The Sports Illustrated basketball preview issue is available in stores now, and it has two different cover stories depending on region. AA spoke to the authors of both those stories this week, Chris Mannix (who wrote on the Boston Celtics after their Finals loss, and amidst their coaching change) and Howard Beck (who wrote on New Orleans Pelicans‘ star Zion Williamson‘s return after not playing since May 5, 2021 due to injury).
Our interview with Mannix on his “We’re Still Here’: These Celtics Remain on a Mission to Win It All” piece will run early next week. Before then, here’s what Beck had to say about his cover story on Williamson (“Zion Williamson 2.0: Inside the ‘Dark Days’ That Sparked the NBA Star’s Stunning Transformation“), starting with how he and his editors came to that as a subject. Beck said Williamson came to mind during the 2022 playoffs, which is when the seeds of this issue began coming together.
“On the magazine schedule, and we’re only on that schedule for around one issue per month these days, you have to actually start thinking about what makes sense for the season preview issue while you’re covering the playoffs. Even during the Finals, coming out of the Finals, my editor and I are bouncing around ideas, the editors between themselves are bouncing around ideas.”
“I can’t remember exactly when we settled on Zion as a major figure, but somewhere in there, I think I had raised the idea of ‘Listen, here’s a guy who was a phenomenon coming into the league, not just a #1 overall pick. Maybe not quite as big as Victor Wembanyama hype levels, but Zion was one of very, very few players who long before the draft, people were salivating about his potential, people were speaking in hyperbolic extremes about his potential, about what he could do in the NBA.”
“He’d been on everyone’s radar, certainly scouts’ radar, since he was 15 years old. He was an Instagram phenomenon. He was one of the handful of guys who you might attach ‘Best since LeBron’ kind of phrasing to. Everything we know since then is injury-riddled; questions about his commitment, questions about his fitness, questions about his longevity, frankly. And I just felt looking towards the new season, ‘Who’s interesting? Who’s fascinating coming back? What storylines are going to have the most compelling texture to them?'”
Beck said that combined to make Williamson a compelling cover story, as long as he agreed.
“Zion just kind of leapt out to me because of all of that. We hadn’t seen him in over a year, and I feel like because of the way the NBA moves, it moves fast; since he’s been gone there have been two teams crowned, Nikola Jokic has won back-to-back MVPs, rookie classes have come in, two of them. By the time you see him again, it’s not to say that the world had moved on, but NBA fans, to an extent, had moved on. ‘Oh, Zion, that guy? I remember I was excited about him once.’ But the guy’s still just 22 years old, and in the brief time we’ve seen him, barely a full season’s worth of games over three years, he’s been historically dominant, historically efficient as a scorer.”
“You never know if someone’s going to want to do the story, and that’s part of this. My thought was ‘This is as fascinating a figure coming back to the 2022-23 season as anyone. Talk about this journey he’s been on, this really tough year and a half, I think he’d be great.’ That was the basic outline of the pitch, and once we got agreement from him and his camp, it was a go.”
As for getting that agreement, Beck said one hurdle was that much of Williamson’s career so far (he played his first NBA game on Jan. 23, 2020) came during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning he was one NBA player Beck hadn’t met in person before this story.
“To be upfront about this, I had not spoken to Zion before. If you think about it, his NBA career to date has overlapped with the pandemic. I don’t think I’ve actually even seen him play in a NBA arena yet because of the pandemic: for a while, we couldn’t go to games, we weren’t travelling to games, he wasn’t playing. So I had no particular connection there. But one of our editors had a connection, we reached out through channels.”
“And we just started with a conference call with two of my editors, Matt Wong and Jarrel Harris, we got on the phone, and I think by the time we spoke it was maybe early August, and we spoke with his stepfather and coach Lee Anderson, who I quote in the story, and his mom Sharonda [Sampson], and we just talked about it. I gave them the outline of what I thought was interesting and what I wanted to do if Zion is interested and if you guys are willing to do this.”
Beck said one illustration of how off-the-radar Williamson’s rehab has been is that he didn’t even know where Williamson was training at the start of this process.
“At that time, I didn’t even know where he was working out. I didn’t know he was working out in Florida. So my initial pitch was ‘Hey, I’ll come to New Orleans.’ I was going to go get some gumbo, some étouffée. But they said ‘No, he’s actually working out in Fort Lauderdale.’ So we made our pitch, they got back to us a short time later and said ‘Come on down.'”
