February 2019

The Power Forward and the Exploding Shoe

By Robert M. Conenello, DPM

Nowadays, when we see a headline about an “exploding shoe,” we instinctively think of an alarming situation involving the Transportation Security Administration—the TSA.

Thankfully, that was not the case at a memorable February 20 Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game between Duke and North Carolina.

Early on, Duke’s star power forward, Zion Williamson, was the victim of a wardrobe malfunction, you could say. Pivoting with his back to the basket, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound athlete planted his left foot and found himself in a compromised position. He quickly got unshod as his foot forcefully broke through the lateral aspect of a Nike Paul George-PG 2.5 basketball shoe. At the same time, Williamson’s right knee collapsed medially into a grade-1 sprain.

The star player’s injury isn’t serious, but the incident has raised a great deal of speculation. Was the shoe faulty? Close-up replay of Williamson’s move showed that it failed at the interface of midsole and outsole. Or was it just the wrong shoe for this athlete?

A Theory of the Case

Williamson is a unique athlete. Built like a linebacker but with explosive speed and leaping ability seen in players much lighter and smaller, he runs the court full tilt for 35 minutes a night. Throughout this season, Williamson has worn a variety of Nike shoes, including the Kyrie 4 and 5, the Lebron 16, and the Adapt BB. In high school, his go-to basketball shoe was the Adidas Dame 4.

My theory? He is experimenting with different shoes because he has yet to find one that works best for his distinctive combination of skills.

“There are no simple answers, but an athlete should not pick a shoe by brand, style, or color but by comfort and proper support…”

When a player puts his name on a shoe, it usually is designed for his body type and style of play. Paul George, who plays for the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder, is 6-9 and weighs 220 lbs. He, too, is an explosive big man who shoots well from the outside and can drive hard to the basket. But he’s different than Williamson: He weighs nearly 65 pounds less and does not have Williamson’s dynamic leaping ability.

It’s possible that Williamson’s game does not match his shoe selection. The fact that the Paul George shoe failed at the midsole–outsole interface is intriguing: Perhaps this was just an anomaly—that this unit had a defect—or maybe the model of shoe is incapable of standing up to the force it was asked to bear.

Here’s an interesting question: What might have been the outcome if the shoe had not failed? If it had held up to this amount of stress and torque, would further stress have been applied to Williamson’s anatomy—possibly ending up as a knee or other lower-extremity injury?

What Might Work Better for Williamson (and Athletes Generally)

This is all speculation, but gives us pause to think about what we should, and should not, say to patients when they ask us what shoe to purchase. There are no simple answers, but an athlete should not pick a shoe by brand, style, or color but by comfort and proper support for the activity and terrain played on, and we should definitely not respond with a checklist of our favorite brands. Rather, clinician, patient, and retailer should look at all of the athlete’s metrics—height, weight, age, sport, and position.

With 20/20 hindsight, what type of basketball shoe would I suggest for Williamson? Considering all the variables and noting where the Paul George shoe failed him, I would start by suggesting a sneaker that has:

  • a cushioned heel for support and comfort
  • a single-density midsole that returns energy to hard landings and quick pivots
  • an outsole with a herringbone pattern to provide extra grip as he stops and goes on a dime.

These specs, coupled with a personally designed shoe that features an anatomic-shaped forefoot that allows the foot to function more efficiently, could—possibly—be a blueprint for Williamson’s new signature shoe. Williamson would be best served, I conclude, if he wore a shoe constructed more solidly for his size and if he changed to a new pair more on a professional-level schedule—perhaps every few days.

Are There QC and Technology Solutions?

What happened to Zion Williamson and his exploding shoe offers an opportunity for us to raise interest and educate. Many of my respected colleagues’ initial impression was that the failure of his shoe was a quality-control production and construction problem in that unit. Regrettably, sometimes a unit of shoe is delivered that does not meet specifications and becomes defective; the expense to quality-control every pair 100% is just too great to match the desire for cheap goods, however, so it’s just not done. Perhaps these brands should consider more stringent QC for high-profile athletes….

The technology is available to  provide athletes with shoes and custom footbeds made to match their anatomy. Soon, it will be commonplace for athletes to have their feet 3D-scanned and fitted with a prescription-style shoe that might be better suited to the individual.

Nike will spin the Williamson fiasco and somehow find a silver lining. Athletic wear and equipment companies need superstars to brand and endorse their products to continue to boost sales and capture market share. At the same time, clinicians can remain brand-neutral and guide athletes to their goals.

Robert M. Conenello, DPM, is a sports podiatrist at Orangetown Podiatry, Orangeburg, NY. He is past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and current Clinical Director for New Jersey Special Olympics.

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