As the 8-seeded the Memphis Grizzlies prepared to play the top-ranked San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, I remember thinking “the Grizz are pretty tough, I bet they take this to 6 games.” It felt—and no doubt sounded—like the pie-in-the-sky sort of thing that a Grizzlies fan would say. It wasn’t until I realized just about every basketball writer in the country was saying the same thing, that it occurred to me that the Grizzlies really did have a chance.
Of course, everyone knows what happened next: the Grizzlies pulled off the upset in 6 games, and they would’ve done it one game earlier, if not for Ginobili playing at his Ginobili-est in Game 5. What’s more, it didn’t feel like an upset; the Grizzlies were just the better team, with Zach Randolph the biggest difference.
Z-Bo was the best player on the floor—and it wasn’t even close. He spent the entire series scoring at will, frequently hitting shots that appeared to have no chance whatsoever of going in, and otherwise and repeatedly breaking the collective will of the Spurs on his way to taking over in the series. Although he was buoyed by an ascendant Marc Gasol, Z-Bo put an entire team on his shoulders in the Spurs series. After his string of great performances, including a career best regular season in which he made third-team all-NBA, it suddenly seemed perfectly reasonable to ask whether or not Zach Randolph was a legitimate star after so many years of false starts. It still does.
Which is remarkable, considering that he had spent the first nine years of NBA career with a reputation as a selfish troublemaker who hurt teams more than he helped. Z-Bo had always been a double-double machine, even as he had been trapped on lousy Blazers and Knicks teams, but no one seemed to care. His reputation as a “bad” guy dominated his identity, and he had to make his way to the NBA wilderness to escape that.
Thankfully for Z-Bo, the relative (especially to New York) obscurity of Memphis gave him a shot at rebirth, thought it wasn’t just location that haunted Randolph, as he couldn’t seem to find himself in the right place at the right time through much of the first decade of his career. In Portland, his drug arrests made him just another Jailblazer, and in New York, he was just another cog in Isaiah’s giant mess. He also played for the Clippers for a little bit, but no one remembers that.
Once he became a Grizzly in 2009, the baggage didn’t matter anymore. He simply showed up, and started dominating. Nominally, it was Rudy Gay’s team, but it was hard to deny that Z-Bo was their best player: earning the team’s first all-star berth, and bringing the perpetual cellar dweller to a respectable 40-42 mark. If it wasn’t the best season by any Grizzly ever, it certainly felt like it. As it turned out, he was just getting warmed up.
The following year, he was even better, getting that third team all-NBA nod and carrying them to a playoff berth. The team was expected to die when Gay went down, but Z-Bo prevented it, or delayed it, and if he didn't quite do it singlehandedly, he also did do an awful lot himself. Even though he couldn’t quite propel them into the Conference Finals, Z-Bo had established himself as a top-20 player, and he had turned the Grizzlies into a legit contender.
Ultimately, Z-Bo’s Memphis renaissance has been a monument to resilience. The player who seemed destined to be one of the NBA's biggest, best-compensated and most talented Human White Elephant Gifts had instead found a home, figured something important out and become one of the league’s best. Watching him put the doubters in their place as he led a decidedly blue collar team to glory was inspiring, and not just because it meant the home team won. Watching athletes win or lose is interesting enough, but watching them change, grow and improve is a different and deeper thing, and closer to the heart of why we watch sports.
Can Z-Bo get his old form back? We don’t know, of course, and it's doubtful even he does yet. Can he get close enough to it for Memphis to make a playoff run? I really hope so. He’s 30 years old, entering his 12th year. That's a lot of basketball and a great many miles; it’s hard to say how much time he has left. But, after years of frustration and failure, Randolph has emerged as a player any fan can appreciate and pull for; once one the game's biggest knuckleheads, he has become unexpectedly and undeniably admirable. Z-Bo’s first two years in Memphis were like a cheesy sports movie come to life. It was a good movie. It deserves a sequel.