Zach Randolph isn’t worried about whether his 14-year-old son, Zachariah, retraces his sizable basketball footsteps. “Basketball isn’t everything,” Randolph likes to tell him. Yes, he counsels him on the game. But most of their conversations are about life’s choices and consequences. Be positive, Randolph tells him. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Make smart decisions.
“That’s an important age — 14, 15, 16,” Randolph said. “I didn’t have that father figure in my life. Maybe if I would have had a daddy saying, ‘Zach, don’t do this’ or ‘Get in the house’ or ‘Where’s your report card?,’ then … ”
Randolph trails off, but his point is clear. Picture him at the same impressionable age as his son — already a strong basketball player, just before he became one of the few freshmen ever summoned to Marion High School’s varsity team. In basketball-crazed Indiana, it was a distinction so uncommon that “I can probably count them on one hand,” said Jim Brunner, in his 42nd year as the voice of the Marion Giants.
Randolph’s mother, Mae Randolph, raised her four children without a male influence. She taught her oldest son to believe in loyalty and love. They didn’t have much else. Their family was destitute, on welfare much of his childhood. Randolph wore the same pair of jeans to school day after day, week after week. Kids called him “crusty.” Embarrassed and upset, one day he walked into a Walmart, grabbed a new pair of jeans, and tried to walk out the door without paying. He was caught, and spent 30 days in juvenile detention.
This was the start of a familiar pattern. Years passed, infractions piled up, but Randolph’s basketball talent blossomed. Randolph introduced himself to his high school coach, Moe Smedley, with the declaration that he would one day play in the NBA. He developed a knack for doing the dirty work, muscling, rebounding, and pounding bigger guys down low. He flashed that smile of his, a big cheek-to-cheek grin. But authorities placed a 15-year-old Randolph under house arrest for battery. He was placed in juvenile detention two years later for receiving stolen guns. In 2002, he was arrested for underage drinking less than a year after being drafted into the NBA by Portland. The problems trailed him there, where Randolph earned fame and infamy as a member of the “Jail Blazers,” a much-reviled team that tainted professional basketball in Portland.
Now 31, Randolph has become the face of the Memphis Grizzlies, a franchise that limped badly until its improbable upset of no. 1 seed San Antonio two springs ago. He is unquestionably a beloved figure both in Memphis and in Marion, about 65 miles north of Indianapolis up I-37. He’s fit in so naturally in Memphis that many mistakenly believe Randolph actually hails from the city. He tutors younger teammates like Tony Wroten and Josh Selby, something that would have seemed far-fetched — to say the least — after Randolph’s struggles transitioning into the league.
“I talk to the kids because I’ve been down that route,” Randolph said. “I can handle adversity because I’ve been knocked down and got up. I’ve been on the highest of highs and lowest of lows and I’ve got a strong will. Some people have never been through nothing, and when a situation happens they crumble. But I’ve been there. And I’m the same person.”
Long before Randolph walked into that department store — before the Civil War, in fact — Marion was a safe haven for blacks in the North. The black population was segregated from the white population, but a quasi-harmony existed and Marion’s black residents even developed a small farming community. That symbiosis shattered in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the area. They were responsible for one of the last confirmed lynchings in the United States: In 1930, Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron were held on charges of robbing Claude Deeter, killing him, and raping Deeter’s girlfriend. A mob formed outside the county jail that detained the trio, eventually beating them and dragging them from their cells. They hanged Shipp and Smith, but Cameron was sentenced as an accessory and lived a long life, even founding America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. The lynching is documented in one of the most horrifying images of our country’s past.
Author Cynthia Carr exhaustively researched Marion for her book Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America, which explores the enduring scars left on the town’s psyche.1 During her research, Carr discovered her grandfather was a Klan member. “Unfortunately, it is what sets Marion apart,” Carr said. “It’s a distinctive thing and it’s a terrible thing.” She added: “I met a lot of good people in Marion. Good white people and good black people. But it’s that thing that’s always there. It’s like poison bubbling underneath the grass.”
Much of Carr’s extended family hails from Marion.
