How Naruto Helped Zion Williamson Through the Toughest Year of His Career
There are over 2,000 people piled into Room 6BCF of the San Diego Convention Center at 10:30AM on a Saturday morning and Zion Williamson wants—no, needs—them to know he belongs here, too. These folks got up early on the busiest day of the biggest multimedia entertainment expo of the year to make sure they got an all-but-guaranteed seat for this event: a Comic-Con panel dedicated to Naruto, the long-running manga/anime franchise. And while Williamson is easily the most famous person in the room, he’s aware that most of the fans aren’t even there to see him.
He’s fine with that. He’s there for the same reason they all are, which is that he’s a huge fan. Technically he’s also there to promote a sneaker collaboration, but he tells anyone who’ll listen that coming to Comic-Con was on his bucket list long before he even considered going number one in the NBA draft or inking a multimillion dollar sneaker deal. Today, though, he isn’t here to talk about any of that. Today Williamson, like every other fan in the room, is here to talk about the trials and tribulations of one kid’s efforts to become Hokage, the greatest ninja in the village and its leader. Williamson talks about Naruto with the same reverence with which other NBA players talk about the Bible—it brings comfort and clarity in equal parts. Over the course of this past year—an unusually tumultuous one in his otherwise starry career—Naruto was his north star.
Naruto launched in Japan in 1999, the year before Zion was born, and quickly became a phenomenon: these days there are some 250 million copies in circulation. The animated adaptation launched in 2005, and has remained similarly popular even since. Naruto inspires the sort of fandom that leads people to don elaborate cosplays, and to tattoo themselves with its iconography. Williamson is not the only athlete who’s a fan (UFC champ Israel Adesanya is another notable), but he is, so far, the only NBA player to build an entire sneaker collection around his love for the franchise.
If Williamson is being honest, he’s feeling a little bit nervous. He is all too aware of how it can come across when athletes insert themselves into pop culture, especially in the name of promoting a product. The last thing he wants is to come off like he’s a salesman—or, even worse, a tourist. It helps that, as far as pop culture sneaker collaborations go, this one is pretty thoughtful. Williamson’s collaboration with Naruto is a labor of love, the four colorways designed with an attention to detail that goes beyond gimmicky easter eggs. Throughout the design process, Williamson and the teams at Jordan and VIZ (the company behind Naruto) drew not from the show’s more obvious iconography but rather elements of the story that have resonated with him over the years. (The Sage of the Six Paths colorway, which references the mythic founder of the ninjutsu arts, is a particularly deep pull compared to what we tend to get in collaborations like these.)
NBA players often use sneakers to carry what matters to them onto the court. Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics famously writes his son Deuce’s name on every pair of sneakers he plays in. International players will take the court in Player Editions of their country’s colors. For Zion, finally getting to lace these shoes up this season holds a similar resonance. “From what I’ve been through to get to where I am and what I go through to this day,” he says, “Naruto has always been there and always will be.”
He takes the stage in a custom Hokage robe, the sacred garments of those who have reached that transcendent greatness as shinobi in Naruto. It’s at once a statement of intent (this upcoming season comes with higher stakes than usual for him) and a display of his bonafides for a discerning crowd. During the panel, he pauses before he answers each question—he leans back and smiles and looks up at the ceiling. At first I think his deliberation is the product of the years of hyper-scrutiny he’s from NBA media, but it quickly becomes clear that something else is going on. Williamson isn’t calculating his words for maximum blandness—he’s savoring the moment. If he’s going to answer questions at Comic-Con about his favorite cartoon, he’s going to make sure his answers are good.
His All-NBA starting five of Naruto characters, in case you’re wondering, would be Naruto, Itachi, Jiraiya, Minaro, and the First Hokage (the character he thinks most resembles Michael Jordan). He drops full, multi-line, verbatim quotes from the show, never paraphrasing. When asked to come up with a trivia question for the fans, his question is such a deep pull that several attendees have to sheepishly pass. (Later, backstage, he’ll express pride in having stumped a room full of die-hards.)
When the panel ends he thanks the audience not just for coming but “for listening,” and you can tell that he means it.
Zion estimates that around 80% of players in the league are into anime; they just won’t admit it. Those familiar with the conventions of the form know that it would be hard to craft a genre better suited to professional athletes: Shōnen anime (the term for shows targeted at boys) often revolve around a protagonist striving to achieve greatness in their chosen field, be it high seas piracy (One Piece) or fighting alien warlords using energy blasts so powerful they turn your hair gold (Dragon Ball Z). They’re long-form stories about what it takes to be The Best—not incidentally, the same goal that drives athletes.
Still, why does Zion feel such a strong pull to Naruto, and specifically to the title character? Why not Dragon Ball Z’s Goku (Zion is a big fan, to be clear), or My Hero Academia’s Izuku? Part of it is happenstance: Zion was five when, one night, his regular Cartoon Network programming clicked over into an Adult Swim block led by Naruto. Obsession gripped him and never let go. But it wasn’t until he began to see where his path might lead that the show took on such powerful resonance
Williamson was 16 years old when he first began to realize that he was the NBA’s heir apparent—The Next Guy, the one everyone would have their eyes on. “It really hit me when SLAM put me on the cover,” he says. “I remember realizing, Oh, this isn’t just a high school thing. They’re talking college. They’re talking the NBA.” I ask him if that moment came with a new sense of pressure to live up to expectations. Once again he pauses, staring at the table, his hand pensively placed over his mouth. After a moment, he answers. “The thing is, I’ve never felt the pressure on the court. I love basketball, man. I don’t feel pressure when I’m doing what I love, you know?” It’s worth noting that the only thing that seems to light Zion up as much as Naruto is basketball. In his green room between convention appearances, he and some friends talk hoops with a nerdy fervor pulled straight out of a basketball group chat.
