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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…

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.”

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

Zach Andrews

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*****s, 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.

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.

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

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.”

He was three years old when he became the charge of the State of California.

Until then, Andrews had spent most of his life living with his grandmother. His father hadn’t been present since his birth, and his mother couldn’t do much better. As her children got older and the pressures added up, she turned to chemicals – most often alcohol – to rinse life, briefly, away.

“It was just a struggle for her,” Andrews said. “You’ve got six kids, and you’re the only one that’s providing.”

So he and his sisters – there are four of them on his mom’s side, of six total children – moved in with their father’s mother in Rancho Cordova. She managed for a bit, making sure that the kids had clean clothes, that the girls’ hair was “perfect” and that everyone got to school on time, Andrews said. Then her body started to fail her.

“My grandma was always in and out of surgeries,” said Andrews’ younger sister, Shavonna. “So she didn’t have the ability to take care of us. She was like ‘I can’t do it,’ and mother was nowhere to be found.”

“She needed to get better, and she couldn’t give me and my sisters attention we needed at the time,” Zach said.

The family splintered. The older girls went to live in a group home, while Zach and Shavonna went to live together in a smaller setting. It was here that Andrews remembers his foster mom stepping on him in the hallway.

But it only got worse when the two split, with Shavonna staying with a new family and Zach moving to a group home for boys.

“It was a situation where you don’t have someone to look out for you,” Shavonna said. “I know he had a couple issues in the boys home with the other boys. They’d just be mean to him and that kind of thing. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like to remember it as that, but it wasn’t all peachy.”

So when Zach went to his next foster home, he brought scars with him.

His next stop was Sacramento, where he moved in with the Wrights, an older couple that gave him the first consistent feeling of love he’d had since his grandmother passed away. He just wasn’t ready for it.

“Because I was so full of anger from the first foster home, I took advantage of that family,” he said. “I was doing things like stealing, and I just didn’t care about school as much as I wish I would’ve.”

Later, when Andrews aged out of the foster system, as the term goes, he’d jump on the bus and go visit the Wrights to say thanks.

“Half of the things I do now are because of that family,” he said. “I learned a lot of manners from them and how to be very polite. I wish I could’ve thanked them more before they passed away. I don’t know how they put up with me that much, but they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.’”

They have.

They’ve said it in Spain – where Andrews started his pro career after graduating from Bradley in 2007. They’ve said it in Turkey and Bosnia and Japan, too, where his travels also took him. They said it at L.A. D-Fenders tryouts this year, where Andrews’ passion and play convinced a skeptical L.A. staff that they had a place for him.

“The things he did in training camp were impressive,” Millsap said. “I was surprised he didn’t make the Lakers team.”

“He’s super-athletic,” said D-Fenders guard Orien Greene, a veteran of 131 NBA games. “He was jumping over Antoine Walker the other day, and that’s not easy.”

But it took some time.

Andrews excelled at football in high school, where, as a 6-foot-6 wideout, he could rely on just jumping over people. Basketball took some nuance. Some work. And because Andrews finally had some stability and a sense that his world wasn’t just going to vanish again – and his work blown away – he could put the requisite time in. And in those years, he developed a work ethic that’s stayed with him today.

“[Without them] I think I’d be very lazy,” he said. “Like, saying ‘I don’t want to do this, and the result being right back into possibly trying drugs, being with different women, and having children. I’ve got real close.”

By the time he finished high school, he’d made himself into an elite big man, scoring 22.5 points with 11.5 rebounds a game in his senior year at Cordova High. But his grades weren’t there yet, so the big colleges stayed away.

Which opened the door for Yuba Community College head coach Doug Cornelius to swoop in and extend Andrews an opportunity.

Over two years at Yuba, Andrews went on to earn Bay Valley East All-Conference honors after leading the league with 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in his sophomore season, a year in which he led Yuba to the most wins (24-7) in program history. By the spring of 2005, he’d earned his Associate’s degree.

