What in the world happened to Zion Williamson’s shoe? A sneaker expert weighs in.

Zion Williamson’s footwear breakdown on national TV has focused attention on the technical craft of sneaker design — specifically, what mishaps might have sent the Duke star’s foot ripping through his size 15 Nike?

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Zion Williamson's shoe size.

The freshman player-of-the-year candidate sprained his knee in the first minute of the highly anticipated UNC-Duke contest at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The shoe malfunction caused the game’s most well-known spectator, President Barack Obama, to pronounce, “His shoe broke!”

Williamson’s chosen shoe for Wednesday night’s game was Nike’s Paul George 2.5 model. Duke’s contract with Nike allows the players a variety of footwear options. They even were assigned the next-generation Nike self-lacing shoes to try out earlier this season. Those shoes are valued at around $400 a pair

The PG 2.5 shoes that failed Williamson are far more economical at $90 to $100 per pair. Named for NBA star Paul George, the shoes are described on as “light yet strong, with a supportive strap and comfortable cushion that responds to every fast, focused step.”

The shoe’s failure during a game that ESPN said drew the third-largest national audience for a regular-season college basketball game since the network began tracking them in 2002 has Nike wondering what went wrong. “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

But consider this primer in shoe construction from Jesse Rademacher, who studied industrial design at N.C. State University and, until last week, worked on basketball shoes for Adidas. He watched the first 33 seconds of Wednesday night’s Duke-UNC game as if it were the Zapruder film.

His thoughts?

It’s happened before.

The shoe explosion that felled Williamson looks much like Manu Ginobili’s malfunction in the San Antonio Spurs’ 2014 matchup against the Detroit Pistons. Ditto for the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon in a 2016 dunk contest.

Both wore Nikes, and Rademacher said the swoosh has had a particularly bad run with this type of shoe trouble. But Nike also has more shoes on the court.

What actually happened?

Shoes come with three major parts:

▪ the upper, which consists of the tongue, the toe box and all the soft material that engulfs the foot. One key element of the upper is the strobel, a thin sheet of cloth that connects the upper to ...

the midsole, made up of plastic and foam materials that provide both cushioning and durability.

the outsole, the rubber bottom that provides grip and traction.

To Rademacher’s eye, Williamson’s shoe appeared to come apart where the strobel is stitched to the upper.

Why the malfunction?

Zion Williamson stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 285 pounds, and he’s stronger and faster than the typical sneaker-wearer.

“It just takes one small mishap in like a production cycle to create a flaw,” Rademacher said. “On most people, that flaw might not be exploited. On somebody that is his size, he unfortunately finds the weak spot.”

He is technically an amateur athlete, and Nike may not have as much data on him as they would an NBA player. Thus, his shoes may not be as tailored to his physical demands.

It’s likely that Nike is providing Duke players with one-off, unique pairs of shoes. Those may not be tested at the same level as sneakers bound for the market.

Some brands take a calculated risk. A player may want a more flexible shoe, while a trainer wants something built to prevent injury.

“Maybe Zion Williamson should be wearing a tank for a shoe,” Rademacher said. “But that’s not going to sell, that’s not what the consumer wants. There’s a calculated risk of balancing product quality with athletic needs.”

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.