Wednesday, March 22 2023

Zion Williamson is still bothered by the words he heard about himself.

Fat. Lazy. Failure.  

He went from being the darling of the NBA to its punchline after gaining weight while he was rehabilitating a broken right foot that sidelined him all of last season. 

It was devastating for Williamson, who was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by New Orleans in the 2019 draft and was projected to become an MVP-caliber player, but instead was reduced to being a magnet for cruel weight jokes.  

“What people don’t understand is, even the writers and stuff, if they have children of their own, imagine if somebody talked about their child how they spoke about me,” Williamson told FOX Sports last week. “Critiquing my body, critiquing how I look. Every time they talked about me, it was about weight, how bad I looked. I don’t even think they realized what kind of impact that can have on you.” 

So much has changed for Williamson since. 

He silenced questions about whether he could lose weight by showing up to training camp with a significantly slimmed-down frame. And he immediately quieted those doubting whether he could be great again with a 25-point, nine-rebound performance in his regular-season debut against the Brooklyn Nets last month.

After a recent game against the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James gushed about Williamson. 

“You’ve never seen a talent of his size, his speed, his athleticism,” James said. “Just like a Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Just like a [Charles] Barkley. Like a Shaq [O’Neal]. There’s just certain talents that come into our league that you’ve never seen before.”

For Williamson, his journey back to being a superstar was circuitous and painful.  

Last season, Williamson fell into a dark hole after suffering the injury over the summer and then experiencing a demoralizing setback with his foot. Initially, the injury was expected to sideline him about five weeks before he could start ramping up. But in December, imaging showed a regression in the bone healing. 

He felt as though a rug had been pulled from under him. Williamson tried to hide his deep disappointment. But Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon could see his pain through the paper-thin veneer with which he tried to mask it. 

“He carried a smile that, for me, I knew it wasn’t a smile,” she said. “He carried it to throw people off of what he really was feeling.”

Unable to play basketball or do conditioning drills, Williamson’s weight shot up. He quickly became internet fodder. Photos of him appearing heavy went viral. Reddit forums were dedicated to people guessing how much he weighed and mocking him. 

“That’s nasty because with a lower-body injury, that dictates how you walk, that dictates how you run, how you do everyday activities and how you move,” Williamson said. “For the world to critique me like that and all I was trying to do was make sure my foot was straight? It was a lot. I’m not going to lie to you — It was a lot.” 

Williamson immersed himself in listening to music, specifically Notorious BIG’s album “Ready To Die,” which he said “changed my life” because it helped him feel thankful just to be alive. And he leaned on the support of his inner circle.  

Weatherspoon became a confidante and a shoulder to cry on. Pelicans coach Willie Green, who suffered a torn ACL in his third season in the league and said his weight shot up from 205 to 230 pounds during that time, deeply understood what Williamson was going through and knew how to relate.  

“He never berated me with questions,” Williamson said of Green. “He would always let me know, ‘Z, if you need somebody to talk to, let’s go grab lunch or dinner.'” 

Williamson’s mother and stepfather were well-meaning, but they’d sometimes read articles that concerned them and then call their son and pepper him with questions about his progress, which only further stressed him out.   

“I was like, ‘Y’all relax, hearing it from y’all doesn’t help me and it makes it worse for me as a matter of fact,’” Williamson said. “So, when I broke it down like that, they understood. Once my foot heals, I’ll get back on track.” 

Williamson kept his word.  

He was cleared to progress to basketball activities in March and rejoined the team in New Orleans to cheer them on following a two-month rehab stint at Nike’s campus in Beaverton, Oregon. In July, he agreed to a contract extension with the Pelicans worth at least $193 million depending on incentives, though it reportedly includes weight and body-fat targets.  

During the offseason, Williamson did two-a-day workouts in South Florida with Jasper Bibbs, a sports medicine/performance specialist. Williamson would wake up at 4:30 a.m. for his first workout before training again at night, alternating between the track, football field and basketball court.  

“It gave my mind mental discipline, sharp discipline,” Williamson said. 

Williamson also hired a personal chef, Jhonas Lewis, to make his breakfast, lunch, dinner and every snack seven days a week from July through September. Lewis, a former walk-on football player at the University of South Florida, lost 120 pounds just by altering his diet after weighing as much as 347 pounds after his athletic career ended.  

Lewis initially put Williamson through a detox followed by a carb cycling program, in which he’d eat mostly proteins and vegetables and only add healthy carbohydrates on certain days of the week. The goal was for Williamson to lose weight without losing muscle mass while he was burning what Lewis estimated to be more than 2,000 calories a day through exercise. 

