’m no different.
The paranoid being I am, I had one tragic nightmare idea blasting through my brain. I couldn’t help but visualize every detail of what could happen. I’d sit courtside, holding my face in awe of the presence of one of basketball’s greatest talents, and freeze as he lunged towards me to save a loose ball. He’d succeed, but the bones in my body would not. Zion Williamson would accidentally end my life.
But what are the chances I’d get seated courtside first of all, and also be present at the very second Williamson would make a play for a loose ball that happened to be mere feet from my face?
Apparently very high. Thank you very much, Karma.
Brendan Quinn, a college basketball writer from The Athletic, was seated next to me. Before tip-off we discussed what we’d do if Zion came crashing down before us in a kinda joking, kinda ‘Hey, so this might happen, what’s our plan?’ kind of way. That’s what strangers have to think about in the presence of the 285-pound body of an air-bending sorcerer.
We’d decided in the moment we’d absolutely book it to get out of harm’s way.
the game is about to start and zion is mere inches from me
i would just like to say if he accidentally comes crashing into me and i, of course, die, i love you all
— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) March 30, 2019
With five seconds remaining in the Duke-Virginia Tech Sweet 16 game, it happened. Kerry Blackshear Jr. of the Hokies and Williamson were hunting down a ball that could’ve decided the season for their teams. And they were coming our way.
With our eyes locked dead on the 18-year-old, Quinn and I absolutely abandoned protocol. As he stood up to defend himself, I stayed seated, waiting for The Reaper to take me.
I was so stunned by the moment that I just waited for it to happen. If I’m remembering correctly, I was laughing as his boulder of a set of legs came marching down the baseline. I’d seen what he did to the Nike shoe just two months before, and my frail skeleton-like frame stood no chance. Running could only get me so far. I prepared for meme-age, and accepted that fate until Williamson turned on the breaks just short.
(You can see Quinn rise to his feet in a tan suit in the bottom right of this video, with 5’9 me staying seated and out of view.)
“For some reason my instinct was to stand up,” Quinn said. “I hunched over and kind of planted my feet and dipped my shoulder, as if I could in any way brace for impact. Which is of course f-cking crazy. I’m 180 pounds. I’m 36 and have a bad back. I think I only uttered something like, ‘Dooohhh shit.’
There’s a paralyzing fear of helplessness as Zion bullets straight in your direction, and we weren’t the only ones to feel it. In the first half, I watched as Williamson came leaping down directly in front of a Virginia Tech cheerleader. Her teammates tried to throw their limbs out to protect the poor soul, but she could only sit and watch as her life flashed before her. Thankfully, Zion was able to avoid making any contact with her, but the aftershock left her half-tearing, half-laughing for another 10 minutes after-the-fact.
Everyone who came in to watch Zion Williamson play basketball lived to talk about it. And by live, I mean they survived their real lives and their online ones, which was far from a guarantee upon arrival.
“My immediate thought afterward was pure thankfulness that I’m not the guy who got smoked by Zion, put in a body bag, and turned into a meme for the rest of my life,” Quinn said.
Ain’t that the truth.
This post will be updated by Matt Ellentuck or one of his co-workers depending on what happens in Duke’s Elite Eight game against the Michigan State Spartans, for which he will be present.