Building a Zion-rated shoe: A team effort by Duke and Nike

It took a worldwide effort to get Zion Williamson comfortable playing for Duke again.

The ACC player of the year hadn’t played for the No. 5-ranked Blue Devils since Feb. 20, when his left size 15 Nike PG 2.5 model shoe ruptured during a game with North Carolina.

A sprained right knee resulted, creating simultaneous crises in Duke’s lineup and Nike’s boardroom.

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With its stock price falling, the athletic apparel company dispatched one of its corporate jets to RDU International Airport the following day so company executives could meet with Duke officials and Williamson’s family to discover what went wrong and how to best prevent it happening again.

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Ranked No. 1 when Williamson was injured, Duke went 3-3 over its final six games. From Durham to Oregon to China, Nike worked to create a special shoe reinforced enough to handle the force created by Williamson’s 6-foot-7, 285-pound body.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) goes to the basket for a dunk over Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes (33) in the first half on Thursday, March 14, 2019 during quarter finals of the ACC Tournament at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett

Wearing his redesigned Kyrie 4 model Nikes Thursday night, Williamson set Duke and ACC records for accuracy by hitting all 13 of his field goal attempts to score 29 points as Duke beat Syracuse 84-72.

“The shoes,” Williamson said, “were incredible this game.”

Nike routinely designs shoes for players through its contracts with college programs. Williamson isn’t even the only Duke player using a retrofitted shoe. Junior center Marques Bolden does as well.

“In special circumstances, Nike always works with schools to make sure the shoe is right,” Duke team spokesman Mike DeGeorge said.

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After that initial meeting with Nike executives less than 24 hours after Williamson’s shoe famously failed in a game watched by 4.47 million people, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, work began to design a better shoe.

“Those people went to China to actually look at the making of a shoe that would be very supportive and then they came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right,” Krzyzewski said. “So their immediate, great response was appreciated and it was something that we have grown to expect from our relationship with them.”

Neither Nike nor Duke would discuss the specifics of the shoe design. Even Williamson wasn’t sure how it’s different. He just knows it held up fine in his 35 minutes of play against Syracuse.

“I couldn’t really specifically tell you if I wanted to,” Williamson said. “I just know they’re a little stronger than the regular Kyrie 4s, so I want to thank Nike for making these. But, yeah, they felt very comfortable.”

In a statement, Nike spokesman Josh Benedek said, “We’re thrilled to see Zion returning to the court. After working closely with the Duke basketball team to examine the issue, we are confident this was an isolated incident. We continue to work with Duke, and all of our partner programs, to ensure we are providing the best product for their athletes.”

Even with the improved shoe, Williamson will swap out for new ones more frequently now.

“He alternates the shoes quicker, so you’re not wearing them too many games because the wear and tear, I think contributed to that blow out,” Krzyzewski said.

In Boston, Celtics guard and former Duke player Kyrie Irving told reporters Thursday night he was happy to see Williamson back comfortable and playing well.

“I don’t think the shoes really make a difference, but I’m happy that he’s in a Nike brand,” Irving said, according to the Associated Press. “He’s a special player. I’m just happy that he has some shoes that won’t deteriorate over time. He was really comfortable in the PGs. He probably wore them a little too many times or whatever the case may be. ... I’m just happy he’s out there helping them, playing.”

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.