The lynching is the first topic Randolph discusses when asked about Marion — not that it’s where he honed his skills, not that it’s where he helped Mae build her dream home. “My town,” Randolph said. “That goes to tell you a little bit about my town.” He thinks about those lynchings from time to time. He remembers standing outside an apartment building as a teenager when a cop cruised past him in a car. The cop reversed course, Randolph says, and without provocation expressed his disdain for Randolph, telling him he’d never amount to anything before driving off.
“It’s everywhere you go,” Randolph said. “That really hurt me.” He never elaborates on what “it” is, but maybe “it” laid the foundation for another of Randolph’s lifelong beliefs: Good and bad exist everywhere.
Mitch Sturm approached a group of young teenagers and offered them pointers after a midday pickup game in the mid-’90s. The kids admitted that they needed a coach. Sturm offered his phone number. If they called back, it could be fun. If not, oh well.
Zach Randolph was among that group of kids. They became known as the Untouchables, a local travel team sponsored by MVP Sporting Goods. They’d pile 10 deep into Sturm’s SUV and drive to games together. “I’m really glad we didn’t get pulled over back then,” Sturm said.
Randolph rarely gets enough credit for his game, his positioning, his craftiness in the post. It’s so natural, it almost seems innate. And a lot of it is. But that belies the hours he spent honing that immaculate footwork, learning to glide almost like a ballroom dancer. “I never had a problem once with Zach,” Sturm said. “We worked hours and hours on that jab step, pull back and shoot the jumper, that little left-handed hook and all the post moves.”
It wasn’t all grace and power. His football career ended after two practices, when an offensive lineman pancaked him to the ground. Longtime friend Andrew Morrell remembers his team teasing Randolph because, despite being their tallest player, he could barely touch the rim. One time when an opponent was shooting free throws, Randolph retreated to the basket on the other end, leaped up, briefly grabbed iron and crashed to the floor. Everyone glanced over to see a sheepish Randolph crumpled in a pile. Another time, the Untouchables were cruising to a blowout win and Sturm finally allowed Randolph to play point guard — something Randolph had begged him to do. “You can imagine how slow Zach was bringing the ball up the court,” Sturm said. “So when I say we were in the fast break mode, I use that term very loosely.” That didn’t stop Randolph from zipping Magic Johnson–style no-look passes and flashing his Cheshire cat grin the whole time.
Randolph — who shot up about five inches in the summer between eighth grade and his freshman year of high school — eventually joined Pat Mullin’s Indianapolis-based AAU team. “With young kids, sometimes you’ve got to give them an opportunity,” Mullin said. “How are they going to get better if you don’t give them an opportunity? And I think some people didn’t have that feeling in Marion.” (Randolph’s appetite grew, too. Sturm sat in amazement as he watched him down popcorn, candy, and hotdogs and then dominate a game. “I didn’t realize that you could buy wings by the 50 until I went out to eat with a young Zach,” Mullin said.)
Smedley still remembers seeing Randolph for the first time, then asking around and hearing the same things. “He’s a project. He doesn’t work hard.” That didn’t stop Smedley from quickly promoting him to varsity, where Randolph met another influential post tutor: Herb McPherson, a member of Murray State’s athletic Hall of Fame and a former draft pick of the San Diego Rockets. McPherson taught Randolph the four building blocks of the post — the up-and-under, the crossover, and a pivot that allows players to reverse momentum or continue forward. McPherson also implored Randolph to be careful about his non-basketball choices, that his “friends” were a reflection of himself. “The thing is, a kid like Zach, the answer you sometimes got was, ‘Well who do you want me hanging out with?'” McPherson said. “That’s who he was raised with. That’s who he lived with.”
Marion was the runner-up for the state championship in Randolph’s sophomore year, then had their attempt to return to the final derailed when the school suspended Randolph after he was caught in possession of stolen guns.
“A guy’s trying to get rid of [the guns] and Zach takes three of them home,” Brunner said. “Zach isn’t going to go out as a junior in high school and start using assault rifles. His idea was he was going to sell these and give some money to his mom. The police show up at his doorstep, and to show you how he didn’t think he did anything wrong, the police say, ‘Hey, Zach, we understand you are in possession of some stolen merchandise. What do you have to say?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah, it’s right over here.’ He goes over and shows them the weapons sitting there. He says, ‘I’m sorry.’ He thought they were going to slap him on the wrist.”
