Posted Dec 20 2010 10:25AM
Zach Randolph has often been accused of playing Santa Claus for the wrong people, although these days his priorities and Christmas list looks about right.
He paid a visit to Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis last week and will make a return visit Wednesday, to spread holiday cheer in the brain cancer ward. One hundred of the poorest families in Memphis will have their December utility bills paid for by a player most likely to light up the scoreboard for the Grizzlies. Then there's the upcoming Wal-Mart shopping spree, where another 100 kids will think it's Black Friday, except all their items will be heavily discounted, down to free.
And two kids in particular, 5-year-old MacKenly and 18-month-old Maziya, will never know the hardship their father went through during Christmases past, since Randolph was born to a mother who couldn't always afford gifts for him and her other three kids.
"God has blessed me to be in this position," Randolph said, "so this is my way of doing things for people who otherwise can't do for themselves."
Even more important to Randolph is that he's helping out Memphis, his adopted hometown. It's the place where he has finally found personal peace and professional success, having made the All-Star team last season while being a positive reflection on the franchise. This paints a starkly different picture of his party-guy reputation and a pin-ball journey that saw him bounce around three teams before finally landing with the Grizzlies. The city has gravitated to him, like so many Peabody ducklings.
"Memphis is a place I can relate to," Randolph said. "It's not a particularly easy city to live in right now. You have to work hard to get through the day. The character and the style of the city fits me. That, and the way the city has embraced me from the time I got here. People are really genuine and really care about you. So there's a connection. I feel wanted in Memphis. I feel like I belong."
He had similar vibes in Portland and New York (he also played with the Clippers) but not this strong. And not this real. Perhaps it was because Randolph is a different person now than before. Put it this way: Had Randolph began his career in Memphis, as he did in Portland as a thrill-seeking 19-year-old, he'd be a fixture on Beale Street. Instead, you're more likely to find him in the community making charity appearances or his own home.
"I'm kind of boring to be around now," he said.
Take away his first two years in the league, when he was still in development, and Randolph has easily been one of the more productive power forwards over the last decade. His averages of 20 points and just over 10 rebounds during that span support that argument. Of course, Randolph fell out of favor in a few places because of a lifestyle that he was too slow to escape.
Ask anyone who has ever spent time with Z-Bo, though, and that includes his coaches and teammates on all of his previous stops, and they'll insist Randolph is one of the most misunderstood players around. He's always had a big heart, and not just at Christmas, except he was trusting of the wrong people and influences. As Randolph himself admitted: "I'm mature. I look at things differently and more professionally than before."
He's now 29, and with age comes wisdom, two children and quieter days and nights. Randolph feels much more fulfilled when he's involved in community work and being a role model especially where role models are needed most: his own home.
"I pretty much stay in with my kids," he said. "I read books to them, help them with school. I'm a family guy. I've become humble and respectful. I'm now focused on my kids and raising them the right way, making sure they're safe and taken care of and going in the right direction.
"My mother, who's my role model, struggled and did the best she could, raising four kids on welfare as a single mom, with no help. It wasn't easy. A lot of times during Christmas, we needed help from charity. Sometimes we didn't even get gifts. But I praise her and look up to her because I know how tough it was. That's why I can relate to certain communities not only back in my hometown, but here in Memphis. I know how hard it is for lots of families this time of year."
These are words to remember next summer, when Randolph becomes an unrestricted free agent. While the Grizzlies are respectable and competitive most nights, they're not on a championship level. Will Randolph, still in his prime, do a LeBron on the Grizzlies, who already gave generous contract extensions to Rudy Gay and Mike Conley and might not be able to afford him?
"Well, it's a business, so I really can't say what will happen," he said. "But I will say that I'd like to finish my career in Memphis. I've never felt this embraced by a team and community. I love this city."
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