It was the most highly anticipated college basketball game of the season: Duke was facing archrival North Carolina, with the spectacular talents of Duke's freshman sensation Zion Williamson on display.
Former President Barack Obama was there. Tickets for the game were reselling for more than $3,000 — Super Bowl prices. Duke's exuberant student section, known as the Cameron Crazies, was extra hyped.
And then a mere 33 seconds into the game, on a routine play, Williamson dribbled near the foul line when his left leg buckled, his left blue-and-white Nike sneaker ripped apart at the seams and he tumbled to the floor, grabbing his right knee in pain.
Williamson limped off the court. Hearts sank everywhere. Obama visibly mouthed "his shoe broke." And in mere seconds, Nike was facing a marketing nightmare. The offending shoes were stashed away by a trainer. But the images of the young star being felled by his footwear couldn't be erased.
On social media, messages of concern and sympathy for Williamson were mixed with dishy remarks about the shoes. A Nike rival tweeted, "Wouldn't have happened in the pumas." The tweet was later deleted.
In a statement, Nike said it was "obviously concerned" and wished Williamson 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."
Thankfully Williamson's injury does not appear to be serious. Though the freshman didn't return to the game, Duke's coach Mike Krzyzewski described it as a mild right knee sprain.
But Williamson's shoe implosion is an embarrassment for Nike, which also had a problem in 2017 with NBA jerseys that were tearing. But whether it will have any long-term impact on the world's largest sports apparel brand is another matter. Nike's shares were down about 1.7 percent in late morning trading — not good news, but not a major selloff.
Zion's shoe: destroyed 😳 pic.twitter.com/LqQ2te0Jay— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 21, 2019
Nike's markets are so global and its products are so diversified that it's unlikely the sad fate of one shoe will have a meaningful impact on sales.
But then there's the young man who was wearing those shoes — Zion Williamson. Possessing a unique combination of leaping ability, power, speed and basketball IQ, he is widely expected to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft.
At a mere 18 years old, his skills, athletic ability and court demeanor are already being compared to LeBron James'. Companies will be vying fiercely to sign him to a multimillion-dollar shoe deal. And when he plays his first NBA game, likely later this year, millions of people will be watching; many will be looking at the brand of sneakers he's wearing.
Nike had better hope the memories of what happened 33 seconds into the North Carolina game don't stay top of mind for Williamson.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Last night's game between Duke and North Carolina was set to be one of the biggest match-ups of the college basketball season. President Obama was sitting on the sidelines. Like millions of other fans, he was ready to watch a spectacular Duke freshman named Zion Williamson. And less than a minute into the game, this happened - as described on ESPN.
(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Zion Williamson is down. He blew through his shoe.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Look at his...
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Look at his left shoe. He blew completely threw the shoe.
SHAPIRO: The heel ripped right off his shoe. Zion Williamson was down and out for the rest of the game. NPR's Uri Berliner is a basketball fan and also covers business for us.
Uri, what was your reaction to this?
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Just amazing. This was a game that everyone had been looking forward to. As you said, it was Duke-North Carolina, the biggest rivalry in college sport. Duke was rated No. 1. But then, on top of that, was Zion Williamson. This is the player everyone is obsessed with right now because he's so spectacular. He's going to be a great NBA player. And here he is at a less than a minute in the game. Boom - his shoe just falls apart. He's making a pretty routine play - dribbling, and his shoe just shreds.
SHAPIRO: Now, his coach says the knee injury is not that bad. And he is expected to make a full recovery before the end of this season. But this could have been much worse. Right? And then his entire future in the NBA is in question.
BERLINER: Right. I mean, it could have been a devastating knee injury. And that would have just been crushing for him. Zion Williamson possesses a very unusual combination of power, speed, leaping ability and basketball intelligence. He's breathtaking to watch, especially when he's running full steam down the court dunking the ball. And this has made him very likely to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, Nike is being torn to shreds on Twitter - much like their shoe last night. What does this mean for this company, which could not have paid for worse advertising than this catastrophic collapse one minute into this game everyone was watching?
BERLINER: It would've been bad if anyone had blown out a Nike shoe. But Zion Williamson in the big game of the year - you know, a terrible embarrassment for them. Their stock price was lower today. It fell a bit. Now, I don't know if this is sort of a kind of reputation-breaking event for Nike. This is a huge global brand - very popular, successful. I don't think that people in Bangkok, for example, are going to stop buying Nike shoes because Zion blew out one of his shoes. But what's really going to be tough for them is - you know, when Zion Williamson goes pro, every sneaker company...
BERLINER: ...Is going to say, we want to sign you to wear our shoes.
BERLINER: We want to pay you millions of dollars to wear our shoes. We're going to put you on posters.
SHAPIRO: He'll say, will they fall apart?
BERLINER: Is Zion Williamson going be thinking - well, if I pick Nike, are they going to fall apart? And this is what Nike has to be worried about right now.
SHAPIRO: But you know, we're talking about whether this could have cost millions of dollars for Nike. The guy wearing the shoes, who is bringing all the attention to Nike, is a college athlete who doesn't get paid a dime.
BERLINER: That's right. This game must bring in lots of money for ESPN. Fans were paying thousands of dollars to see it. It was a moneymaker. Zion Williamson, as a college athlete, doesn't get paid even though he's the main attraction. And he takes the risk of injury every time he goes out on the court as an unpaid athlete.
SHAPIRO: What does this mean for Zion Williamson's future?
BERLINER: Well, thankfully, it looks like the injury does not appear to be serious. They said it's a mild right knee sprain. The question, though, now becomes - will Zion Williamson play the rest of the season at Duke - in college, even if he's pretty healthy because there's so much to protect, his health and his financial future in the NBA. There's already the debate - should he sit out if he's healthy?
SHAPIRO: NPR senior business editor Uri Berliner. Thanks, Uri.
BERLINER: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TESH'S "ROUNDBALL ROCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.