Randolph missed the rest of his junior season, watching games in street clothes and kicking himself for what could have been.2 Smedley remembers getting criticized from opposite sides, with some Marion residents thinking Randolph shouldn’t have been allowed on the bench and others believing he never should have been dismissed. When Randolph returned for his senior year, Marion won the state title by beating Bloomington High School North, which featured future pros Jared Jeffries and Sean May. Jeffries earned the state’s Mr. Basketball, and Randolph finished second, but Randolph surprised everyone by claiming the McDonald’s All-American MVP with 23 points and 15 rebounds. After a conversation with his friend Darius Miles, Randolph nearly declared for the NBA draft right then and there.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to go down this path. I’m going to bounce back,’” Randolph said. “That’s what I did. I had talent. I didn’t stray. I could have gone the wrong way easily. But I wanted to go the right way. I wanted to do something with myself.”
“I had the papers,” Randolph said. “I was about to enter the draft. But I told my mom I would go to college for a year. That was the best thing that I did.”
Tom Izzo lured Randolph to Michigan State one year after Jason Richardson’s freshman season. Richardson recalls walking on eggshells before Randolph’s arrival. That changed once Randolph “came in cracking jokes,” said Richardson, now a member of the 76ers. “And Coach Izzo would look at him and just smile.” During their ensuing Final Four run, Richardson often drove Randolph to class or practice as they discussed their futures. Both eventually declared for the 2001 draft — Richardson went fifth to Golden State and Randolph fell to Portland at 19 mainly because he’d played so little in college, and some teams were wary of a potential weight problem.3 “When I had him, he was unbelievable,” Izzo said. “I never had a problem with him. He went to class, did all of his stuff. That’s what I told teams. You’ve just got to get him around good people.”
Randolph averaged 10.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes per game in his only season at Michigan State. “I did it the right way,” Randolph said. “I respect Coach Izzo and I love his family, Lupe and little Steven. I was ready. I was ready to play. I could have dominated college my freshman year. If you look at my numbers, I was averaging almost a double-double in 15 minutes.” Said Izzo: “He helped us get to another Final Four and we helped him fulfill his dream. It was a good deal both ways.”
The Blazers were one year removed from a devastating defeat in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, when Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to advance and eventually win the first of their three titles. Randolph showed up right as the Blazers began to value talent over chemistry in search of the elusive championship pieces: They traded Jermaine O’Neal and Steve Smith, acquired Shawn Kemp, awarded Ruben Patterson a lavish contract, and built their team around Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire (and their long-term contracts). Before the draft, then–general manager Bob Whitsitt dispatched his assistant, Mark Warkentien, to Marion to gather as much intelligence as possible from Randolph, his family, and his teachers and decide if Randolph’s issues were self-contained or if he was simply a product of his environment.
“You try to find the people who will tell you both sides of the equation and have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and then ultimately, what you try to get answered is, ‘Is he a good person or a bad person?'” Whitsitt said. “There’s no real computer program for that. There’s no one way to get that answer. It’s never as crystal clear as you want it to be.”
Whitsitt believed they could develop Randolph the same way they had developed O’Neal right out of high school. They knew how to take baby steps developing, well, a baby. That’s what the stewardess on the team’s charter flight always called him, anyway. Sometimes, he even seemed younger than that — Randolph once asked 14-year veteran Steve Kerr when the team would be off for Christmas break. He also was repeatedly fined for not meeting his rookie weight requirement.
“What stood out was despite all that, despite how green he was, he still had some practices where he just dominated,” said Kerr, now a TNT analyst. “And I’m talking about Dale Davis, Rasheed Wallace, some really good bigs. He would just score on those guys at will on certain days when things were going well. You could just see the potential even at that raw state that he was in.”
