New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson celebrates with fans at the Smoothie King Center on December 28, 2022.
(Tatiana Lubanko |

Everybody scream! The oral history of the Pelicans' amazing comeback win over the Timberwolves

By Kevin Scarbinsky, special to

Sometimes the stars align, and a star is born. Sometimes the past, present and future collide in a great big bang. And sometimes New Orleans throws a party, and everyone has more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.

It all happened on Wednesday, Dec. 28 in the sold-out Smoothie King Center as the Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves slogged toward the end of a mud-wrestling match masquerading as an NBA mid-week game. Then came Zion Williamson, rising from the ooze, reaching a place few players reach, taking 18,669 revelers with him.

He scored a career-high 43 points on 21 shots. He scored the final 14 points. The Pelicans needed every one of them in a come-from-behind 119-118 victory, which, combined with a Denver loss, put New Orleans back in first place in the Western Division. Heady stuff, but let's distill this one enchanted evening to its essence.

In the final 2 minutes and 44 seconds, at the intersection of give me the damn ball and get out of the way, on a night the Pelicans honored nine community leaders who played a vital role in bringing the NBA back to New Orleans 20 years before, the fourth-year pro from Duke brought it all home. The ghosts of Pistol Pete, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis past were all present in one 6-foot-6, 284-pound, 22-year-old man-child. The future of a franchise that has never reached the Western Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals, was now visible. Dancing with Wolves. Dunking on fools. Bringing an entire city to its feet.

No one had to ask Who Dat. Zion was Him.

This is the oral history of his coming-out party, told by the people on the floor, in and out of uniform, in various stages of shock and awe. You'll hear from the lawyer and the mayor, the music man and the Saint, Zion himself and more. You already know where this ends, but let's get in the spirit of the evening as we get started. Everybody scream!

Pelicans Stat Leader Highlights: Zion Williamson scores 43 points vs. Minnesota Timberwolves

Bill Hines (Managing partner of Jones Walker law firm who led the civic effort to get the business community and individual donors to pledge to buy season tickets and suites before the Charlotte Hornets moved to town): That game was the game they celebrated the 20th anniversary of bringing the Hornets, now Pelicans, to New Orleans. That game was the celebration. So my guest that night, in my other seat, was Marc Morial, the mayor of New Orleans in 2002 and the current head of the National Urban League.

Marc Morial (President and CEO of the National Urban League, former mayor when New Orleans landed the Hornets):  It's always great to go to New Orleans and go to the arena. Being with all of the guys who participated in bringing the NBA back was a great feeling. It was a feeling of accomplishment. We worked together across all kinds of lines, racial lines, political lines, to put the package together to bring the team to town. It's a highlight of my career as mayor.

Bill Hines: It couldn't have been a better scenario for Zion to turn it on. It would've been a bummer to lose that game with that kind of celebration.


Yet Minnesota led after each of the first three quarters. After center Rudy Gobert gave the Timberwolves a one-point lead with 7:16 left in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans played chase to the final minute.


Bill Hines: I think most people thought early in the fourth quarter we were probably going to lose that game. We just seemed flat, and nobody had taken over. That's where Zion comes in.

Mousa Hamdan: (COO of Jet Life Recordings, longtime manager and business partner of New Orleans rapper and fellow Pelicans fan Curren$y): Zion was on, determined and focused. He was locked in. One hundred percent locked in.

Zion: C.J. (McCollum) looked at me and said, "You want to be great? It's time to step up." That was all the motivation I needed.


Greatness started and ended innocently enough with free throws on a night the teams combined to shoot 75 of them. With 2:44 left, Zion made two to cut the lead to 110-107.

After a Minnesota layup, Trey Murphy drove the lane, drew the defense and dished to an open Zion at the top of the circle, a role reversal from earlier in the game when Zion had kicked out to Murphy for a trey. Never mind that Zion hadn't shot from deep all night. He didn't hesitate, splashing a 3-pointer and holding the finish. Pelicans down two.


Malcolm Roach (Defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, three-time Louisiana state high school basketball champion): Everybody got quiet on the three-pointer. Everybody got real quiet like, "What? Oh, he made it! He made it!" After he made that three, I was, "OK, he's rolling tonight."

Zion: I was going to shoot it regardless. That open? I felt like I was in rhythm. Shout-out to Trey for that.

Trey Murphy: I think he's the MVP of our league. He's different, man. I've never seen anything like this man. I'm just grateful to be his teammate.


After a T'wolves turnover, Zion got back to doing Zion things. He got downhill, hit the brakes - the way he had when he'd exploded a shoe at Duke - spun into the paint and floated in a baby jump hook. Tie game.

Minnesota came back to take the lead but not for long. Zion hit a gear, split defenders and dropped in a finger roll. Tied again, but the Wolves quickly untied it with two free throws.

Now inside the final minute, Zion went ballistic to knot it again. He flashed from the right elbow to the left baseline, extending to curl in a layup through contact before crashing to the floor. That gave him a career-high 40 points, but the Pelicans needed more.

Zion Williamson scores 14 straight points for the Pelicans to seal the victory over the Timberwolves


Willie Green (Pelicans head coach): It's incredible, his touch when he gets down the lane with two to three guys hanging on him, and he's still able to find the glass. It's a luxury for us to have a player, a person, like Z. He had a dominant performance.

Marc Morial: When he gets a head of steam, he's unstoppable.

Malcolm Roach: I know it's special because sitting at the body type he's at, I'm able to feel where he's coming from. He's a freak of nature. He's crazy. I'm just happy I'm able to witness it on a nightly basis to see him be able to explode on those guys. And seeing the looks on the defenders' faces. I heard the comment that he's playing football and they're playing basketball, and I'm like, "Yeah. He's coming through the lane like a pulling guard."