The regimen was wildly successful.  

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to say the number, but I will say this: [He lost] well over 35 pounds, for sure,” Lewis said. “We were dropping almost 7-9 pounds a week. By the third week, he started seeing the results. You couldn’t pay Zion to put his shirt on.” 

One time, Lewis made Williamson a turkey bolognese, but he substituted pasta for kneaded zucchini, cucumbers, spinach and arugula. After serving the dish, Lewis explained the ingredients to Williamson, as personal chefs typically do for their clients.  

But Williamson cringed in disgust. From then on, a new understanding was born.  

“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s not go there,'” Lewis said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Don’t even tell me, chef. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It tastes amazing.’ So, moving forward, I just stopped telling him what was exactly in [the food].” 

(The turkey bolognese became one of Williamson’s favorite dishes, so much so that Lewis eventually had to cut him off.)  

Lewis went on to add spirulina to Williamson’s smoothies. He’d make him mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes, adding truffles and garlic to enhance the flavor. For dinner, he’d always serve either a white fish or a salmon alongside multiple other proteins. (Some of Williamson’s favorites were baked honey hot lemon-pepper wings and tiger prawns with garlic and butter.)  

Initially, Lewis would prepare Williamson’s plate to make sure it was portion-controlled. But for this to work, Williamson made it clear that he needed to feel as though he weren’t on a diet. He asked to eat family-style so he wouldn’t feel overly restricted. Williamson wanted to learn how to make the right choices himself. 

Eventually, Williamson’s taste buds changed. He started enjoying healthy food and craving less sugar.  

Before meeting Lewis, Williamson had some bad habits he needed to shake.  

“Any time he went and got food, he had to get two large Dr. Peppers with it or four large Cokes and that’s before he’s even touching his meal,” Lewis said. “You know what soda does to you? I think it was week five, he stopped even having a taste for soda because it was literally fruit and water every single day.” 

Williamson has kept the weight off and he’s currently in the best shape of his life.  

He’s powerful while also being agile. He can slice through defenses with the force of a freight train, but also pivot on a moment’s notice to find the open man or execute a finesse shot. He’s an uncommon mix of strength and speed, a bulldozer who can pirouette.  

So far this season, Williamson is averaging 22.7 points on 52.4 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 31.9 minutes a game for the Pelicans, who are in seventh place in the Western Conference with a record of 5-4. Following a 17-month absence, he looks sharper than ever.  

“He knows he can be even better,” Green said. “That’s the scary part.”  

Williamson indeed believes that the world has only seen a fraction of what he can do. Now his biggest challenge isn’t proving others wrong. It’s proving himself right. 

“There’s a lot of abilities that I have that I haven’t showcased,” Williamson said. “There’s abilities that I’ll show when I’m practicing or playing one-on-one, [but] in a game, I’ll be so in my head where I want to be this perfectionist or I’ll want to feel that I can make every shot I take that I won’t shoot my middy [midrange jumper] or I won’t shoot my 3. I’m capable of doing all of that and more. It’s just I gotta get out of this perfectionist mindset.” 

Weatherspoon sees what he’s capable of all the time. She says Williamson can go any direction and shoot from anywhere on the court. “Everyone just sees that he goes to the rim,” she said, flashing a smile. 

James also thinks that the sky’s the limit for Williamson.

“It’s so funny when you hear people say, ‘Just stop him from going left. Stop him from going left,'” James said. “It’s just the same thing I heard for so many years with [Manu] Ginobili, just stop him from going left. Lamar Odom, stop him from going left. When you’re great, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re gonna figure out a way. So, Zion is on the verge of being great. He’s gonna be great in this league for a long time.”

Williamson has come so far.  

He went from being the laughingstock of internet trolls to having the face of the league sing his praises. He went from being at the nadir of his life to brimming with hope for his future. He went from worrying whether he’d ever play basketball again to setting his hopes on being one of the best to ever play the game. 

But more than anything, he got his joy back. Now when he smiles, Weatherspoon believes it. 

“It’s a real smile,” she said.  

For Williamson, last year was incredibly tough. But it also taught him a very important lesson.  

Nothing can be taken for granted.  

“If it’s in God’s plan for me not to play basketball, then it’s in his plan,” Williamson said. “But if it is in his plan for me to play basketball, then I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities.”

Read more on the NBA:

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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