Randolph had made it to the NBA, and that meant his friends had made it, too. He relocated a few of them to Portland, where they showed up in the hallways after home games wearing extravagant necklaces featuring the acronym “H.O.O.P.” (for “Helping Others Overcome Problems”). Really, they were walking baggage — reminders of Zach’s hometown and every potential pitfall still lurking out there. Randolph didn’t help matters by embracing their lifestyle. Even at the tail end of his six-year stint in Portland, Randolph’s friends were still regarded with suspicion. Oregonian columnist John Canzano4 claimed in 2008, “Just before [Randolph] was traded to the Knicks, someone on the gang enforcement team at Portland Police Department told me to pick up the MTV Cribs episode that featured Zach Randolph because the police had a copy, and noticed some disturbing details about the unsavory people who hung around Randolph.”
Randolph said Canzano held a vendetta against him. “If he hadn’t been a chronic problem and a guy who brought people with him to Portland who were on the radar of the gang enforcement and hadn’t had the incident drag racing downtown, the accusation of sexual assault, and all the other problems that he had there, maybe there’d be some merit to that,” Canzano said.
“Down at his core, Zach was and is a good person,” said Jason Quick, a Trail Blazer beat writer for The Oregonian, who covered Randolph’s Portland tenure. “He was also enamored with kind of this gangster life. He wanted to be seen that way.”
Darnell Valentine spent four-plus years with the Blazers in the 1980s and later became their director of player programs, making him almost overqualified to counsel young Z-Bo. He remembers Randolph frustrated by a city that, culturally, was “a little bit of a challenge for Zach. In Portland, when you’re a 6’9″ guy walking around, it’s hard to hide. During that period when Zach was with Portland, it was kind of like Clint Eastwood: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They live and they die by their basketball. You live in a glass house. As a basketball player in this community, there’s nowhere that you can go that’s unnoticed. At the time, I don’t think Zach understood the level of scrutiny and how passionate people were about how he represented this community.”
As the Blazers slowly unraveled and earned the collective ire of the city — eventually firing Mike Dunleavy and replacing him with respected assistant Mo Cheeks — Randolph, as he had his entire life, assumed the tendencies of his environment. Kerr saw a terrible blend for Randolph or any young player — a veteran but immature team. Randolph was learning from the wrong people.
“It was a dangerous mix,” Kerr said. “He could have gone the other way. It’s not like he was going to the Spurs to play with [Tim] Duncan and [Tony] Parker. He was in the midst of some dysfunction as a rookie.”
It didn’t help that Randolph kept battling with Patterson, one of the league’s more intimidating personalities and someone who had been arrested three times between 2000 and 2002 (including once after police charged him with attempting to rape his children’s nanny). Patterson often targeted and taunted Randolph, with their bad blood culminating during a 2003 practice: Randolph noticed teammate Qyntel Woods arguing with Patterson and came to Woods’s defense, sucker-punching Patterson. (Remembers Stoudamire, “I didn’t see what had happened because I had got the steal, so I was going the other way. Then all I heard was, ‘Come on, Zach.’ I turned back around and it was chaos.”) After Patterson suffered a fractured eye socket, Canzano later recalled that “there was a period of a few days after that incident where Randolph hid out at Dale Davis’s house because he feared that Patterson was going to try and shoot him.”
Those Trail Blazers teams were ousted for three straight years in the first round of the playoffs, with a month seldom passing without a Blazer being spotted on the police blotter. If it wasn’t Randolph’s arrest for driving under the influence, it was marijuana found in Stoudamire’s home. If it wasn’t Patterson charged with domestic assault, it was Woods cited for marijuana and brandishing a basketball card to suffice as his identification. You get the picture.5 “There was one year where the longest stretch where a player wasn’t arrested, suspended by the league, by the team, or the police weren’t called to their home was 17 days,” Quick said.
Even Grantland doesn’t have enough space to note every transgression of the Jail Blazers Era.
But even as Portland regressed from a contender to a lottery team, Randolph thrived individually. Blazers assistant Bill Bayno accompanied him to Atlanta for grueling workouts one offseason, when Randolph would sweat through three shirts a session. “He can’t run,” Bayno said. “He can’t beat anybody in a race. He can’t jump. He couldn’t jump over a phone book. He’s got tiny little hands. If you ever shake his hands, he’s got tiny hands, but they’re some of the best hands in basketball. He just has a natural feel for how to play the game, to score, to create space against his defenders.”
