August 13, 2022

Before Wednesday, the best birthday Zion Williamson had ever had was when he was around 8 or 9 years old.

His parents rented an inflatable bouncy house and threw a party in his grandfather’s backyard. Sion, his friends and family members jumped with him that day.

Fast forward to Wednesday and his 22nd birthday, and there were plenty of reasons (in fact, up to 231 million of them) for more jumps for Zion and his family members.

And New Orleans Pelicans fans had every reason to celebrate with him as Williamson officially shut down all false narratives that have surrounded him and the organization over the past year.

Williamson signed a five-year extension worth up to $231 million that keeps him with the Pelicans through the 2027-28 season.

“I’m locked in, baby,” Williamson said right after signing her name during a ceremony at the Dryades YMCA in New Orleans.

When asked where the anniversary was, Williamson reached out and touched Pelicans executive vice president of operations David Griffin on the shoulder.

“No. 1. This one is No. 1,” said the guy who will wear his Pelicans No. 1 jersey for the next few years.

Rest in peace, at least for now, to any thought that Zion isn’t happy in New Orleans.

He’s said it many times – but not enough to satisfy some – that he wants to be here.

Now he doesn’t have to say it anymore. His actions have spoken. He is so committed that he signed a contract without a fifth-year player option.

If there was ever any friction between Williamson and the front office, it has been corrected.

His commitment goes far beyond basketball. He is also committed to the city, which is why this signing ceremony took place at a YMCA. He wanted the children of Central City to be part of making his dream come true, just as the YMCA helped him make his dream come true growing up in South Carolina.

There are 115 children attending the summer camp that Zion and her stepfather Lee Anderson host. Zion attends about four days a week and recently took them to the movies. He plays basketball with them, delivering them the same mind-blowing dunks he has in the 85 games he played in his first three NBA seasons.

But for Williamson, much of the discussion has been more about the games he missed than the ones he played. He didn’t play a single game last season after breaking his foot, an injury which was coincidentally diagnosed on his 21st birthday.

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He described the past year as a “roller coaster of emotions”. Every time he picked up his cell phone and checked social media, he said he saw something negative.

“It’s been a tough year,” Williamson said. “For the Pelicans to give me this birthday present, I’m not going to let them down. I’m not going to let the city down, I’m not going to let my family down, but most of all I’m not going to let myself down.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

A team that scared the No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns by pushing them to six games in the first round of the playoffs apparently has a pretty bright future with a young, talented and deep roster with few flaws.

Coach Willie Green’s starting lineup gets a giant upgrade. He can insert Williamson, who has averaged 25.7 points and 7 rebounds in his career, in place of Jaxson Hayes in the starting lineup to accompany CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas. It’s a starting five that’s as good as any in the league.

“Frankly, I think it’s going to be scary for the rest of the NBA,” Green said.

None of us know how this will all play out down the road. It’s a franchise that eventually lost superstars like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis.

But for now, the Pelicans seem to have the pieces to create that “durability” Griffin talks about so often.

Sion is committed to the Pelicans.

And they are attached to him.

“(Zion) wasn’t looking for a way out, he was looking for a way to stay,” Griffin said.

Right after Sion signed his extension, his stepfather uttered the two words that showed that commitment.

“We’re home,” Anderson said.

And because of that, the guy who turned 22 on Wednesday wasn’t the only one with reason to celebrate.

The franchise, which turns 21 this season, should also be celebrating.