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On Zach Randolph, Love, and Basketball

In Memphis, they are all intertwined in the best of ways.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not from Memphis, not even from the south. Raised in Los Angeles, I moved here about 5 years ago. That’s why my impulsive response to the happenings of Tuesday’s game against the 76ers was to turn to my friend and say, “This is bigger than basketball,” soon followed by what has become a common refrain of mine, “Only in Memphis.”

I’ve heard it said that Zach Randolph and Memphis both are better for having known each other. That reality was palpable in the unfolding of Tuesday night in the FedEx Forum.

It wasn’t the Memphis Grizzlies play that left a lasting impression. Sure Andrew Harrison’s chase down block was sick...

...and Marc Gasol had a strong showing with 26 points and 12 rebounds. But, for all intents and purposes the game between the two depleted teams was underwhelming. What kept me reeling from last night’s game and brought chills throughout was the authentic connection between the team and the fans.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With the recent passing of Zach Randolph’s mother Mae Randolph, fans aptly expressed their sympathies while Zach took 7 games off to be present with his family. And then, Tuesday, midway through the 1st quarter, he returned. I don’t remember another time in the Grindhouse when there was a longer, more robust standing ovation. While the crowd roared, Zach attempted to get right back to business - getting on the block, ready to rebound the free throw.

If you looked closely you could see the persistent ovation just barely catch his eye as he momentarily glanced a bit beyond the hardwood and then quickly returned it as if any sustained attention beyond the purview of the game would be too heavy a reminder of why it was we desired to be there for him.

Zach came out completely cold. He air-balled multiple shots that fans have begun to expect to end with a splash. But whether his shots went in was irrelevant. What mattered was being back together in a place and situation simpler than the one we know he has been facing and that many of us are likely facing outside of the arena. The reality is no fan can take away the hurt he has likely been enduring, like we often cannot take away one another’s hurt, or even mask our own. But what we could do was cheer with everything we had because he was back with us in the reassuring joy of being fully present in sharing a love of the game.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With 9-seconds left, Zach pulled in a clutch defensive rebound, and in a moment of raw determination yanked it from the Sixers’ Ersan Ilyasova, who was trying to wrestle it away. The rawness of the moment, Z-Bo’s spending of costly emotional energy for the sake of the team, didn’t go unnoticed. JaMychal Green and Gasol embraced Z-Bo in the truest of bear hugs one can imagine, and the embrace lingered.

If you watch Gasol’s face during the embrace it seemed as if it wasn’t a celebration as much as a defense of Zach, a somber support reassuring him that even in a shifting world where everything was now forever changed for him, things on the hardwood were still the same—his basketball family was as intact as he’d left it.

Gasol, keeping his arm wrapped around Z-Bo the entire walk to the other side of the court, shared a huge laugh with him. It seemed to me a recognition that even in the sadness and struggles in life there is still real joy to be had in the levity of sharing such things as basketball. And so, when Z-Bo stepped up to take the final free throws of the game the crowd followed the example Gasol set, it embraced Zach the best it knew how or felt capable of with a hardy “ZZZZZZZ-BO, ZZZZZZ-BO” chant.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It gave me chills feeling the sincerity with which I was hearing Z-Bo welcomed back to this simpler place, where people can just be together, engulf one-another in bear hugs or chants, and enjoy a momentary reprieve from the harsh complexities of reality outside of the arena.

Thanks to Austin Crowder for the guest post. Follow him on Twitter @acrowder73.

Follow @sbngrizzlies