Before the Grizzlies’ exceptional season is totally forgotten, a word about Zach Randolph.
Late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Grizzlies-Spurs series, there was the constantly stark image of Randolph trudging up the floor, dripping sweat, sucking wind, his barrow-chest heaving. He fought through 45 minutes of a dogfight overtime loss. His shot still wasn’t falling, but he kept at it – not really forcing the issue, but trying to will himself back into a groove. He grabbed 18 relentless boards. Z-Bo was a gamer. He’s been a gamer throughout these playoffs. He was a gamer last postseason, playing (basically) on one leg. He was gamer in Memphis’ 2011 playoff run to a seven-game series in the conference semis against OKC.
A lot of blame can be placed on Z-Bo’s shoulders. He’s Memphis’ beast, the team’s most accomplished player. Memphis got swept out of the playoffs like some hair and dandruff off of a barbershop floor. Zach was Clang City all series. But the main takeaway from his performance against the Spurs is that homeboy was working his arse off. He didn’t shrink, he didn’t stop trying, he didn’t quit or cower. His shot went cold and he ran into a team with one of the cagiest post defenders of all-time (Tim Duncan) and a big, physical brute (Tiago Splitter).
In the days since the Grizzlies’ ouster, it’s interesting that Zach has avoided widespread criticism of the type that veers toward character assassination. His has been a fairly remarkable reputation-rehabilitation.
Five years ago, more than a few observers held Randolph as a loser. He racked up a lot of numbers and a lot more losses. He was a “problem player.”
Zach came into the league with baggage. As a teenager in Marion, Ind. he served three sentences, for shoplifting (30 days), battery (30 days) and selling a stolen gun for $120 (26 days). He didn’t necessarily wreck shop during his one year under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, either. Izzo kept his minutes low and rode his vets to a Final Four berth. So, of course, Zach’s stock struggled on draft boards and he fell to Portland at No. 19.
Back then, the Trail Blazers were the Jail Blazers. It was team full of cats without the best reps – Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Darius Miles, Ruben Patterson. In fact, not too long into Zach’s tenure with the Blazers, he sucker-punched Patterson and broke his left eye socket as supposed get-back for the Kobe Stopper body slamming Randolph during his rookie year. There was an MTV Cribs episode that raised the antennae of local law enforcement that Zach’s crew from his hometown was into shady business. (Expert police work, fellas.)
Zach’s journey from Portland to Memphis had a few stops in between (with the Knicks and Clippers) and they are chronicled in a great piece by Jonathan Abrams over at Grantland.
One of its many takeaways was that Zach needed a change of scenery, but not just any scene. You get the feeling that this new version of Zach the Gamer was something that was uniquely waiting for him in Memphis.
Peep this quote:
"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."
This is a city that constantly went coconuts during the playoffs when “Whoop Dat Trick” blared from speakers, while the famous scene from Hustle and Flow appeared on the Jumbotron. In contrast, Zach has said, of his time in Portland: "They don't take well to young, black urban kids coming out, having came from nothing. 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."
You can see, visually, that love and acceptance Zach gets from the Memphis fans. Even after the Game 4 loss, as he went through the tunnel back to the locker room, fans had their hands out to give him dap. They knew the guy didn’t struggle throughout the series for lack of industriousness.
And so, Z-Bo has every right to spend this next summer looking back on the 2013 postseason – even the Spurs sweep – and his newfound rep with a lot of pride. Started from the bottom, now he’s here.