The New Orleans Pelicans star is the first Generation Z signature basketball athlete in the history
Zion Williamson’s journey with Jordan Brand to the Zion 1
On the eve of the biggest announcement of his life, a 17-year-old Zion Williamson found inspiration in a timeless sneaker commercial.
It was late January 2018, when Williamson, then a five-star recruit at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, was about 24 hours from choosing where to play college basketball during a nationally televised ceremony on a Saturday in prime time. Yet, Williamson faced a more immediate decision before Spartanburg Day’s Friday game.
Which sneakers would he wear the night before making his college commitment?
The No. 2-ranked high school player in the nation found the answer in a 33-second Nike spot released in 1985, a decade and a half before he was born in 2000, featuring a young Michael Jordan in a black and red pair of his debut signature sneaker, the Air Jordan 1.
“In high school, and even now, I like to go back and watch those old-school Jordan commercials,” Williamson, now 20 and an All-Star for the New Orleans Pelicans, told The Undefeated. “I remember there was a lot going on with my college decision. I came across the Banned commercial, saying [the NBA] banned that colorway. So I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna have some fun with it tonight.’ So I laced ’em up and went out there and hooped.”
Williamson broke out his retro pair of “Banned” Air Jordan 1s that his mother, Sharonda, bought him. “Those might’ve been the only Jordans I had,” remembered Willamson, whose high school and AAU teams were both sponsored by Adidas. That night, he took the court for warm-ups as the only player for Spartanburg Day not wearing Adidas basketball shoes. Lou Bezjak, a reporter with The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, took notice of the switch-up and snapped a photo that he posted to Twitter.
“He wasn’t in any trouble,” recalled Lee Sartor, Williamson’s head coach at Spartanburg Day. “I certainly wasn’t going to police what he wore. It was his night. When you’re playing basketball, what’s on your feet means a lot. So if he wanted to play in some Jordans, I let him, especially if he was gonna continue to play at the highest level. Which he did.”
With 1s on his feet, Williamson dropped 36 points, including a half-dozen poster dunks, in a 90-59 Spartanburg Day win. The following night, he committed to Duke University, where he played a one-and-done season before emerging as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft — and the most sought-after rookie by global sneaker companies since LeBron James in 2003.
Similar to James, Williamson decided to roll with Nike — but instead with Jordan, a sub-brand of the company that he joined in July 2019 with a multiyear footwear and apparel deal.
“The opportunity to have the Jordan Brand give me a signature shoe was something I felt like I couldn’t pass up on.”– Zion Williamson
Now, three years after playing a high school game in the Air Jordan 1, Williamson has his own signature sneaker, named the Zion 1, that the Jordan Brand officially announced Tuesday ahead of the Pelicans star debuting the shoe on court in New Orleans against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Zion 1 is highlighted by a functionally innovative “Z” design on the lateral side of each sneaker, crafted to harness power in the heel and enable speed in the forefoot. The stylization of the letter is strategically reminiscent of the “Z” etched into the fade of the 6-foot-7, 285-pound point forward’s haircut. It’s a pattern that illustrates Williamson’s journey as the first Generation Z signature basketball athlete in the history of both Jordan and Nike.
“This moment means a lot,” Williamson told The Undefeated. “It’s one of those things where, you know, as a kid, you sit back and you see all these signature athletes and you’re like, ‘One day, I’m gonna have my own shoe.’
“As you get older, you realize it’s tough to actually get your own shoe. So, for the Jordan Brand to give me this opportunity — truly, I can’t thank them enough. This is surreal. I’m only 20 and I’m about to unveil my first shoe. I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I’m hype, man. I’m just hype for it.”
It was a thought, Williamson proclaimed, that always had a place in the back of his mind.
“It goes back to when I was younger,” he said. “I told my parents I wanted to have basketball as a job, as a profession. And, from day one, they kept it real with me about how the game works, on and off the court. … My stepfather, he was like, ‘Son, you can have your own shoe if you work hard enough.’ ”
Williamson recalls responding to his stepdad, Lee Anderson, matter-of-factly: “I want my own sneaker,” he told him.
After the Pelicans made him the top selection in the 2019 draft, the question wasn’t if a footwear company would give Williamson his own sneaker — it was which one would. According to reports surrounding Williamson’s sneaker sweepstakes, Puma, Adidas and Chinese brands Li-Ning and Anta all devised extensive plans to sign basketball’s next generational talent. But a mid-June 2019 visit to Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, with his mother, stepdad and little brother, Noah, where the entire family received a unified pitch from the Swoosh and Jumpman, made quite the impression on Williamson.
“A lot went into that process,” Williamson said. “It was almost like picking a college all over again. When I was on campus, it just felt right. It felt like this was home. This is where I needed to be. The opportunity to have the Jordan Brand give me a signature shoe was something I felt like I couldn’t pass up on.”
Most notably, Williamson had moved past his most infamous sneaker moment — when he ripped through the right shoe of his pair of Nike PG 2.5s only 33 seconds into a nationally televised rivalry matchup between Duke and UNC on Feb. 21, 2019. He sustained a right knee sprain that cost him 3½ weeks off the court.
On ESPN+’s SneakerCenter in 2019, Williamson said the moment wasn’t on his mind while considering which brand he’d join. “It was one of those situations where I wore the shoe a lot and it was just worn down,” he said. “I needed another pair. So that was on me.”
On July 23, 2019, Williamson officially announced his decision to join the Jordan Brand.
Now Williamson becomes the seventh player after Jordan himself in 1985 to unveil a signature Jordan, joining Carmelo Anthony as the two youngest players in brand history to receive their first shoe, each at the age of 20.