Bayno, a recovering alcoholic, talked to Randolph about living in moderation. And the advice seemed to work — in 2004, Randolph was named the league’s Most Improved Player, establishing himself as a guaranteed 20-10 guy. He also displayed Z-Boisms, traits that made you scratch your head, smile, and wonder if they masked more serious problems. There was the time Randolph came late to a practice, Quick said, after he had forgotten the security code to his own house. He showed up to games sporting a lavish gold-plated grill and huge necklaces. He mistakenly told reporters, “We shot ourselves in the head” (instead of the foot) in postgame interviews.
“We come from the same experience,” said Morrell, Randolph’s longtime friend. “Him and I have been talking about this a lot lately, but I think not having a father and then trying to find out who you are as a man was the biggest issue for him and I both. That right there is something that Zach in his early 20s was definitely going through.”
Whitsitt resigned after the 2002-03 season, with Steve Patterson replacing him as president and John Nash as general manager. When asked recently if he had any memorable Randolph stories from Portland, Patterson just started laughing, finally deciding, “He probably could have been more serious about his career, but he was a fun guy to be around, [with] a good sense of humor.” Patterson and Nash pledged to rebuild the team around character players, then signed Randolph to a six-year, $84 million extension one year later. Nash remembers complimenting Randolph on his somewhat practical vehicle selection — a lime-green Impala. “Oh no, Mr. Nash,” Randolph replied. “I’ve got the Bentley at home.” When Randolph and the team were on the road, Nash received calls from Randolph’s Portland neighbors complaining of gunfire on Randolph’s property.
“They were kids that didn’t have a lot of money and all of a sudden, Zach was the leader of the party,” Nash said. “They did some dumb things that young kids do, and Zach suffered. His reputation was hurt tremendously. Those are the kinds of things that might have been OK among his circle of friends. They really didn’t know better, and in some cases they knew better and didn’t care.”
Nash went on to say, “I would trust him with my kids and my grandkids.”
And that’s the conundrum for Z-Bo supporters. You love his unwavering loyalty, you worry about his childlike naïveté, and you shudder to think of what happens when those two traits cross paths. Smedley said, “Sometimes I think Zach still thinks he’s a freshman at Marion High School,” but added, “And he probably legitimately didn’t think some of the things he was doing was wrong.”
For instance, in 2004, police accused Randolph of lying about his brother’s involvement in an incident in which three men were shot at an Indiana nightclub. When Smedley publicly scolded Randolph for his associations — words Randolph now offers his son — the then-24-year-old briefly ended his relationship with his coach. Two years later, a Portland exotic dancer sued Randolph for sexual assault. (Police never filed criminal charges.) Randolph’s lack of self-awareness during this stretch remained staggering. When Portland players were allowed to choose their own pregame warm-up songs, Randolph selected T-Pain’s “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper).”
These days, Randolph praises Portland as a city, respects the team’s fans, and even has nice things to say about owner Paul Allen. He also believes the police and certain media members held a grudge against him. “They don’t take well to young, black urban kids coming out, having came from nothing,” Randolph said. “You come to Portland with braids, come with cornrows, people can’t relate to that. They peg you a different way and look at you a different way. If a guy’s got braids, he’s a thug.”
Others look at Portland’s role a little more diplomatically. Valentine said “it’s a wonderful community, I wouldn’t live any other place,” but admitted, “I can’t say it’s for everybody.” Stoudamire was born and raised in Portland, then got booed in Oregon throughout his college career for choosing to play at Arizona. He finally landed back in Portland in 1998, saying now, “Unfortunately for people in the spotlight, you play your faults out on the public stage. When you’re the only show in town, there are always going to be people that have an opinion. Portland is no different. The people embraced the basketball side the entire time. But they also held you accountable with what you did off the floor with your actions. Zach was guilty like we were all guilty at one point or another in Portland.”
After the Blazers landed the top pick in the 2007 draft (Greg Oden), the team dumped Randolph’s contract on New York; one year later, the Knicks dumped that same contract on the Clippers. Randolph somehow avoided negative headlines despite playing in two major cities with many more temptations, although both teams missed the playoffs. Before the 2009-10 season, the Clippers flipped Randolph to Memphis to create more playing time for rookie Blake Griffin — and then, and only then, did Randolph start fully rebuilding his career and reshaping his image. Meanwhile, the Jail Blazers are destined to live on as one of the NBA’s all-time greatest assemblies of migraine-inducing players. The architect of those Jail Blazers teams believes the moniker was unfair.
