The Book Of Z-Bo

What’s a drama without a story arc? The character development, the plot, the compelling scenes, when good becomes bad, when darkness succumbs to light. Transformation. You need it all. Ask Spielberg, Scott and Scorsese. Ask Hemingway, Faulkner and Shakespeare.

Zach Randolph turned his life around. Trouble doesn’t follow Zach Randolph anymore. Z-Bo became a better player. Z-Bo is that dude now. We heard it all during this playoff run. But is it really true? Gospel? Or are we all just searching for a story, a morality tale, a face to pin onto the poster board of this fascinating 2011 NBA Playoff run?

On the court, he really hasn’t. Four times in his career, Randolph averaged over 20 points per 36 minutes. This wasn’t one of those years. He did work harder than ever on the glass (a career-high 20.1 total rebounding percentage). But Z-Bo has always hit the boards. He did finish with more assists than turnovers for the first time in his career, but that’s not asking a whole lot. It wasn’t a makeover. More like baby steps.

Early in his career, Z-Bo emerged as Portland’s problems with the law finally overrode their on-court success. He became the best player on a team consumed by the Jail Blazer name. Later with the Knicks and Clippers, he put up numbers, but was surrounded by terrible defensive players on teams stuck in neutral. He embodied those failures.

It’s hard to call a player great when his teams struggle. Normally this is true. The very best players, if they’re ever on a losing team, don’t stay bad for long. Randolph had us all convinced he wasn’t a leader.

He’s still very much the same player. But before this playoff run, he had appeared in eight playoff games, and just four as a starter. Yet in 13 postseason games this year, he went for 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. Big game performances define an athlete and surprising when you’re not supposed to takes it to another level. It’s hard to break out at 29 years old. But Z-Bo did this year.

“Zach Randolph has never been better than right now,” Griffin Gotta of the popular Grizzlies blog Straight Outta Vancouver wrote in an email, “and this season we’re seeing what happens when an incredibly talented basketball player accepts the biggest role of his life and flourishes.”

Off the court, did he change? It’s hard to really know. Maybe he just got smarter. Maybe he’s learned to manage his image. Maybe we were wrong all along and the man accused of being a drug kingpin, a thug and labeled one of the more selfish players in the league shouldn’t be defined by labels. Or maybe the man who used to hang a picture of Larry Hoover in his home perhaps never changed at all.

That’s the intrigue. We really don’t know. We really can’t ever know. How many people in this world do you really know? Know them inside and out? Or know their favorite cereal? Favorite musician? Favorite shirt? Intimacy is always glossed over in sports, and it leaves us with nothing but a pen and a blank piece of paper. We write our own stories, devise our own plot in our mind. We argue, and we agree. We feel we know someone when we don’t at all. The drama in this is that we don’t know, just as we don’t know whether Durant will reign terror in the Lone Star State or whether LeBron ever gets that ring to validate his career.

More than likely, Randolph matured. He got older. He settled down. Either way, he embraced a leadership role in Memphis and did things no one thought possible. He became an All-Star here, has Durant calling him the best power forward in the game here, won playoff games here and won over the city here. He turned around the Grizzlies just as they helped do the same for him.

Now, the difficult part starts. Going from irrelevant to noticed never lasts. It’s the next jump that cements an image. The move to the head of the class takes more than luck or good timing. The next 12 months will be the hardest year these Grizzlies have gone through, the move that will either leave them forgotten or remembered.

“There are expectations now,” Randolph said after the Game 7 loss. “People are going to expect us to be better. People will look at us as one of the top teams.”

Ask the 2006 Clippers. In 2005, they had it all: a Cinderella story that didn’t end until a seventh game in the conference semifinals, an up-and-coming, unstoppable-on-the-block power forward and a talented team ready for change. They were next. But next never came.

Ask the 2008 Warriors, the 2009 Hornets, the Nets of the late 1990s, the Bullets just before they became the Wizards. Memphis’ journey is just beginning.

“You’d have to imagine that next season — whenever that is — the city will be behind the Grizzlies and ready to support them one hundred percent after this playoff run,” Gotta wrote. “The Grindhouse (FedEx Forum) has arguably been the best home-court advantage in these playoffs, and, while it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of turnout for 41 games (this damn economy!), I think this season should have established a strong connection between this team and the fans. For both sides, I really, really hope it lasts.”

Can Memphis take that next step, something foreign to most in the organization? Will Marc Gasol get his money? Will Rudy Gay disrupt their rhythm? Will O.J. Mayo want to leave? Will the team still play together? Will egos stay locked down? Will their success take a shot at them? Most importantly, what will happen with Zach Randolph?

Z-Bo was never supposed to win. He wasn’t supposed to lead. Now that he has, whether it was an aberration or the start of a new age, what happens next?

What can we expect out of Z-Bo and Memphis’ future?

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