This past weekend, Zach Randolph announced on social media that he would be walking away from basketball after seventeen seasons in the NBA. Eight of those were spent in Memphis with the Grizzlies. This news means different things to different people. To those casual NBA fans who may only know him as Zach Randolph, it’s another random player to shrug at; a guy who was past his glory and couldn’t find a spot in the NBA.
Then there’s those of us who know him as Z-Bo, civic hero and basketball icon. That’s when the memories start to get personal, and the smiles begin to surface upon the faces of the people recalling them.
My dad remembers when Zach was traded to the Grizzlies in 2009 and how skeptical people were. Memphis traded him for Quentin Richardson, a pretty meaningless trade in theory, which meant that virtually the entire league had given up on Zach Randolph. Both the basketball player, and the person.
Randolph has developed a bad reputation in Portland. People around the league called him a “thug.” When he was traded to Memphis in 2009, some narrow-minded individuals gave into the common stereotype and joked that Randolph would fit in perfectly in Memphis. I was only ten at the time, so I didn’t understand or listen to any of that. In my eyes, all I ever saw Zach Randolph as was a superhero.
We remember the highlights. The victories. How he came in and took the Grizzlies to the playoffs after just two seasons, leading the team to defeat the one-seeded Spurs. Before this run, the Grizzlies had never won a playoff game in franchise history. We remember his spirit, his ruthless takedown of Grizzlies nemesis Blake Griffin, his ejection from a series clinching win in the playoffs. The way he skipped out of the arena, flinging his headband into the crowd. His energy, his tenacity, his passion...
It was like the man was a living, breathing city of Memphis.
The legendary quotes: “In my hood, bullies get bullied.” “I love my city, man, they love me back. It’s a blue-collar town; I’m a blue-collar player.” “We don’t bluff.”
They’re notable but they’re talked about enough so that they aren’t what’s important right now, because any NBA fan could discover those tidbits by a simple Google search or quick trip down memory lane. Something that cannot be found by a look in the stat book or a glance at a player’s bio is how Z-Bo, formally known as Zach Randolph, moved to a new city and became one with that city.
Nearly everybody in Memphis has their own Z-Bo story. I could sit here and tell you my numerous memories that made Zach my favorite Grizzly player of all time. I even wrote them out. In the end, these words felt meaningless considering everything Zach Randolph meant to this city.
Because the impact ZBO had on this city is too complex to be explained by the thoughts of one individual.
So I went to Twitter and asked my followers what Randolph meant to them. The responses poured in within minutes; I couldn’t believe how many people were eager to share how the six-foot-nine power forward personally impacted their lives.
I read them all. I smiled; paused a few times as certain stories led me to reflect on memories of my own. But what struck me the most about these perspectives is that they came from all types of people—all generations. Zach left his mark on so many people here from so many different backgrounds.
Z-Bo was a role model. There was my little cousin, Adam, who is new to Twitter and could not wait to tell me about the time when he was nine-years-old and Zach, his hero, made sure he knew that he hadn’t forgotten him.
Adam called out to Randolph during a home game in 2015, asking him if he could have his famous headband. Z-Bo actually responded out loud to him, promising him he’d bring it to him after the game was over.
The game ended, and Z-Bo ran out into the tunnel with the rest of the team. Adam wasn’t upset. He assumed Zach had just forgotten. Now that he’s older, he probably would understand that the player likely never intended to actually give him his headband in the first place.
But Randolph wasn’t just any player. Just seconds after he disappeared into the tunnel, the big man turned around and ran back out (as fast as Z-Bo possibly could), headband in hand. He smiled and handed it to the nine-year-old boy who idolized him before making his way back to the locker room.
Adam, who’s thirteen now, still remembers this gesture that many might view as small. “He’s a great person and I felt happy,” Adam tells me. “He is my favorite Grizzly of all time.” To this day, Adam considers that game as one of the best nights of his life.
Z-Bo was a community man. There was Devin, who’s 27 now but still remembers the impact number 50 had on his life, helping him out financially when he was in a rough spot in college.
“I was a broke college student struggling to make ends meet,” Devin recalls. “Z-Bo covered my MLGW bill on two separate Christmases.”
Devin is a fellow writer for GBB with a die-hard passion for the Grizzlies, but he admits to me that no playoff experiences, as great as they were, beat the relief of being able to make ends meet during a difficult time.
“I had a full-time job and I was a college student at the time, so I had an unparalleled amount of stress on me.” In 2012 and 2013, Randolph took that stress away for not only Devin but hundreds of others in similar financial situations, including Devin’s aunt, a single mom who Devin says Zach “really impacted her life.”
Z-Bo was a friend. There was Nick, who was working as a bartender in 2013 when Zach strolled in with some friends. The two shared drinks as the hours passed into the AM, telling each other stories like old buddies. Nick was dating a young lady named Summer at the time, and was skeptical about proposing. It was his advice from Z-Bo that inspired him to take that leap. Two weeks later, Nick proposed to her at Disney World.
“I’d like to think because of Zach I asked Summer to marry me,” he laughs.
Twitter user @MSF10710 says that Z-Bo inspired her to keep fighting when she had ovarian cancer with his never-quit attitude. @grizzgranny notes that she admired the way he took care of Memphis’ elderly, kids, and anybody in need. @Danieljackson94 says Randolph’s grit and grind attitude helped mold him into the person he is today, personally and professionally.
Zach Randolph touched thousands of people in Memphis. These are just a few of them. Hopefully their stories help people understand how one man came into a city and represented it, meanwhile never shying away from letting it represent him.
Zach is and was was proud of Memphis, and he embraced the city in its entirety in a way that no player has ever been able to mimic: the culture, the people, the music, the community. He was a player who nobody expected to succeed, who came to a city nobody expects to succeed, and somehow both of them did it together. Never before has somebody who was not originally been from Memphis understood Memphis as much as Z-Bo did; as much as he still does.
Congratulations, Number 50, as you hang up your basketball shoes and move onto the next phase of your professional life. You’ve changed more lives than you know in Memphis, and the city is better for it.