Mousa Hamdan: That game he had the opportunity to go above and beyond and really show all his skills.

Malcolm Roach: Him being that size and that explosive, every play was like an "Ooh!" and "Aah!" moment. It was exciting to see. I was happy I was there that night.


Back on defense, Zion didn't hang back as D'Angelo Russell bounced a pass in his direction just across midcourt. Zion took the risk, jumped the route, intercepted the pass and lit out for the goal. He could've sent the rim and its entire support system into the NBA health and safety protocols -  from which he had just emerged - but opted instead for a forceful, not-quite-lethal two-hand flush. His punctuation, though, that would be the poster.

That dynamic pick and dunk with 39 seconds left gave the Pelicans the lead for the first time in seven minutes, setting off a tsunami of sound from the first row to the last. Zion himself made the biggest noise of his biggest night, strutting toward the front-row fanatics, turning toward the mayor, the lawyer, the music man, the Saint and all the rest, unleashing a stream-of-awesomeness scream from somewhere deep inside.


Marc Morial: When he came through, stole the ball and dunked it - you know we were nip and tuck, a little bit behind - it was powerful. It was electric. It was a playoff environment. It felt like a Saints game when the Saints are winning. The crowd was engaged, people were excited, and Zion literally took over.

Malcolm Roach: Man, I was too hype. I was standing up by the time he stole the ball. When he dunked it, I jumped in the air and came down with him. Because the Pelicans are my team, man. I'm from Baton Rouge so growing up, I was always big with the Pelicans, well, the Hornets at first.

Mousa Hamdan: It felt like he was looking at you. I think every fan felt that. Every fan felt like, "He was looking at me and screaming." He made that connection, and it felt amazing. It was crazy for the fans to experience that, the energy that was in the arena. It left everyone speechless as well as very excited and happy that you didn't miss this game. If you ever wanted to watch one, that was the one.

Bill Hines: When he made that dunk, and the way he turned. I actually had my office clip that picture. You can see Marc Morial and me directly behind him. He starts that huge scream, that almost primal scream. That just drives the crowd into orbit. The other team may not like it, but it's pure joy.

Mousa Hamdan: A few people said that looked disrespectful. I don't think he did it out of disrespect. I think it was more for the fans. It was the nail in the coffin. It was, "Look at what this team can do."

Zion: I watch a lot of old-school players trying to figure out their mind-sets. All their mind-sets were the same. People remember winners. Whenever that time comes for me to be done with the game of basketball, I want people to be able to say, "He was a winner."


Not yet he wasn't. Minnesota phenom Anthony Edwards responded with a slashing dunk of his own to tie the score a final time with 29 ticks left. Did Zion have one more highlight in him? Is a beignet a deep-fried, sugar-dusted delight?

After Naji Marshall missed from distance, the Pelicans grabbed the board and passed to Zion cutting to the cup. Cue the climactic slam, cut, print and wrap, right? Wrong. The Wolves weren't going out like that. They played Hack-a-Shaq, but Zion missed his cue. He made the first free throw for his 43rd point and the lead, missed the second and watched Edwards miss a short-corner jumper at the buzzer that would've rained on everyone's parade.

Instead, it was party time in the Big Easy, teammates interrupting Zion's postgame on-court interview with a water bottle shower, fans spilling out into the night convinced a superstar was born and with him a galaxy of possibility.


Bill Hines: It is what you got Zion for. You saw Zion turn into kind of a LeBron. He completely took over and dominated.

Malcolm Roach: It gave me the feel of being at home watching LeBron James with the Cavaliers when he scored the last, what, 20-something points (25, to be exact) against the Pistons (in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals). That's kind of what it felt like, a person taking over, in the zone. I could look in his eyes and tell he's not passing this ball. Like, people, get out of the way.

Marc Morial: I said we're going to the NBA Finals. I want to sit in this seat during the NBA Finals. This team has "it." And this guy Zion, he's a prospect. If he stays healthy and stays motivated, he's up there with the best of all time. Look at the LeBrons and the Kobes. He's right there.

Mousa Hamdan: Me and Curren$y already said we cannot miss a game. Unfortunately, we didn't have season passes because there were none available that I felt like were the seats we wanted, but we're at every game. I spoke with one of the gentlemen who does (ticket) sales and told him we need the team, and the team needs us. We're like their hype team now.

Marc Morial:I think Pete (Maravich) might have scored 65 points one night, maybe 70 (for the New Orleans Jazz). But Pete was scoring a lot of points on a team that wasn't winning much. To me, this was a great individual performance. It's up there in New Orleans sports history. It doesn't match the Super Bowl, but it matches Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal, John Gilliam's kickoff return for a touchdown on the Saints' first play in their history. The fact that it happened on the night that we were celebrating bringing the team to town, it's just so memorable.

Zion: It's the crib. It's the fort. You got to protect your fort. The city deserves this. The Saints, they've been holding it down for so many years. You've got to give them that respect. You know the city deserves the Pelicans to be great, too. We want to be great, too.

Bill Hines: Seeing what you saw that night, if that happens late in April in a playoff game - and I see no reason he can't replicate that - that's how you win an NBA championship. He's a force. I am very confident, if this team gets healthy and stays healthy in the spring, we can make a deep run in the playoffs. I have to calm myself down.

Marc Morial: The whole goal was let's get the NBA back and let's win a title. Let's bring the trophy to New Orleans. Zion, man, I tell ya. When they get to the playoffs, I'm going to be there. When, man. You got to claim it.

Zion Williamson Postgame Interview | Pelicans vs Timberwolves 12/28/22