The man, the mitts, the legend. Zach Randolph grew from a prized prospect with an old man game to a veteran leader with a heart for the youth.
Zach Randolph emerged as the man when he was only a boy.
It started at 16 years old, when he led his Marion High School basketball team to a State Championship in Indiana and continued two years later when he did it again by beating the state’s Mr. Basketball, future pro Jared Jeffries.
As an encore, he dominated that spring’s McDonald’s All-American Game by putting up 23 points and grabbing 15 boards. After proving king of the court in a showcase that starred Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson and Gerald Wallace, was the pride of Marion prepared to turn pro?
“After the McDonald’s Game, I looked at my mom and said, ‘What do you want me to do?'” Z-Bo recalled on Knuckleheads. “We’re poor and come from nothing so I’m making decisions for my family. My mom told me, ‘I think you should go to school for a year, baby.’ That’s what I did and I think that was the best decision I ever made.”
Arriving in East Lansing
Headed up I-69 North to the school that just cut down the nets that spring, Z-Bo took his mother’s advice and his talents to Michigan State.
With Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson gone, the young man from Marion had big shoes to fill on the court and a stat sheet to stuff.
“I remember playing against him for the first time in open gym,” college teammate Adam Ballinger told Boardroom. “He had this natural ability that was hard to explain. He had magnets in his hand, he had incredible footwork, and he could finish around the hoop. You could say he was a unicorn, a different player than I’d ever seen.”
While Randolph’s ability on the court was apparent to teammates since the first open gym, his endearing personality off of it was just as impressive.
“He always lit up a room,” Ballinger said. “There’s some guys who just get along with everyone. He wasn’t at all intimated by the guys that were there or Coach Izzo. He made best friends with everyone right away, he was somebody you always wanted to be around.”
Strong-minded and big-hearted, Randolph made an impression on the team and staff in his freshman season at Michigan State.
Only three hours from home, East Lansing adored the freshmen phenom and so did its heralded leader.
“Coach Izzo can be pretty tough and he loved him,” Ballinger said. “They had a great relationship right from the start. He fit in wherever he went but he had supreme confidence. He probably had no doubt in his mind that he was going to the NBA right after he came.”
A Pro in Portland at Only 19
Before turning 20, Randolph declared for the 2001 NBA Draft after only a season at Michigan State.
The Portland Trailblazers took him 19th overall as a loaded veteran team that had just lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was a really physical time for the NBA,” Ballinger said. “He’s tall, like 6’9 and big, but once you get to that echelon of the NBA, he wasn’t taller than most of the guys he was going against and he definitely wasn’t going to be a better athlete. That just goes to show the footwork he had, the work ethic he had, and the hands he had.”
Miles away from Marion, a young Z-Bo sat behind All-Star forwards Rasheed Wallace and Shawn Kemp, not seeing significant starts and real minutes until his third season.
In Year 3, Z-Bo exploded by averaging what would become a signature 20-and-10, winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player and putting the league on notice.
Even more impressive? He did all this in a loaded front court that saw him share time and touches with Rasheed Wallace and Shareef Abdul-Rahim, who swapped jerseys that season.
After years of putting up numbers in Portland, the maturing man from small-town Indiana was sent to the biggest market in America: New York City.
Coast to Coast to Coast
In the summer of 2007, trade winds took Randolph from the Rose City to the Big Apple, making the Marion product Manhattan’s main attraction.
Like Michigan State and Portland before it, he immediately earned respect and friendship from his new peers.
“He was a walking double-double,” Knicks teammate Quentin Richardson told Boardroom. “He had mitts by the basket, unbelievable hands. He went from being a close to the basket guy to being able to hit 15-foot jumpers. When you talk about his maturity, he grew up and rose up above everything he went through.”
As a Knick, Randolph rounded out a roster led by Jamal Crawford, Stephon Marbury and David Lee. Despite being far from home, he was able to call former foe Jared Jeffries a friend and teammate while also playing under another Midwest underdog in Isiah Thomas.
Shortly into his second season in New York, Randolph was shipped out west to the Los Angeles Clippers for a short stay on the other side of the country. Between both coasts, Z-Bo kept it consistent, hovering right around the 20-and-10 averages that would become his calling card.
Heart of the City
Stats show Zach Randolph could perform in a major market. History proves the perfect place was always Memphis.
Arriving to the Grizzlies fully formed at 28, Z-Bo became an All-Star in his introductory season in Graceland, leading the Grizzlies in scoring and spirit.
“By the time he got to Memphis, he was that guy,” Richardson said. “He was the one of the faces of grit and grind, he resonated with that city.”
As a veteran, Randolph made his mark .
With the All-Star accolades came attention and a leadership role.
His longstanding compassion for the community and embrace as a teammate began to be showcased nationally and understood around Memphis.
“That’s one of my favorite people of all time because he’s such a great person,” former Grizzlies wing Patrick Christopher told Boardroom. “Z-Bo was a leader, no question. They built a brand of basketball with grit and grind, and Z-Bo was the cornerstone.”
Playoff pushes and All-Star selections cemented Z-Bo’s status as one of the best power forwards in the game over the course of the 2010s.
However, it was his commitment to the community that will forever endear him in Memphis.
“He always gave back throughout his entire career from beginning to end,” Richardson said. “That dude’s got one of the biggest hearts in the world.”
In Memphis, the world began to know just who Z-Bo always was.
“Even though he was only at Michigan State for a year, he’s always kept in touch with all of us,” Ballinger said. “If you needed help or a favor, he’d be there for you. He’s a loyal guy and I’ve always admired that about him.”
From a teenage transplant in Portland to the big man in the Big Apple, Zach Randolph had lived a career of highs and lows before he ever found a true home outside of Marion.
In Memphis, he continued to find himself and the world began to find out.
“I came into the NBA at 19 and had my bumps and bruises,” Z-Bo told CNN in 2010. “I’m older now, I’ve got my family and I’ve matured into a better person. I’ve figured it out. I treat everybody the same, I’m a humble person. Being humble and caring is what it’s all about.”
As cold as they come on the court and as warm as it gets off of it, Zach Randolph will be remembered for his consistency in the games of basketball and life.
His tough shell may have taken many members of the media, opponents and fans to crack, but his teammates will tell you he’s always been someone who deeply cares about others.
“Guys look at him like the bully on the block, but when you see him at a community event you see that he’s got a huge heart and is a good human,” Richardson said. “That was what I got to experience playing with him that you didn’t get to see from the outside looking in.”
With his #50 jersey now retired in Memphis, Randolph’s legacy will always be tied to his time in Tennessee and the birth of the grit and grind era.
For those that have known Z-Bo since Day 1, it’s his combination of confidence and compassion that make him an all-time great.
“I think he’s one of the better sport stories of his time as far as where he came from and what he was able to do with what he had,” Ballinger said. “He stuck to his guns. He wasn’t trying to shoot 3s or trying be a different person. He knew what he was good at and he did it every single night.”