The pressure he did feel had nothing to do with his abilities as a player. “I think I was just worried about my friends and family,” he says. “They felt the effect of that way more than I did. People approach them differently, try to get things from them…I hated that.”
That’s when his Naruto fandom became something more totemic. “For a while nobody took Naruto seriously,” he explains, “And then he went and trained with [master shinobi] Jiraiya for three years, right? And he came back at 16 years old, goated.” The storyline reminds Williamson of the years he spent being coached by his stepfather, Lee Anderson. He considers Anderson taking him under his wing perhaps the single most pivotal moment of his life.
Anderson told Williamson that could be the number one player in the country if he worked hard enough. “He always told me that even if I didn’t realize it yet, there was going to come a time when the world would see me,” Williamson says. “I didn’t get it for a while. I was always asking him why he was so confident in me.” Eventually, though, he’d worked hard enough for it to be undeniable: “Sure enough, I’m 16 years old and suddenly all of the attention starts coming. I remember thinking, Yo, that’s crazy. That’s exactly when it happened for Naruto, and it’s when it’s happening for me.”
One of the most reliable conventions of shōnen storytelling is the training arc. There comes a point in every shōnen hero’s journey where they’re confronted with a foe (or rite of passage) they’re not yet able to surpass. It’s often a practical problem—they need to unlock a new level to their power—but, crucially, there’s always an emotional undercurrent to it. It’s never just that they haven’t mastered a complicated jutsu, or can’t reach their next Super Saiyan level. It’s that those things are a symbol of the real enemy: fear, or with an inflated ego, or a lack of self-belief.
The setback gives way to an extensive training interlude. Our hero works. They scale mountains. Do handstand pushups off of tree branches. Train in a hyperbolic time chamber that compresses an entire year of training into a single 24 hours. Most importantly, they come back changed. New powers are unlocked, sure, but there’s internal metamorphosis as well. Egos are checked. Self-belief is rejuvenated. Courage is newly understood to be not the absence of fear but the will to act in spite of it.
We cannot discuss Williamson without addressing the last year of his career, which has been turbulent to say the least. Before the start of the ‘21-22 NBA season Williamson broke his foot, the most severe setback in a still-young career riddled with injury. Rehabilitation proved rocky, and it eventually became evident that he wouldn’t take the court with his teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans for the duration of the season.
Speculation ran rampant: pundits and fans alike wondered whether he had any desire to play on the team, whether he’d be the first player in NBA history to turn down a max rookie extension, whether he’d prove one of the most significant busts in NBA draft history. Much of the chatter focused uncomfortably on his size.
As he’s so often done during difficult times, Williamson turned to his favorite show for guidance. I ask if there’s a point in Naruto’s story that he feels is synonymous with where he is right now. His answer is immediate. “It’s when Sasuke was going rogue,” he says, referring to Naruto’s close friend and rival. “All of Naruto’s friends and teammates came to him like, ‘Dude, you’re gonna have to make tough decisions if you really want to be Hokage.’”
There’s a slight pause. “And Naruto, he started hyperventilating because that’s a lot of pressure. He’s just a kid, and that’s his friend, you know? He really cared for him. And all anyone was telling him was that he needed to handle it, to take him down. Nobody ever asked him how he felt…” He answers my next question before I can ask it. “It’s been a lot. I can sit here and explain it, but nobody will really be able to feel it the way I did. My foot was broken and I couldn’t magically heal it. It hurt, because I love the game of basketball. But because of it I was experiencing hate and pain from people I don’t know every day, and it started to wear on me.”
After the worst of his rehabilitation—the part that came with a general lack of mobility—Williamson got to work. He brought on a personal trainer, Jasper Bibbs, and MasterChef alum Christian Green to manage his nutrition. The results speak for themselves. Videos of Williamson dunking during Pelicans practice began to circulate over the summer, as did photos of a dramatic change in physique that can only be described—heavy-handed as it may be—as Super Saiyan. True to shōnen form, Jordan Brand even launched his upcoming Zion 2 signature sneaker with a training montage that would make Naruto proud. A couple of days after Comic-Con he makes a surprise appearance at day one of the Zion Skills Academy youth basketball camp in downtown Los Angeles and moves up and down the court with ease. The only time he looks even remotely uncomfortable is when, after being asked his favorite cartoon and mentioning Naruto, a handful of kids who barely reach his knee start booing. He laughs it off.
A cynical fan would point out that all of this means nothing if it doesn’t translate to on-court performance this coming season. For their part, the New Orleans Pelicans were confident enough to re-sign Williamson to a five-year extension over the summer. (Rumors that the contract includes clauses based on his weight turned out to be slightly misreported). Getting in shape won’t be enough—the Pels need him to stay in shape. They need his dunks to come when the clock is running, and preferably over the heads of other All-Star-caliber players.
One person who doesn’t seem concerned about any of that is Williamson. Basketball is what he loves. And he never feels pressure when it comes to doing what he loves. Whatever weight his shoulders bore over the last year seems to have lifted. “I had to come to a realization,” he explains. “No matter what the world is saying, I have to remember that I am who I am and stay true to that. That’s what Naruto did, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Bear star and Girls alum talks to GQ about his new role in the acclaimed Star Wars series…