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The Two Lives of Zach Randolph
How can a man with such a troubled past be so beloved? Examining the Grizzlies' impregnable, impressionable power forward.
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."
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 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."
"Winning is the most important thing in my life,after breathing. Breathing first, winning next"-George Steinbrenner