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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.

The first idea of a To - a life ahead of him, something in his control to wrench him out of the grips of the past – started at 14.

After living with the Wrights, Zach and Shavonna moved into one more foster home. Then, when they were 12 and 11, respectively – in sixth and fifth grade – they went back home to Rancho Cordova to live with their mother.

“My mom finally got herself together, and we ended up moving in with her,” Zach said.

By then, there was another member in the house. Andrews’ mother had given birth to another boy when the kids were away at foster care. And once again, as the burdens grew, so did their mother’s problems with substances.

“There’d be times when I’d come home and I could just feel it – I could be three blocks away and I could just feel that she’s been drinking, like, all day from being stressed, and worrying about bills, having no car to get groceries,” he said. “Now, I respect her struggle a lot.”

Andrews picked up the game in eighth grade -- and fell in love immediately.

But then, he and Shavonna would just exchange glances and eye rolls and warn each other that mom was in one of her ‘moods.’

“It’d be funny because if I got home he’d say mom’s in her mood again, it was like ‘siiiiigh, I don’t want to be home,’” Shavonna said. “I remember one incident where we didn’t have a key to the house and my mom wasn’t there, and there was a dance at the middle school. We really wanted to go because we already bought our tickets, we were like ‘how are we gonna do this?’

“Zach ends up climbing thought the window and opening the door and we went to the dance,” she continued, laughing. “We’re like ‘We’re gonna get in trouble, but we wanna go to the dance.’ I don’t remember us getting in trouble. She was just like, ‘where you been at?’”

Sometimes she’d disappear altogether. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes all night.

“It was like, ‘Where’s Mom? When’s she coming home?” Shavonna said. “I’d always think of it like I don’t want to get a phone call saying something bad happened to her. That’s what happened with our dad. We didn’t really have contact with our dad so much. It was crazy, I just happened to be with Zach at our house and I got a phone call from my aunt saying my dad passed away.”

With no anchor at home, Zach floundered. He fell in with other kids from the housing complex that he thought “cared about my being” and ended up stealing whatever he could get his hands on. Nothing major, he said, but he remembers the feeling of guilt that chased him back home after getting away with one theft.

“I got home and was like ‘this ain’t for me,” he said.

And he remembers it so well because soon after that, he met Maurice Belton.

He was outside in the complex when he met Maurice’s mother, who told Zach that he needed to meet her son. That they’d be friends from the start. She was right.

“I ended up hanging out with him, and we just fell in love with each other,” Andrews said. “He kept a positive head on my shoulders. That kept me away from the drugs, and having mood swings toward women. I could be out there selling drugs, in and out of jail, with five mouths to feed, just having that stress on my shoulders. I wouldn’t have a good-paying job, because I’m in and out of jail, so nobody would take me seriously.”

He, Maurice and Maurice’s older brother, Marcus, went everywhere together. So much so that the Beltons invited Zach to live with them when he needed to. Which was, for the most part, always.

He was never officially adopted, but from eighth grade until the end of high school, the Beltons became the first family he ever really recognized as such. He refers to Marcus and Maurice in passing as his brothers, and to their father, Michael, as his own. And all through high school, as a world began to take shape in front of him, he found solace – and a hospitable couch – at the Belton household, with the occasional month at his friend Steven Lopez’s (whose mother, Valerie, Andrews calls his mom).

“Both families never asked any questions,” he said. “I was always welcome to stay.”

“There was just a lot of stuff they were going through that I couldn’t comprehend myself,” Marcus said. “It was a good opportunity for him to come and stay with us.”

I just made it my duty to get better and better so I can be seen, to be the talk of the town. For people to just say, 'Wow.'

Zach Andrews

As part of the family, Andrews got the same treatment as Marcus and Maurice, which meant doing everything the Beltons did, from dinner to daily chores. But above all, basketball.

The boys would come home from school, do their homework and chase the daylight playing basketball. Then they’d come home and watch the Sacramento Kings, talk hoops all night until it was time to fall asleep and dream of playing for the Kings.

Andrews, at 6-foot-1 as a 12-year-old, was built for the game.

And from the start, he was just terrible at it.

“I was tall, and that’s the only reason I got picked up on the team, is that I was tall,” he said. “I can’t help but laugh because it’s true.”

But he loved it. He loved the pace of the game and the way everything moved. The choreography of it all. And he loved how it made him, for the first time he could remember, feel like he was part of something. To feel like he had some control over his life and the way it intersected with the rest of the world.

“I enjoyed the thrill of it, how fun it was, how well I would communicate with the kids – how they would relate to me,” he said. “From then on, I just made it my duty to get better and better so I can be seen, to be the talk of the town.

“For people to just say ‘wow.’”

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