“You’re so important to them as a fabric in the community,” Whitsitt said. “I mean that in a good way. But we had nobody going to jail when I was there. But Trail Blazer, Jail Blazer, that’s a good sound.”
Chris Wallace knew of Memphis’s affection for basketball, but he never appreciated its full extent until he became the Grizzlies’ general manager in 2007. They start basketball relationships young in Memphis, hosting one of the country’s most successful youth basketball programs, with those children advancing to competitive high school programs like Ridgeway and Memphis Central. The Memphis Tigers hold a key stake in the community, having nearly won the NCAA title in 2008 and with success dating back to Keith Lee’s glory years in the 1980s. The ABA’s Memphis Sounds even called the city home once upon a time. So Wallace knew the city would back the Grizzlies if they ever became competitive.
“This is an underdog town,” Wallace said. “This is a town that doesn’t really care about your past, doesn’t care about any dustups. They want to know what you’re going to do in the future. If you reach out to Memphis and you embrace Memphis, Memphis will embrace you in return.”
The same can be said of Wallace’s acquisition of Randolph. Wallace, like Whitsitt long before him, judged the risk against the reward. Memphis traded Quentin Richardson (an expiring contract) to land him. Wallace knew Randolph’s Portland contract had two years remaining, and figured it would be a two-year gamble and that if things didn’t work out, soon they’d part.
Randolph submitted another 20-10 season and quickly endeared himself to the community; Wallace noticed that, whenever they lunched, Randolph spent more time signing autographs and taking pictures than eating, and that he was just as gracious with the 15th person as the first. He was also surprised by Randolph’s personality off the court. As Quentin Richardson, his teammate in New York, explains it, “He’s always cracking jokes and always trying to get people to laugh and bringing people together like that. Just his lingo, the way he talks. He’s very animated with his hand gestures. When he talks, it’s almost like he’s rapping, dancing, and singing all together at one time.”
So when the Grizzlies became a contender the following year — a contract year for Randolph — Wallace wasn’t totally surprised that Randolph had matured into a franchise player. But doing it without Rudy Gay, who missed the second half of the season? That was surprising. Randolph meshed wonderfully with Marc Gasol to create a suddenly fearsome low-post tandem, averaging 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in the 2011 playoffs, besting Tim Duncan in the opening round and nearly beating Oklahoma City in a thrilling seven-game series. The Grizzlies awarded Randolph a four-year, $71 million contract extension that summer. Like Memphis, he’s sometimes overlooked. He has some history behind him. But he’s a little more fun than anyone wants to admit.
“This town has a relationship with me,” Randolph explained. “It’s not the white side, the black side, it’s the whole town. They understand the grind. They’ve been through it. It’s a blue-collar town. People work hard. When you talk about Memphis, it’s usually First 48 or something bad. But there’s good people everywhere. And you don’t look bad on nobody because somebody went to the penitentiary or somebody did this. You treat everybody the same because everybody’s got skeletons. Some people just hide them more. Some don’t get brought to the light, but ain’t nobody perfect. Nobody.”
Randolph worked throughout the lockout with renowned trainer Frank Matrisciano, hoping to improve his career year in 2011. The other reason? Randolph was offended that many had pegged him as a player who might show up out of shape once the lockout ended. “The thing about Zach is he might not let you know it, but in his own way, he really cares about what you think about him,” Stoudamire said. “He acts like he don’t, but he cares about that stuff.”
Matrisciano’s reputation is based on what he calls “the lost seven” — that’s how many out of 10 quit his intense sessions. Randolph never quit, getting himself into the best shape of his life, until then-teammate O.J. Mayo collided into his knee on a freak play early in the season. When Randolph returned right before the playoffs, he gamely tried to make an impact on one leg. He now admits that “the knee was hurting, I had no lift. I couldn’t get my quick post-ups. I didn’t have too much power. When you don’t have power in your lower half, you can’t move that good and you’re not as mobile, and you’re thinking about it and you don’t play right. But my 75 percent is better than a lot of these guys’ 100 percent.”
