In a recent article on GQ, New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson opened up about his love for Naruto, to the point where it ends up being the focal point for the entire feature.
If you think I’m joking, only two paragraphs in we’re seeing stuff like:
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.
That “tumultuous” year is one in which Williamson was injured, couldn’t get better, put on loads of weight, and constantly had his future in New Orleans (and in the league itself) questioned. It’s clear that Zion really loves Naruto, to the point where he turned up to a Comic-Con panel wearing a Hokage robe, and by the fact he gives it so much credit in helping him recover and get ready for the upcoming season.
What really got my attention in the feature, though, is this (emphasis mine):
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.
That statistic is both wild and also completely believable. Most NBA players are in their 20s, meaning they’ve grown up in a culture where anime has long outgrown its (often unfair) weeaboo associations, and where Japanese series like DragonBall Z aren’t just part of the furniture, but especially resonate with young black men, who make up most of the league.
Now, I’m not going to say Zion is the only NBA player who has made public their love of anime. Here’s Steven Adams in 2016:
And even more famously, here’s superstar Joel Embiid in 2018, relaxing during his pre-game routine:
And that’s before we get into the small-but-important lineup of players who have gone on the record to talk about their love for Dragon Ball Z, like Embiid’s teammate Tobias Harris and Cavs forward Lauri Markkanen.
But if Zion’s 80 percent figure is even remotely true—he’s entering his third season in the league, he’s been in enough locker room and training court discussions to at least be able to make a good guess—then there should be loads more of this. There are 450 players in the NBA, which would put the number of anime fans in the hundreds, not the dozens. We could and maybe should be seeing more stuff like pre-game dance routines, post-game interview quotes from Slam Dunk, and players with nicknames from Kill la Kill instead of old DC comics.
Maybe many players feel there’s still some kind of stigma attached to it, that it would make them look nerdy, and by (outdated and incorrect) association, weak. But shit, if Zion and Joel Embiid—two of the biggest, meanest guys in the NBA—can be out here like this, then anyone can.