“There was a time in my senior year where I didn’t know what was gonna happen,” he said. “I had no idea what I was gonna do after high school. I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college.”

Two years later, he graduated from Bradley College with a Bachelor’s degree in theater, having led the Braves to two straight 22-win seasons, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2006. In 67 career games in Peoria, Andrews set the school’s all-time record for field goal percentage (.621), picking up 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.

He went immediately overseas, starting in Spain. And until he came back to California last summer, in anticipation of a trip to the NBA D-League – and, if things went as planned, an NBA Call-Up – he didn’t play pro ball in America again.

But this year, he said, he needed to come home. He wasn’t getting the opportunities he wanted abroad, and it wasn’t hard to see the benefit of playing in the D-League during a lockout-shortened (and, thus, prospect-friendly) NBA season.

And if he doesn’t let on about his past, ever since he returned to the States, it’s been clear just how much the idea of a From still informs his game.

He didn’t play a starring role on the D-Fenders this year, but that’s only because the team had other players – scorers like Gerald Green, Jamario Moon and Elijah Millsap – to occupy the spotlight. Andrews was just content to do everything else, including the stuff nobody else felt like doing. Over the course of 44 regular-season games with L.A., he finished 10th in the league in rebounds per 48 minutes (13.8), ahead of GATORADE Call-Ups Malcolm Thomas, Jeff Foote, Dennis Horner, and Greg Smith.

He also finished the year with one of the league’s top 15 Net Ratings, a measure of how much better a player makes a team when he’s on the court, versus on the bench.

“I see why he has so much passion,” Millsap said. “He puts his heart into the game, grabs rebounds, does everything coach asks him to do.

“I think Zach’s gonna go into the NBA and do the dirty work,” he continued. “The guys that come to mind are guys like Big Baby … Zach’s not gonna give you 20-25 points per game, but he will give you 10 points a game on his energy and effort alone.”

Basketball’s always been a release for him.

“If I am mad, it’s only on the court,” he said. “And when that game’s done, I leave it on the court. It’s a different kind of anger when I leave it on the court. It’s a positive energy. It’s a negative energy that on the court changes into a positive energy I can use to get better.”

And he’s gotten better. Better by little bits and better by leaps over the course of the season, his coach said. He’s focused his energy into the details, polishing up the aspects of his game that he’d always just relied on his athleticism for. And as he’s done so, he’s grown into a threat not to just make it to the NBA, but to stay up there.

“He’s an amazing story,” Musselman said. “There are people that come from perfect upbringings, with two-parent homes that come from well-too-do environments – private schools and all that – and Zach’s a testament that it’s what’s inside of you that matters.

“He’s the type of guy where you can’t put anything behind him, because he’s gonna figure out a way to come out on top.”

And one day, when he’s on top, he knows the From will come back. He’s already offering his help to the California foster system to help talk to kids walking the same, lonesome path he took. But the big moment’s still ahead, he believes, because for some reason, he can’t shake the feeling that when he has kids, they’ll have friends who were just like him.

“I want the ability to say that you can eat here anytime you want, that we have extra blankets,” he said. “If we go on a trip to Disneyworld, I wanna say it’s OK when my son or daughter says can so-and-so come.

“I want them to have that love I never really had, even though their mom or dad is struggling,” he said. “That’s the kind of parent I see myself being, thanks to the people that brought me up.”

Even if he never plays a minute the NBA, Andrews has already won. The NBA is the stated goal, of course, but what it’s always signified is a life of freedom and stability. A life that started in chaos finishing under control.

He already has those things, though. He’s had help in getting there – crucial, life-altering help from the many who’ve taken him into their homes and hearts over the years. But he’s also done much of it himself. And in reaching this point, in living a life of his choosing, he’s done something few men of any background have managed: he’s broken free from fate.

“I’m the best kind of example for kids growing up in the foster care system because we’ve all been told we wouldn’t amount to anything better than what we are – that we need to accept who we are, and that’s not necessarily true,” he said.

He paused.

“In fact I’m sorry, that’s not true at all.”

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