Heading into this season, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins eyed him closely — after all, Hollins retired at 31, Randolph’s current age. Hollins mentioned during the preseason that Randolph’s shots were being blocked more often, and that he’d prefer not to rely as heavily on Randolph this year. He wanted Randolph to expand his game and excel as a passer, like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley late in their careers.
“It’s just passage of time,” Hollins explained. “It’s not a bad thing. Zach is still a good player and he’ll still have good moments for us. But we need to grow as a team so we can help Zach be successful versus Zach helping us be successful.”
Randolph says he shares the same goals.6 A player who defines “checkered past” is now an NBA team’s elder statesman. “I don’t understand how these young guys can be so lazy,” he said. “They come here and they don’t have no work ethic. I come from nothing. I work hard. I’ve got two max contracts. I know guys who got max contracts when they were young and they didn’t do shit the entire time. They just chilled.”
Randolph considers this Grizzlies team the second-best he has ever played on, behind the Trail Blazers of his rookie season. “I think we can compete with anybody,” he said. “We’ve just got to put it together. It’s a big year. An important thing is everybody being healthy. We haven’t had that year. People say me and Rudy [Gay] can’t play together and this and that, but we haven’t had a healthy season together except that first year when we won 40-something games.”
Randolph also wants to increase his assists, explaining, “Feed other guys better, draw the double-team, kick it out.” But he also said he can be the player he was in the 2011 playoffs and even better. “I got hurt and people say, ‘He’s not the same no more,'” he said. “I’ve been proving people wrong my whole career. Ain’t nothing new.”
He is still sometimes just a step away from serious trouble. Two years ago, a longtime friend was arrested with a cooler full of marijuana while driving Randolph’s car. Last summer, a drug dealer claimed he was beaten up at Randolph’s Oregon home. As always with Randolph’s life away from basketball, you never know the full story and you never knew if it was his fault, or his fault for hanging around the wrong people, or nobody’s fault. Stoudamire, who works as an assistant for the Memphis Tigers and remains close to Randolph, defends him as vehemently as anyone.
“Kids love him,” Stoudamire said. “To me, that means a lot. Kids are almost like animals. Animals will sniff you, and if they don’t like you, they’ll let you know. A dog will growl at you. A dog will do something to your shoes or whatever it might be … They just won’t react to you. But kids react to Zach in positive ways.”
Stoudamire advised Randolph to sever ties to Oregon — for now — explaining that, “Sometimes, when things happen, you can’t look back.” To his credit, Randolph is looking forward and making the most of his fourth chance. Two winters ago, he turned on the electricity for dozens of less-fortunate Memphis residents. He and teammate Tony Allen spent Valentine’s Day pampering poverty-stricken mothers with manicures and pedicures. He bought turkey after turkey for families in need on Thanksgiving. He rescues pit bulls for a local shelter. Maybe he didn’t see NBA players growing up, but he’s seen the look in children’s eye when they see him. Zach Randolph knows he is making a difference.7
“I’m shy when I got to get in front of a camera,” Randolph said. “I get caught up in my words. I’m not that type of person. I’m laid-back. I play the background. All the stuff I do, I do from the heart.”
“If Memphis trades me tomorrow, I’m going to be in Memphis in the summertime working out,” Randolph said. “I’m going to be in the community. I’m always going to be connected to the people.”
Wayne Seybold grew up in a Marion trailer just like Randolph, but their childhoods were different. Seybold and his sister, Natalie, were gifted ice-skaters who lacked enough funding to compete. The town rallied behind them and raised enough money to advance their careers. The Seybolds claimed silver in two U.S. Figure Skating Championships and competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Wayne Seybold later relocated to Los Angeles, but felt the tug of home from his aging parents and returned to raise his children in Marion. The unemployment rate in the working-class town, population 30,000, hit 10.4 percent in 2002. The following year, Seybold became Marion’s mayor. Grant County (which includes Marion) elected the state’s first black sheriff, Oatess Archey, in 1998. The descendants of the families involved in the infamous lynching met for reconciliation and a public atonement in 2003. Several members of the town’s current City Council are black. “Unfortunately, you can’t change the history,” Seybold admits.
