We’ve seen all the viral highlights from his overseas days, his Summer League games, his preseason performances. We’ve read about him, watched his interviews, consumed countless social media posts about him. Now, finally, it’s time to watch rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama play NBA basketball.
To celebrate the moment, we got San Antonio Spurs superfan Shea Serrano to explain what this moment means: to him, to the Spurs fanbase, to the world. It’s time.
This cover story will eventually be about Victor Wembanyana, a 7-foot-4 exaggeration of a human and the most exciting and enticing new basketball prospect in two decades. First, though, it’s going to be about Ralph.
Ralph is a security guard at the building where I office out of. He and I talk, were I to guess, for an average of about 45 seconds each day, almost always in the mornings when I first arrive at work and only ever about sports.
The way our interactions typically go is: I arrive to the building around 8 a.m. I type an entry code into a keypad at the front door. I wait half a second to hear a tiny clicking sound that lets me know that the door, large and metal and otherwise impenetrable, is momentarily unlocked. I pull the door open. I walk into the building. I look to my right. And that’s where I see Ralph, who is stationed at a desk some twenty or so feet away. I say “Ralphieeeeeeeee,” and I always stretch the final “E” out long like that in hopes that it makes me appear more charming and interesting than I actually am. He says, “What’s up, Shea” back to me, but he says it in a normal way because he doesn’t have to pretend to be charming and interesting because he actually is charming and interesting.
I walk over to him, we touch fists, and then I comment on something sports-related, to which he responds with something sports-related. Then there’s one more conversational volley (either a follow-up to the first sports thing, or the introduction of a new sports thing that is slightly less important than the first), and then that’s it. I smile and laugh and he smiles and laughs and then I walk away, both of us knowing we very likely will not see or talk to the other person again until the next morning, at which point we will reenact the entire scene again with only slightly different dialogue. We have done this each work day for nearly three years now. It’s the best relationship I have ever had with someone who carries handcuffs.
When the Spurs won the NBA Draft Lottery this past May (and with it, the chance to draft Victor Wembanyama later that summer), I texted Ralph in celebration. We had never texted with each other before that moment (in fact, I had to text a separate person in the building to even get Ralph’s phone number) or even spoken with one another anywhere in the world other than at his desk on a weekday morning. But I felt compelled to reach out to him that evening.
I felt compelled to expand the conditions and parameters of our relationship, even if I didn’t realize that that’s what I was doing at the time.
Victor Wembanyama bends and reshapes everything.
Basketball things, obviously.
But other things, too, it seems.
It’s always been weird to watch a human who is 7-foot-3 or taller dribble a basketball, but it’s never been weird the way Victor Wembanyama makes it weird. And what I mean is:
Picture, say, for example, Hasheem Thabeet (7-foot-3) dribbling the ball up the court. Or picture, say, for another example, Boban Marjanovic (7-foot-4) dribbling the ball up the court. Or picture, say, for a third example, Chuck Nevitt (7-foot-5) dribbling the ball up the court. Or picture, say, for a final example, Tacko Fall (7-foot-6) dribbling the ball up the court. Those are all very weird scenarios and situations and circumstances, both in abstraction and in practice. The arms, the legs, the elbows, the knees, the ball, the bouncing, the walking—it’s just all a weird combination together. With regard to traditional basketball aesthetics, nothing is where it’s supposed to be, or moving the way it’s supposed to move. Somebody that tall bringing the ball up the court is something that, if you turned on your TV and happened to see it during a game, you would say to yourself some version of, “Okay. Well, clearly something has gone wrong with this offensive possession. This couldn’t possibly have been the first option.”
But that’s not what you say when you see Victor Wembanyama bringing the ball up the court. What you say when you see Victor Wembanyama bringing the ball up the court is some version of, “Okay. Well. Fuck. We’re all dead.”
Because it’s smooth, the way he dribbles.
It’s like if God was looking at a picture of a guard on someone’s iPhone in heaven, touched the screen with his pinched-together index finger and thumb, expanded the image to make it bigger, and then was like, “Boom. There you go. That’s a person now.”
Victor Wembanyama dribbles a basketball completely normally.
That’s why it’s weird in a way that it’s never been weird before.
The San Antonio Spurs played the Miami Heat on October 13, 2023. It was the first home game of the preseason for the Spurs, and so I guess that was a little bit why it was important, but also Victor Wembanyama was playing in it, and so that’s mainly why it was important.
And I would like to tell you about one specific play from that night.
With a little under 40 seconds to go in the second quarter, Wembanyama dribbled the ball up the court. There was no rush. And there was no urgency. There was just a very tall person dribbling a basketball calmly and confidently and normally, which, again, was entirely weird.
His defender, a 6-foot-10 League veteran named Thomas Bryant, waited for him in a defensive position a few feet beyond the three-point line.
