In college at Duke, Zion Williamson shot a staggering 68.0 percent from the field, including 74.7 percent from two-point range. So when the time came for him to take the first-ever shot on the renovated basketball court at Goretti Playground in New Orleans East, he went to his bread-and-butter, rising for a two-hand dunk as onlookers cheered. A nearby kid then made a request to “Do a 360!” but Williamson wasn’t primarily in attendance Saturday to show off his jaw-dropping hoop skills.
Instead, Williamson joined Gayle Benson, David Griffin, Alvin Gentry and Swin Cash in a ceremony to open the refurbished court, with the NBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick working with local kids in drills and watching them shoot layups and jumpers.
“It reminded me of when I was a kid, playing on outdoor courts,” the 18-year-old said of the court. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
“I grew up on the blacktop,” said Cash, an all-time WNBA great as a player. “I grew up outside of Pittsburgh, in McKeesport housing projects. I remember my first days of falling in love with the game were on blacktops. We need to make sure we’re putting in courts in areas where the kids can take advantage of them. Kids fall in love with the game, and they fall in love with our players. We understand the overarching aspect of it.”
Saturday’s opening was the culmination of the annual HoopLA game played in Baton Rouge each summer by the state legislature. From the winning side, a district somewhere in the state is awarded a court renovation, at no expense to taxpayers. This was the 11th consecutive year for the charity event, which has been co-organized by New Orleans’ NBA franchise since its inception.
“It’s important in any organization to have a balance, to be able to be connected to the community and have a successful product on the court,” Cash said of the significance of Saturday’s event and ceremony. “This is huge to have Zion here, to set the tone for what’s to come for the rest of his career and the rest of the Pelicans’ season.”
Williamson just arrived Friday afternoon in New Orleans, after the draft, barely having time to settle in to his new NBA home. However, he noted that at one point it began to hit him that the Crescent City is where he’ll get to launch his pro career.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I was in my hotel room and looked out the window at the balcony and was like, ‘This is my home. I’m ready to stay here.’ ”