Maybe that goes for Randolph, too. “I’m just now starting to do more stuff for my town,” Randolph said. “I definitely want to see the town change. I want people to treat people equal. Ever since the mayor came, the town has changed and it’s going in a better direction. It used to be real bad with the court system. You go to Marion and people doing crimes, they give people like 60 years for breaking into houses, young black kids. But it’s getting better.”
People in Marion say that Randolph isn’t just involved, he’s immersed. Whenever he returns, he asks Sturm how his ailing mother is doing. He held a reception for Mae’s marriage and ran into Jenny Maidenberg, a social worker at his elementary school. Although Maidenberg and her husband weren’t originally invited, Randolph asked them to stay the whole night. They did. He spends hours at the Boys & Girls Club, where he virtually grew up. The club’s director, Adam Myers, remembers the chaos that broke out when Randolph showed up one day.
Marion now annually celebrates a Zach Randolph Day.
This doesn’t surprise former Blazers assistant Monty Williams, now the head coach of the Hornets, and someone who remembers his Portland stint as a period of growth — for himself and Randolph, too. “I’ve met two tough guys who I’ve been in the league with, Charles Oakley and Zach Randolph. Those are guys you probably don’t want to push the wrong way, but those are guys that will literally give you the shirt off their back and pay for somebody’s funeral that they don’t even know,” Williams said.
Randolph refers to Williams as his big brother; they talk often about his choices in Portland, and the choices he’s making now. “He’s a good kid,” Williams said. “He’s a good father and he’s grown up in that. He’s got a beautiful family. People are always expecting perfection. But if you’re looking for that, keep looking because you’re not going to find anybody perfect. But if you’re looking for a guy who’s just real — not perfect, but real — then Zach’s your guy.”
And right now, Zach is Memphis’s guy again — the Grizzlies announced themselves as contenders again on November 11, blowing out Miami at home for their fifth straight win. Through two weeks, Randolph is leading the NBA in rebounding and — with Gasol — showing that the NBA’s subtle shift toward “small ball” might be premature. He’s also proving that NBA stars can be late bloomers, and that you can learn from your past without running from it, either.
“People that have been around me have been loyal and I’ve always tried to be loyal,” he said. “I never talk about anybody or go behind somebody’s back or be fake with somebody. That’s just not me. I’m an honest person. I’m 100 percent. That’s the best way to be and that’s how I am. I treat everybody the same. I don’t look down on nobody. God has blessed me in so many ways and I don’t look down on nobody. Anyone can come shake my hand.”
That includes Smedley, his former high school coach who criticized Randolph’s association with his brother and found himself cut off for years. Randolph has returned his calls only once, and as Smedley remembers it, “It wasn’t very long. Again, Zach doesn’t owe me anything. I just watch his career and hope for the best and pray for him and all that stuff. Maybe someday when he’s finished in the NBA and wants to go see his old coach, maybe he’ll come by. That’s totally up to him.”
Randolph sounds more optimistic, saying they’ve been “repairing” things and “I love him, I love Coach Smedley,” but at the same time, you “don’t go to the media and talk about my family.” It’s just another quirky point about a career laden with them — of all the people who wronged Randolph over the years or embarrassed him publicly, he’s still upset about a former father figure who spoke up out of genuine concern for his well-being. How can you fully explain someone like that?
“Zach is like a chameleon,” Brunner said. “What I mean by that is, if you and I are sitting in a room and Zach comes in for a half hour and sits down with us, he would fit in perfectly. But then he can walk right out of that door and get in a vehicle with two guys he has no business being around, he can fall right into that trap and fit in. Whoever he’s with, he can assume that identity.”
That includes being the best player on an NBA contender, a devoted member of two communities, a proud father, a loyal teammate, and an even more loyal friend. Today, he might throw up another 20-15. Tomorrow, he might be working on his relationship with Smedley. This Thursday, he might be handing out turkeys at a homeless shelter or dispensing more advice to his young son. And if he goes out that night, well, you just have to hope he’s surrounded by the right people.