Zach Randolph doesn't make much sense as one of the great forwards of his generation right up until the moment you watch him play basketball. He's doughy, undersized, and ground-bound; he is also smooth, bull-strong, and smart. His game is built around various knacks: for getting inside position on rebounds, for jostling into his favorite post-up spots, for fading slightly on jumpers, so the ball gets just a few inches over the fingertips of a larger defender.
Randolph has learned every trick of the trade, and applies them with wild, understated panache. He's also a lot more nimble than his frame would suggest, which is how a guy who has always looked like he could stand to drop 15 pounds and whose sprinting speed tops out at Carrying A Sack Full of Bocce Balls Over His Shoulder has put up 17 points and 10 rebounds over a career that's now in its 14th year. Well, that and the fact he's a tough motherfucker. That has also helped.
We've been watching Randolph's twilight, or the long late pinnacle that seems like it, for a while now. It's been nearly three-and-a-half years since he suffered an MCL tear in his right leg, which sapped the last of his not-terribly-impressive-in-the-first-place running and jumping ability. During the six months after the injury, it looked like Z-Bo might fall off completely, but he showed up for the 2012-13 season in a state of humble, Z-Bo'ish readiness—if not quite back to his prime self, Randolph showed he was still an exceedingly difficult cover on the block for any power forward who couldn't handle a firm shoulder to the chest every fourth trip down the floor.
Even at his comparatively advanced basketball age, Randolph is still quite good, and still nailing 12-footers and liftless hook shots and corralling rebounds like he's out there picking apples. He can't do this forever, of course; that reality has been present more or less from the start. But when Randolph takes over a game for a few minutes without executing a physical maneuver you couldn't find at a local YMCA pickup scrum, you get the sense that, shit, maybe he'll still be able to give Memphis some bench scoring in 2020.
[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/05/15/zach-randolph-the-memphis-grizzlies-and-the-meaning-behind-the-grind-body-image-1431668215.jpg' width='1779' height='1186']
This is roughly as polite as Z-Bo gets, which is something you should absolutely not take up with Z-Bo. — Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The city, which he has adopted and which has accepted him in turn, would certainly get a thrill out of that. Of the many remarkable elements of Randolph's NBA tenure, perhaps the most remarkable is that a player who somehow embodied the least appealing attributes of both the fanbase-alienating Jail Blazers and the What The Fuck Is Isiah Doing? Knicks has, in the third act of his career, established himself as a folk hero in Memphis. On one level, his arc is familiar: a seemingly good-hearted dude prone to truly terrible decisions and overly loyal to a few boneheaded friends matures and becomes less prone to self-destruction in his late twenties. It's not a novel tale; this phenomenon has been taking place for roughly as long as 22-year-old men have been doing bafflingly dumb shit. More or less everyone in their twenties aspires to this story arc in some way.
What's refreshing about The Cult of Z-Bo is that he's rehabbed his reputation without any phony mea culpas or flack-sculpted claims of personality overhaul. He has come to his new and responsible(-ish) adulthood honestly. Randolph has changed insofar as he's stopped smoking weed in his car and drag-racing on the highway at three in the morning, but he's still the same bow-throwing, no-bluffing, plainspoken guy he has always been. There is a lot to love about a player like that. Memphis has celebrated all of it; they have made him their own. Z-Bo is not a Jail Blazer, or a failed Knick or a forgotten Clipper. He's a Grizzly, in perpetuity.
This is why, whenever Z-Bo hits his inevitable, end-of-career-signalling decline, the Junkyard Grizz will be no more. Franchises move on from players, but eras remain forever locked in place. This is worth mentioning because the Golden State Warriors look set to bounce Memphis from the playoffs, and Randolph will be 34 in July. Speculating as to whether this has been his last good year is useless, but recognizing that it might be helps us appreciate both Z-Bo and this team he has helped define. He's a unique player, and the centerpiece of an idiosyncratic squad that has succeeded over the years with a distinctive style. If you watch sports for the experience of seeing something you can't see anywhere else, Randolph's Grizzlies tend to deliver delightful strangeness more often than not. They're a treasure.
It's eminently plausible that Z-Bo has another 75 games of glass-eating and improbable post buckets left in him, and maybe even another postseason run. Some players burn out swiftly and others smolder for much longer than anyone would expect. Randolph already falls into the latter camp.
But time will catch up to Zach Randolph at some point; it only seems like he can do this forever. This means it will come for the Grizzlies, too. Even if his dying season isn't the end of something, there's no harm in Randolph savoring it. The knowledge that we may never get to enjoy anything like this again makes it all the more special, and that much easier to root for. We have not seen what Zach Randolph is doing very often in basketball history; we may never see it again. All the more reason to celebrate it while we can.