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Z-Bo haters are missing the point

Randolph’s complex symbiosis with the city changed how we should and do view him.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies
A rough body and soft hands made for a paradoxical—and lovable—figure in Memphis.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of The Memphis Grizzlies’ announcement that they would retire Zach Randolph’s number 50, an onslaught of good tidings and congratulations ensued.

From the owner to the front office to teammates to the media and even to LeBron James, people tweeted out their respect for both Randolph and the organization. It was a classy move for the franchise’s greatest player.

However, not everyone agreed with Memphis’ decision to hang 50 from the rafters, most notably this guy:

It’s pretty apparent from looking at that Twitter slash line (replies/retweets/likes) that his tweet did not go over well. And it should also be duly noted that Mr. Kuharsky, a Nashville sports radio show host, claims in his Twitter bio to be a “[f]lawed guy” and “[t]oo much of a cynic.” But, with the exception of a tweet apologizing for misspelling “Zach,” Kuharsky stuck to his guns.

In subsequent replies to angry Randolph and Grizzlies fans, Kuharsky comes off as stodgy and tone deaf and condescending. But veiled in this off-putting rhetoric were some intriguing comments.

His main points of contention when boiled down are:

  1. Randolph put up numbers that do not correlate with other players who’s numbers have been retired.
  2. The Grizzlies are not old enough nor successful enough of a franchise to warrant a franchise leader’s number retirement.
  3. That “meaning” should not play a role in a player’s greatness level.

When presented in this less confrontational manner, these three takes seem actually to hold some solid ground. Randolph averaged 16.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in Memphis and is a franchise leader in a number of categories including, unsurprisingly, rebounding.

Only three players have ever averaged less than 17 points and grabbed 10.2 or more rebounds per game and been elected to the Hall of Fame, all three of whom out-scored and out-rebounded Randolph, two of whom averaged 18 boards or more and one of whom is Bill Russell.

That’s not to say that being a Hall of Fame candidate is a necessary pre-requisite for having a jersey number retired, but it definitely would pad a résumé.

Considering the franchise is only 22 seasons old, a lot of Randolph’s franchise-leading stats should honestly be viewed skeptically. No one else besides Mike Conley and the Gasol brothers (and if you take it back to Vancouver, Shareef Abdur-Rahim) has any type of legitimate claim to his level of production. And that’s not saying Randolph has had a Kobe-like reign with the Grizzlies. It’s to say the Grizzlies have not had enough time nor success to produce untouchable franchise leaders.

And speaking of success, the Grizzlies have never really been close to the league’s ultimate goal. The team never won a title, never won the conference, never won the division and had what could be described as “slightly better than Chris Paul” playoff success during Randolph’s tenure.

Therefore, there’s some truth to Kuharsky’s harsh tweet, which makes it sting that much more. But where Kuharsky’s argument fails is in his brutal interpretation of “meaning.”

He’s not entirely wrong, as it would be foolish to retire someone like Hamed Haddadi’s number just because he was a cult fan favorite.

But “meaning” in this curious and unprecedented instance is the defining factor. No player in today’s sports culture (outside of maybe Lionel Messi) has so gloriously defined what his team and that city stand for. You might mention LeBron and Cleveland, but I’ll counter by saying that James is the best player in the world and Cleveland, hate to break it to you, is not the best city in the world although James is from that area of Ohio.

Randolph did not pretend to be the best player in the world or in the league or at times even on his own team. But he was unabashedly himself—tougher than all hell, paradoxical in his brute force and pristine technique, totally unafraid. He spawned one of the league’s foremost basketball cultures, one that will someday be remembered like the Bad Boy Pistons or the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns.

Grit N’ Grind is more than a saying. It is a culture that defined not just a basketball team, but an entire city. Few players, Hall of Fame candidacy or otherwise, can aspire to that level of synonymity between individual, organization and city. It’s what vaults Randolph into a higher level, reserved only for the greats.

None of that is even to mention his great work in the community, which was well chronicled in Geoff Calkins’ tribute from yesterday’s Commercial Appeal.

And I mean...

So yeah, Randolph’s numbers aren’t eye popping. And the team didn't reach a Finals while he was here. These things are true. But the intangibles matter, and Zach’s intangibles as a Grizzly are larger than life, almost as if they were written for a story.

And everyone knows every good story deserves a happy ending.

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