As Wembanyama crossed the half court line, Tre Jones (point guard for the Spurs) hustled over and angled to set a screen on Bryant. Wembanyama, spying the action, sped up slightly as Jones approached, hoping to force Bryant into making some kind of defensive mistake.
Bryant didn’t, though. He did what you’re supposed to do when a smaller player heads over to set a screen on a bigger player out on the perimeter: you get ready for the smaller player to slip the screen at the last second so as to create a new second action to potentially exploit a suddenly out of position defense.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Bryant’s instincts were 100 percent correct.
And it made 0 percent of a difference.
Jones slipped the screen and slid over to the right bend area of the three-point line. Wemanyama passed him the ball. And Bryant sat back in the space waiting for Jones to make a decision. And that’s when everything turned to muck for him, and for the Heat, and (potentially) (probably) for the NBA.
Before Jones had even fully gathered the ball, Wembanyama, still out past the three-point line, pointed to the sky. The gesture, while completely ludicrous in its implication, was impossible to misinterpret. Despite (a) still being 22 or so feet from the rim, and despite (b) having a defender to his immediate left, and despite (c) Bryant still being directly involved in the play, and despite (d) the other three Miami Heat defenders also being in the general area, Wemanyama wanted Jones to throw him an alley-oop.
Jones, suddenly an audience member on stage with a magician during the reveal of a big trick, decided he wanted to see what would happen if he did what Wembanyama was asking him to do, and so he did what Wembanyama was asking him to do.
Right as the ball touched his hands, Jones tossed it up into the air.
Victor dove into the paint, planted both shoes nine feet before the rim, jumped as four of the five Heat defenders converged in the area, snatched the ball out of the atmosphere with both hands, cocked it back, then thunderdunked it before anyone else could even jump.
The arena, rightly, erupted.
The internet, rightly, erupted.
Reggie Miller, who was one of the commentators calling the game that night, rightly, erupted.
“LOOK AT THIS!” he shouted, his voice fat with astonishment.
Or: “LOOK AT THIS!” he shouted, his voice fat with surprise.
Or: “LOOK AT THIS!” he shouted, his voice fat with glee.
Or: “LOOK AT THIS!” he shouted, because that’s the only thing you can shout when you’re in the middle of watching something as ridiculous as a 7-foot-4 Frenchman fly into the paint against a completely set defense, jump from several feet outside of the restricted circle, and then dunk an alley-oop that he called for from out past the three-point line.
It was such a wild play.
And an unbelievable play.
And a preposterous play.
It was also, at best, only the fourth most impressive thing Victor Wembanyama would end up doing that night.
The San Antonio Spurs played the Golden State Warriors on October 20, 2023. It was the final game of the preseason for the Spurs, and so I guess that was a little bit why it was important, but also Victor Wembanyama was playing in it, and so that’s mainly why it was important.
During the game, Victor Wembanyama: (1) caught a pass out past the three-point line, crossed over his defender off the dribble, pump faked a jumper, then pulled up for real as his defender floated harmlessly past him; (2) grabbed a defensive rebound, brought the ball up court, initiated the offense, then hit an and-one circus shot from behind the backboard while being pushed out of bounds (he also hit the accompanying free throw); (3) closed out from 10 feet away to block a Klay Thompson three-pointer and then sprinted down court to receive and dunk the post-block outlet pass (my favorite part of this play is that he caught the pass, hit the brakes, waited for a trailing Klay Thompson to zoom by, then waited an extra second so that a second defender could catch up and get dunked on); and (4) defended a smaller player on the perimeter, forced him into the paint, blocked his shot, ran down court as a Jeremy Sochan gathered the errant ball, caught a pass from Sochan, then pulled up for 3, splashing it in.
It was four great plays that would look great on anybody’s full-game highlight reel.
Victor Wembanyama did them all over just a 90-second stretch in the middle of the first quarter.
There is no precedent for Victor Wembanyama.
There’s no single player you can reach backwards in time for and attach him to, like how when LeBron James showed up and people were like, “He’s the next Michael Jordan,” or how when Clarence Weatherspoon showed up and people were like, “He’s the next Charles Barkley,” or how when when any white player shows up and people are like, “He’s like that other white player.”
There is no precedent for Victor Wembanyama.
There are only amalgamations.
“He’s like if you mixed Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Durant.”
“He’s like if you mixed Kareem Abdul Jabbar with Tracy McGrady.”
“He’s like if you mixed a fighter jet and a jaguar.”
That’s the kind of shit you have to say when you talk about him.
I have no idea how Victor Wembanyama’s career is going to play out.
I suspect there will be championship rings and MVP trophies and various other accolades.
But that’s just a guess.
What I do know, though, is that right now, right at this particular matter, it kind of doesn’t matter.
What matters is what he’s already given us, which is to say:
Excitement for now and excitement for the future.
Excitement in imagining what might be; what he might do; what he might mean for basketball; what he might mean for everything.
Victor Wembanyama is here.
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Photos via Getty Images.