Here’s a trailer for this SI put out, where the images at center and right above are taken from:
A video Sports Illustrated released around their Zion Williamson cover: pic.twitter.com/KZmf6ZHuFm
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 21, 2022
An interesting part of Beck’s piece is how it discusses the mental hurdles Williamson has faced, and the support he’s received there from Pelicans’ assistants Teresa Weatherspoon and Corey Brewer. Beck said he wasn’t necessarily expecting that to be a focus of the story, and it wound up as one because of Williamson’s willingness to discuss it.
“I didn’t actually know going in where it would go. We had some hint, I think Lee mentioned in a different conversation with one of my editors something to the effect of Zion having been in a dark place, so I knew kind of going in that was something I needed to ask about. But when we sat down over a late breakfast in early September, I started off very open-ended, ‘What’s the last year and a half been like? No one has really seen you or heard from you publicly.'”
“And by that time, I had already seen him in the gym that morning, and he’s in incredible shape, I was just blown away when I saw him. So he clearly had been working very hard on the physical side of things, getting his body right, getting healthy first and foremost, being able to play again, and then doing everything else possible to put himself in the best shape possible. But along the way there, he kind of brought up the mental and emotional side himself.”
Beck said that sprung from a question about how Williamson would be different his year.
“I asked broadly ‘What are people going to see on Oct. 19 that will be different than the Zion they last saw on May 5, 2021,’ and before saying anything about basketball stuff, he just talked about being a more mature version of himself and the journey over the last year and a half. And then I just kind of asked about how his stepdad had alluded to him being in a dark place at some point, and ‘Can you elaborate on that a little bit?’, and to his credit, I think he was very open about that.”
Beck said it was also interesting how much Williamson wanted to give credit to the people who helped him along the way.
“He was very open about how much he needed to lean on people like Teresa Weatherspoon and Corey Brewer, two people he counts as very close confidants and friends and mentors on the Pelicans’ coaching staff. There’s one point, towards the end, where he, unsolicited, just starts listing all the people he needed to thank. I was so struck by that, his gratitude was so earnest and heartfelt, and it struck me more because it was unsolicited; I didn’t ask ‘Who else helped you along the way?’, he just kind of went there on his own.”
“I thought that was very endearing and interesting to hear. Because, to an extent, he’s been on an island for the last year and a half. No one’s entirely on an island in these situations, but at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to overcome the injury, you’re the one who has to do the work, you’re the one who has to deal with all of the pain and the rehab exercises. And I think it is very isolating and very tough for these guys, and I don’t think that’s something fans have enough of an understanding of or an appreciation of sometimes.”
The Pelicans don’t often get the same levels of media attention as bigger-market franchises, but Beck said he encountered zero internal resistance at SI on the idea of a Williamson cover.
“There was no pushback at all from my editor, or as far as I know from his editors, about doing a cover story on a player in a small market. It definitely never came up in conversation with me. I never thought of it through that prism.”
“I think realistically in the era that we’re in, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, our media sites do think about where to focus resources based on market size and the team you’re writing about; I think that probably happens, but it’s above my pay grade. But nobody’s ever told me not to do a story; in my two years at Sports Illustrated, no one’s ever said ‘Nah, don’t pursue this one, that market doesn’t click,’ or ‘That team doesn’t click.’ I’ve never had anyone tell me that at Sports Illustrated.”
And Beck said Williamson is a remarkable enough player that he’d be notable on any team.
“I think besides that, Zion at his best, in the brief time we’ve seen that in the NBA, is absolutely a top-20 player. With potential to be Top 10, potential to be a MVP. So if there was any concern about ‘Well, it’s the Pelicans,’ and like I said, I don’t know that there was, I think it’s more than offset by the fact that Zion Williamson is a towering figure amongst NBA superstars. He’s a one-name superstar. Everyone knows exactly who he is. And I think the interest in him is immense regardless of what market he’s playing in.”
The full SI Basketball Preview issue is in stores now. The cover stories from Beck (“Zion Williamson 2.0: Inside the ‘Dark Days’ That Sparked the NBA Star’s Stunning Transformation“) and Mannix (“We’re Still Here’: These Celtics Remain on a Mission to Win It All“) can be found on SI.com as well.