There are few things more important to the history of mankind than the river.
Fresh water, a plentiful food source, naturally powered travel, a means to transport life and wealth to destinations near and far. In the grand scheme of civilization, the river made humans mobile and capable of a literal and figurative world of possibilities.
In the United States, there is no river as mighty or meaningful as the Mississippi. The massive waterway that runs right alongside Memphis, Tennessee is of course the home of the Memphis Grizzlies and their group of misfit heroes. I used to live by the river, and on my way home from work early in the morning I would sometimes stop and watch the sun's light spread from east to west, across the Mississippi River towards Arkansas, as it rose.
I would watch barges and other ships roll up and down the river, heading toward their final destination, bright lights leading the way in the beginnings of the morning dawn. Guiding the ships were people trying to find their way to a better life, or better trade, or just their way home to loved ones. I felt a connection to that idea; being able to count on something, or someone, unconditionally. Just as hundreds of thousands have done in the decades and centuries prior.
The river itself is imperfect, of course. It is dirty, with the artifacts and trash of years rolling along in the water. It has a stench that, depending on the time of day or direction of the wind, can catch you by surprise in the worst way. The history of the river is littered as well by prejudice and struggle for equality in work and in life overall. But this flawed feature of America's geography is ingrained in Memphis lore, as much a part of the city's past, present, and future, as anything ever could be.
To paraphrase Billy Beane in Moneyball, how can you not be romantic about Memphis and the opportunity that exists up and down that consistent, perfectly problematic river.
There have been few players in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies more dependable than Zach Randolph.
Over the past three seasons combined, who has been there for Memphis more than any key Grizzly with regard to games played?
|2013-2014||2014-2015||2015-2016||Total Games Played|
Over the past three seasons combined, who has played the most minutes per season on average among the "core four", and who is the only member of that illustrious group to have played over 2,000 minutes every season?
|2013-2014||2014-2015||2015-2016||Average Minutes Per Season|
Over the past three seasons combined, who has the best average PER among the "core four"?
|2013-2014||2014-2015||2015-2016||Three-Year Average PER|
Not Zach Randolph...but he is within .63 of that top spot, being three years older than Marc Gasol and six years older than Mike Conley. Zach Randolph, having played in more games and with more minutes logged than both of them over that three season time span, is within their level of production (according to this one statistical measurement).
It isn't that he is better than Marc or Mike. On the contrary, he is clearly the third best player on the roster when everyone is healthy. But Zach, more than any other player over the past three seasons, has been asked to play above his means consistently. Randolph has, more than any other player, been forced outside of the best use of him, whether it be because of injury or roster turnover. He has had to go beyond his most efficient role to make the Memphis Grizzlies' ends meet as a basketball team.
He isn't always pretty. His defense, while respectable at times, especially struggles when Marc Gasol is gone. He takes some ill-advised shots some, as his shot chart from the past 11 games (in which the Memphis Grizzlies' record was 1-10) indicates.
17 of 53 from the floor outside of the paint but inside the three point arc, or 32% shooting. An over-reliance on the jab-step jumper, perhaps a consequence of tired legs on a man being asked to carry a squad that is battered and broken. The struggle when he is off is noticeable, and crippling.
But he is there. Rolling along. Moving on, as the world descends in to chaos around him. Fighting, scratching, clawing...
Gritting and Grinding.
The Memphis Grizzlies head into the 2016 NBA Playoffs finding themselves in a familiar situation. The machine known as the San Antonio Spurs have had the best regular season in their history, and they welcome Memphis to Texas this Sunday with another opportunity to crush the Grizzlies. The injury problems have been significant, with multiple key players being out of the picture...including Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Even Tony Allen may be out for the first game of the series this Sunday. Memphis Grizzlies' fans are relating more and more with Bill Murray's character in the film Groundhog Day; it's like a nightmare that is being re-lived over and over and over again.
But another familiar idea holds true - Zach Randolph will be in the building.
He will surely be a key aspect of Gregg Popovich's game plan. "Make Lance Stephenson, or Matt Barnes, or Vince Carter beat you", he is almost surely saying to his players leading in to the series. And he should be saying this - Zach was a major reason the Spurs were upset in 2011. Randolph crushed San Antonio, forcing them to change their identity, to adapt so they did not die. There is surely respect for Zach in that, but that also means there will be hard times awaiting ZBo over this next week or so.
He will be asked to carry the load, to find teammates out of double teams, and to take on bigger, taller players in the post. He will have to knock down those jab-step jumpers just to make San Antonio honor them, so the paint can be freed up ever so slightly for his wings and ball handling guards. He will, again, be forced outside of his comfort zone and best role yet again, to be more than he realistically can be as a player at this point. And he will likely struggle. And stumble. And there may be some ugly sights in the near future as this hard season will seemingly fade to black soon enough.
But through all this, Zach will be there, doing his best for his teammates and himself. Not complaining.
Just rolling along. A light meant to lead.
Leaving the banks of the Mississippi River was always hard.
My grandfather and I would go fishing on the Shenandoah River in Virginia in my youth, and we would talk about life as men and boys tend to do: girls, careers, religion, and life at large. We would drift down the river as the sun rose, looking over the fog slowly lifting over the water. In between conversation about the ins and outs of life, the waking nature around us would fill the silence and the senses. Our boat would continue to float along, as sure as that sunrise, a man and his grandson looking down a body of water that had survived the ages.
I always thought of my grandpa as I sat there in Memphis, looking at the mighty Mississippi. How I knew I could depend on him, how I always associated that trust with our fishing trips, especially on the Shenandoah. The same way that the people of Memphis and the surrounding areas have depended on the Mississippi River for centuries, and on a smaller scale how the people of Memphis have come to depend on Zach Randolph both on and off the court. There are flaws in men and rivers, of course, and that dependability does not always translate to wins or wealth.
But it is comforting. Just as I knew I could talk to my grandfather and learn how to be a better man, and just as Memphis knows that the Mississippi River will be there when we need it despite its problems, the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans know they can count on Zach Randolph to be there. To lead the way. To carry these Grizzlies through the darkest part of this season, toward a hopeful new dawn on the horizon, imperfections and all.
I often left the river with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, thankful for grandfathers and rivers. Win or lose, Memphis and their Grizzlies will surely be grateful for Zach Randolph and his presence, his place in the city's illustrious basketball history...
...and his ability, despite it all, as Paul Robeson famously sang of the struggles of African-Americans in the deep south on that flawed Mississippi River, to just keep rolling along.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats