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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.

Over time, more and more people would see it, too.

So much so that now there’s little trace of the past in Andrews. At first glance at least.

The Zach Andrews his teammates know can power the Toyota Center, the D-Fenders’ home arena, with a wink. To them, he’s the team’s greatest entertainer – a constant source of energy and laughter and all the gifts that Andrews has long sought to give the world, ever since he learned the magic he could bring by putting on a smile.

“People gravitate to his enthusiasm, his smile,” said D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman.



Andrews has been a constant presence in the lane and on the boards for L.A. all year.

To his teammates, he’s Madea – the result of his performance at the Slam Dunk Contest, an homage to Larry Johnson’s Grandmama alter-ego of the 1990’s.

So when Elijah Millsap found out, he couldn’t believe it.

“At first he never talked it, so it’s something I just learned,” Millsap said. “I was in an interview with him, and somebody asked him about it. When I found out he was in a foster home, it was something you can’t tell, because the way Zach acts, you can’t tell it’s anything of that sort. He’s always upbeat about everything. … It’s a really shocking story to hear him go through things like that. It makes me want to be closer to Zach.”

That’s where it gets tricky.

Andrews feels most at home on-stage. The basketball court certainly works for that. But so does every single conversation.

“Oh yeah – life’s always been about attention, in a good way,” said Andrews’ friend, Marcus Belton. “He he wasn’t ever cocky about it, and he didn’t think he was just God’s gift to the world or anything. He just loved being around people, obviously.”

“Zach’s a charmer,” his sister, Shavonna said. “Everyone likes him, everyone is drawn to him. Not only the fact that he’s 6-foot-9, but everyone can’t help but to be like, ‘Ohhhhh Zach.’ People always told us, from middle school all the way up through high school, that like you guys are going somewhere. They continued to help us get there, and they were fighting for us to succeed.”

But that also means stuffing down the turbulence underneath. Andrews won’t let many people in on his story, unless they ask directly. He’ll let even fewer into his head.

Shavonna learned in college to open up. To trust. To acknowledge the constellation of emotions that hang over a day, let alone a lifetime.

“I was the same way until my best friend made me spill my guts to her,” she said. “I kind of broke down, so now I share everything. I don’t think he’s had that moment to settle in on his thoughts and actually see what’s going on and collectively gather them. I know he has so much on the brain.

I just want to talk to him, like, ‘Give me something.’ It’s like pulling teeth with him. I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna judge you, if you need somebody to talk to.’”

It’s not a new thing.

It’s not how bad you grew up, it’s how well you turn that into a positive.

Zach Andrews

“He’s so headstrong about the whole thing, that you could never tell,” Belton said about his early impressions of Andrews. “He was just always in a good mood. I know it was eating him up and bothering him, but he doesn’t want his troubles to be on anybody else.”

But the personality’s part of what got him to this point – “it’s not how bad you grew up, it’s how well you turn that into a positive,” he said. And why change now? He and his older sisters joke that he’s the one who set the best example for the others, even though he’s the third-youngest. They have a point.

When he went to Yuba, let alone Bradley, he became one of the roughly 6 percent of graduates from foster care with two- or four-year degrees, according to a study published by the University of Chicago in 2010. That same study also reported that more than two-thirds of the women in the group studied have children, while 60 percent of the men had been convicted of a crime and a quarter of the group had been homeless at some point after leaving the system.

But Andrews got out. And it got Shavonna thinking she could do the same thing.

“I’d often wonder where I’d be without [his] mindset,” Shavonna, who ended up playing volleyball at Claflin University (S.C.), said. “Zach’s been a role model since I was little. … It motivated me to be better because he took himself out of his situation to make it better.”

So for now, the bad stays locked away, sealed under a smile.

“When I read articles about Zach, the things he says, the things people say about him, it’s all true,” Shavonna said. “I just wish that I just knew him now. I knew what he was like back then … but I just wish I knew what he was like now, his emotions, how he feels. You can’t run away from your problems.”

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