“Him going to Duke, a Nike school, then signing with the Jordan Brand, you felt like it was only a matter of time before he got his own shoe one day,” said Bezjak, who covered Williamson in high school from 2016 to 2018. “Now that the day is happening, it’s crazy to think about.”
In Harlem, New York, back in early September 2019, the same day Williamson made his first public appearance as the new face of the Jordan Brand and headliner of the Air Jordan 34, an initial meeting took place that began the process for his first signature shoe.
“It was me, my family and a bunch of Jordan Brand people,” Williamson recalled. “We were sitting in this hotel suite, and I remember, it was like 21 questions. They asked so many questions. And I’m thinking, ‘I wonder why they asked that.’ We sat there for, like, an hour and 15 minutes. They were recording and said, ‘Just talk away.’ I don’t think we were even talking about the Zion 1 yet. They were just getting to know me. But everything I said in that meeting, somehow, they found a way to incorporate it into my shoe.”
The most random question posed to Williamson in the session: Who’s your favorite superhero?
“I’m like, ‘ … What?’ ” said Williamson, who obliged with an answer. “Batman. Because, at any moment, he can stop being Batman and go be billionaire Bruce Wayne. That’s a nice life right there.”
That day, the Jordan Brand’s product team began mining insights on Williamson’s performance needs through his experience playing in the Air Jordan 34. Though injury and the coronavirus pandemic shortened his debut NBA season, Williamson laced up 34s in all 24 games he played, becoming the first rookie since Jordan to record 16 outings of 20 or more points in the first 20 games of his career.
“The 34 was really Zion’s entry to the brand and about understanding how he moved, how he performed, while knowing that he needed reinforcement,” said Jarrett Mann, a footwear product director for the Jordan Brand. “Typically, a guy his size, you’re thinking a big man’s shoe. But Zion said from the beginning, ‘I’m gonna ball handle. I’m gonna slash, I’m gonna get to the rim.’ Those are the things he put out there that we were waiting to see.”
Williamson, meanwhile, had a clear vision of how he wanted his first shoe to support his skill set that’s dictated by his distinct body.
“What I needed the most was to find the perfect balance between power and speed,” he said. “Because I create a lot of force, but I also make a lot of quick, twitchy movements. So, I think that was what started the process — the foundation of the shoe.”
A tangible starting point of the design behind the Zion 1 actually resulted from one of Williamson’s infatuations when it comes to his sneakers, which revealed itself organically in early conversations surrounding his first shoe.
“He mentioned that what he really loved about shoes was the tongue,” Mann said. “Most athletes don’t start with, ‘Hey, I pick my shoe based on the tongue.’ I think that was an extremely unique insight. But, ultimately, a very cool one that’s true to him.”
Channeling the theme of a superhero’s armor, the Jordan Brand design team cooked up a molded, yet flexible, tongue for the Zion 1, inspired by the question that caught Williamson most off guard during that first meeting in Harlem.
By the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus led to a quarantine and an indefinite suspension of the NBA season, the design process flipped its normal script to sessions over Zoom. Williamson admittedly had some growing pains while attempting to grasp the still-new, and now-virtual experience of providing input and feedback to build his sneaker. But he never lost sight of the moment that awaited him.
“We’re in these meetings and they’re telling me all this stuff … all these crazy details, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s dope …,’ but I’m sitting there in shock like, ‘I’m about to have my own shoe.’ During all those meetings, that was on my mind. I was just thinking about having my first shoe.”
Kelsey Amy, a senior color designer for the Jordan Brand, recalled a particular instance from the process, when she and her colleagues circumvented a creative roadblock after Williamson took on a self-assigned project to share more about himself to the product team.
“One of the moments, where we really saw Zion come to life, he actually worked with his mom to put a mood board together with cutout images of Jordans he loves and quotes that inspire him,” Amy said. “That moment is where we saw a little bit of a shift. And we took so many directives and nuggets from that mood board … stuff we were able to bring to life on his footwear. He was really having some fun with it and we really got a lot out of it as well.”
After months of meetings, mostly via Zoom, several iterations of silhouettes and presentations of thousands of logos and colorways, the Jordan Brand presented Williamson with the Zion 1, completed with a full-length Air Strobel cushioning system that gives the shoe a solid, stabilizing base..
“We take every signature seriously. But we did especially with Zion’s first shoe,” said Mihwa Hong, a senior footwear developer for the Jordan Brand, who serves as a liaison between designers in the U.S. and manufacturers in Asia. “It went through a lot of scrutiny, with the design leadership team and also with Zion. Going through several designs — and even with COVID — we tested this shoe here in America and even in Taiwan, where the shoe was developed, and then produced in Vietnam.
“Seeing all the design renderings, I liked this one the best,” Hong continued. “Because it’s very simple, but it’s very bold and very sturdy. … It’s just so him.… The Zion 1 on Zion is as if the shoe is an extension of himself.”
In the past few years, a lot has changed for Williamson. Once a Duke-bound McDonald’s All-American breaking out the Air Jordan 1 on a whim, he’s now a No. 1 pick and All-Star, averaging 26.8 points a game, soon to be in his own Zion 1.
Over Zoom from New Orleans, exactly a week before the official announcement of the Zion 1, Williamson refrained a question about his first signature sneaker, as he attempted to find the most fitting words to describe what he and the Jordan Brand had created in the past 18 months.
“What story does it tell? Honestly, I don’t know if it’s much of a story. For me, it’s more about the look,” said Williamson, with a smile. “I remember, I told them, ‘If somebody walks into a store, I want them to know it’s my shoe.’ So, for me, it’s about the ‘Z.’ That’s my look. That’s my story. That’s me.”