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Behind the Smile

Zach Andrews' game has brought him to the cusp of the NBA. His life's brought him to the brink and back.

Late last summer, Zach Andrews went for a stroll along the western limit of America and looked out at the line where the Pacific meets the sky. Turning back, his eyes rolled over the people scattered in the sand, one mass of skin and shine and ambitions on hold.

He decided to make a run for it.

When Andrews competed in the 2012 NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest, the born entertainer got a chance to show off his athleticism...along with his sense of style.

He took off, shoeless, up the coast, heels digging and sand spraying and the muscles that braid around his 6-foot-9 body twitching, like horses at the gate.

He started that day in Mission Beach, at the end of the peninsula that creates San Diego’s Mission Bay, and turned around when he hit Pacific Beach, two miles up the coast. When he got back to Mission, his shoes were waiting for him. So he put them on and did it all over again.

Andrews had come to the beach to take a day off from training, before making a bid to latch on with the Los Angeles Lakers after the NBA lockout broke. But once he stepped onto the sand, he just couldn’t relax. Not when there was work to be done. Not after all he’d done just to get to that moment.

“I don’t know where the drive comes from. I can’t quit. Even if I wanted to,” said Andrews, an All-Star forward for the NBA Development League’s L.A. D-Fenders. “I could tell myself I’m tired of basketball, and I could go maybe two weeks. I can’t. My body won’t let me.”

In the two-plus decades since the 27-year old tumbled into the California foster care system and the 13 years since he left it, he hasn’t ever really stopped running. For him, like so many graduates of foster care, he lives between a From and a To. Between a past chosen for him and a future he’ll have to decide for himself. And for Andrews, what’s just ahead of him is just too bright – too inconceivable – to endanger by letting the past pull him back.

Because right now, in the NBA’s official waiting room, Andrews stands near the front of the line. In helping to propel the D-Fenders to the best record in NBA D-League history, he’s done the same to his status as a legitimate NBA prospect. For one, his frame puts him somewhere in between NBA forward, NFL linebacker and off-duty superhero. But it’s his playing style – packed with rebounds, blocked shots and the working knowledge that he barely escaped turning into a statistic – that’s pushed him into the top flight of NBA prospects. And when an NBA team goes looking for somebody fully willing to use his body as a mop, he should hang near a phone.

Which is why he won’t – why he can’t – look back. Not to those times, at least.

Because when he lets his mind fall back into the past…

Back through his years playing ball overseas, so far from home that he forgot, for a while, what got him there in the first place…

Back through a miracle run at Bradley University that took Andrews – the first member of his family to ever go to college – and his Braves team to the Sweet 16 in 2006…

Back through the coach at Yuba Community College who believed in his person and his talent enough to make Andrews believe the same things…

Back through that teacher at Rancho Cordova High School who told him to give up on the dream of going to college and especially the one of playing in the NBA…

Back through the brushes with drugs, crime and the other casualties of an abandoned existence…

Back through the years of sleeping on couches and wearing other people’s clothes…

Back through those days in eighth grade on the basketball court, after the Beltons took him in, when he was just starting to feel what it meant to be in a family and learning what it meant to love a game…

I just wanna be heard. I want to be seen.

Zach Andrews

What he remembers is the foot, pressing down on him.

“My first foster home was just so bad. Just so bad,” he said. “I remember playing in the middle of the hallway with the toys that were given to me, and the lady they had taking care of me stepped on me to get over me. On purpose. And mind you, this lady had to be at least 160 pounds. … And I can’t say anything to my social workers because they’re not gonna believe anything I say.”

He was five years old.

“That just hurt,” he said. “That’s one of my things – I just wanna be heard. I want to be seen.”

Which is why he’ll run, and burn, and dive on the floor for loose balls that nobody else cares about or show up in a polka dot dress in the NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest (like he did this year), because all Andrews wants – all he’s ever wanted – is to be noticed.

And now, he said, if he can just make one NBA team take notice and give him one chance, he’ll be there for good.

“Sometimes it frustrates me because people think, ‘Oh, he’s not serious – he just wants to be that funny guy,” he said. “Because I’m so humble, and I’m not like the other guys who can be a*****s, my energy’s different. From the way I grew up, I had that time when I was an a*****, and it doesn’t get you anywhere. I’m very serious about what I do. I’ve come this far, given my history. When I’m on that court, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to my ultimate goal, and stick with this team and have somebody say, ‘Wow, why wasn’t nobody looking at him?’”

So he’ll run. But not to escape. He’s already done that.

I’ve come real close to giving up. I didn’t think there was anything out there for me. Nobody believed in me.

Zach Andrews

He’ll run from the memory of those who spurned him, from the feeling that he was alone in this world. But he’ll also run, harder this time, for the people who brought him in and introduced him to the notion of love.

Those people, he knows, are people who made this all possible. People like the Belton and Lopez families, who took him in and made him one of their own. They’re the reason why the story of Zach Andrews doesn’t end at the first act, and it looks like it sure as hell isn’t going to stop in the second one, either.

“I’ve come real close [to giving up],” Andrews said. “I didn’t think there was anything out there for me. Nobody believed in me. And I feel if it wasn’t for my having six sisters and two brothers, and being the oldest boy to set that example, and having the Belton and Lopez families around me, as well as other families that saw the good in me and how positive a man I am, I wouldn’t be here.”

He’ll run toward the life he’s supposed to lead and the game that, finally, gave him a purpose.

“Hoops definitely was a positive force for me,” he said. “Basketball just symbolized everything I can get away from, after all I’ve been through in my life. All the negatives. It was the antidote to my sickness – to what I could’ve been.”

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