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Zach Randolph and Memphis: Changed for good

As much as the man brought out the best in Memphis, Memphis brought out the best in the man.

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

Zach Randolph was arrested for underage drinking in 2002.

He punched one of his teammates in the face in 2003.

He was put in juvenile detention multiple times as a child, for robbery and for battery. He made mistakes.

But he worked. And changed. And basketball saved him.

Memphis has high crime and murder rates. Entirely too high poverty. Racial tension and education controversy. It struggles daily in a variety of ways.

But they work. And are pushing toward change. And basketball is helping to save them.

Memphis and Zach Randolph needed each other when they came together in 2009. Zach had been traded from the Los Angeles Clippers after they selected Blake Griffin 1st overall. The Grizzlies had been in Memphis for eight seasons, and while they had made the playoffs three of those eight campaigns they had yet to win a game in the postseason. Both team and player were overlooked, not taken seriously, written off as afterthoughts. Zach would never be the leader of a good team, and Memphis would never be a serious NBA franchise capable of contending.

But then the 2011 playoffs happened. And while the city faced great adversity from flooding, the Memphis Grizzlies, led by Zach Randolph, gave them a reason to believe.

At the end of that tribute is people from all walks of life chanting “Z-Bo”, cheering on their hero, a man who was not just a blue collar player...he was their blue collar player. And that amazing playoff run helped spark a love affair the likes of which are rare in professional sports anyway, much less in this day and age.

Memphis helped make Zach Randolph. It gave him opportunity to be the man. It allowed for him to show that he was more than the dumb kid making mistakes, the young player allowing for anger to get the better of him. There was more to him than that. He was passionate. He was an All-Star. He added eight seasons to what may well be a Hall of Fame career once he decides to hang it up.

And Zach Randolph helped make Memphis better. He was a community leader, donating time and treasure to those less fortunate than him. He paid power bills. He fed families. He reached out to those who felt as if no one cared and showed them compassion. He took ownership of his NBA home and made it his. And both the man and the city grew because of it.

And now? Even with his departure, Randolph and Memphis will forever be intertwined.

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

It didn’t end the way Grizzlies fans wanted it to. This winter Zach will be wearing the purple, black, and white of the Sacramento Kings. It will feel so strange to see him opposing the team whose greatest era he helped define. Playing against the two players he watched grow in to men in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, competing to send the crowd that once cheered for him home sad after a Grizzlies loss.

But life is filled with comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes. The departure from what we once knew for something new does not take away from what happened the past eight, and especially seven, seasons.

He was imperfect, and so was Memphis. He was aggressive, and so was Memphis. He showed that there was still value in learning life lessons and redefining your own story. That is a message that Memphis needed then, and still needs now. The legacy of Zach Randolph as a Grizzly is beyond that of just a basketball player.

It is a legacy of 18,119 people of all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses holding up a symbol of belief in something. Or someone. There are no allusions of grandeur here - Memphis is not perfect, and a basketball player and team do not solve problems that have been around for decades. Those same people who clutched their Growl Towels have made mistakes, and done or said bad things.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

But they all, for the briefest of moments, were united in a common hope. And isn’t that what sports is about? Championship rings eventually lose their shine, banners fade. But eras like the one Zach Randolph led? They get passed down through the generations.

My daughter isn’t old enough to appreciate the end of this era. She likes Moana, a lot, and also enjoys a good chicken nugget. But as I hopefully pass down my fandom to her, I will tell her about the Grizzlies player who I once (stupidly) wanted to trade who helped to teach me the power of sports. How they can make you feel at home somewhere you don’t know, and feel connected to someone you’ve never met. How a city, a team, and their unlikely hero can symbiotically co-exist in real love for one another, thanks in part to a jab step, a smile for a fan, and a headband.

How being right isn’t as important as what is right. And how having been a part of such a community can change everyone, from player to fan to an entire city, for good.

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