Duke basketball phenomenon Zion Williamson returned to the court on Thursday with all eyes on his injured right knee—and on his new sneakers.
It was the 18-year-old’s first game since his Nike shoe fell apart in the opening minute of a regular-season game against rival North Carolina, a wardrobe malfunction so high-profile that Nike’s stock actually dipped the following day.
The world’s largest athletic brand, which pays Duke millions each year to outfit stars like Williamson, spared little expense in righting the error, according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. To figure out what went wrong, Nike sent a team the following day to Durham, North Carolina. Then it flew that same team to China to help make a more fortified shoe.
“They came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right,” Krzyzewski said after Duke beat Syracuse 84-72 in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson—who is 35 pounds heavier than superstar LeBron James—is widely expected to be the top pick in this year’s National Basketball Association draft. His return on Thursday only contributed to the growing hype: He scored all 13 of his field-goal attempts and led all players in points and rebounds.
As for the reinforced shoes, the Kyrie 4 model, Williamson was effusive after the game. “The shoes were incredible,” he told reporters. “I want to thank Nike for making these.”
That’s music to Nike’s ears. The biggest question following Williamson’s injury was whether it would hurt Nike’s chances to sign him to an endorsement deal once he decides to go pro. If Thursday’s results were any indication, their relationship may be healthier than some rival shoes companies would like.