The Portland Trail Blazers, once the gold standard of the NBA,
are devalued by dumb contracts, stunted by stupid behavior and
mired in mediocre play, but they think they've found a solution
for all their ills: a big man who wants to take charge, who
relishes playing inside, who can be admired on and off the
court. With that leader in place, they can dump the petulant
and overpaid Rasheed Wallace, either in a trade or when he
becomes a free agent this summer, and fill those 4,000 empty
seats at the Rose Garden. And it will never rain in Oregon
again. ¬∂ The weight of all those expectations falls squarely
on the shoulders of their 22-year-old star of the present and
future, power forward Zach Randolph. Through Sunday's games he
was averaging 22.6 points (seventh in the league) and 11.6
rebounds (fourth) while opening a huge lead in the Most
Improved Player race. A late first-round pick in 2001 who rode
the bench his first two seasons, the 6'9", 270-pound Randolph
can hardly jump over Portland's Yellow Pages and is so
thick-chested that his jersey hangs loosely around his
midsection. But lob him the ball anywhere near the basket and
Randolph will school his elders with an arsenal of low-post
moves that prompt comparisons with Charles Barkley and Moses
Malone. "Plus," says veteran Blazers assistant Jim Lynam, "Zach
reminds me of George Gervin with that finger roll from 12 feet
that falls through the net--he has that kind of touch."
There's no question that Randolph has the skills to deliver on
the court, but is he the man to turn around a team known as the
Jail Blazers? Or is a franchise that long turned a blind eye
toward bad behavior once again seeing only what it wants to see?
General manager John Nash, along with team president Steve
Patterson, was hired last summer by the very-fed-up billionaire
owner Paul Allen to create a team of more reputable character.
Nash has come to one conclusion: Randolph will be the foundation
for his makeover. "I'm betting he's the guy we're going to be
pleased to build around," Nash says.
In conversation, Randolph is earnest and engaging, his gaze
steady. He occasionally punctuates answers with yes, sir. Can the
Blazers rely on him to put a more appealing face on a team that
has alienated some of the league's most loyal fans? "They can,
and I think they are," Randolph says. "A lot of stuff has been
happening around here, and we've got to keep our noses clean. We
want our fans back."
He didn't win back any of them with his Dec. 2 arrest in Portland
for driving under the influence of intoxicants. (He pleaded not
guilty, and a trial is pending.) The results of a urine sample
taken by police have yet to be made public, but an officer at the
scene reported a smell of burnt marijuana coming from Randolph's
white Cadillac Escalade when he was pulled over at about 12:30
a.m. for failing to stay in his lane. It was the fourth time in
13 months that a Blazer had been involved in a marijuana-related
incident. Says Nash, "I told Zach, 'Even if you're found to be
not guilty of the charges, you are guilty of bad judgment.'"
The same could be said of an incident during a Blazers scrimmage
last April, when Randolph sucker-punched teammate Ruben Patterson
and broke his left eye socket. Randolph admits that he'd been
nursing a grudge since his rookie year, when, during an
apparently harmless bit of locker room wrestling, Patterson
suddenly lifted him up shoulder-high and threw him to the ground.
"He body-slammed me on my ass," says Randolph, who gained revenge
by bloodying Patterson with two shots--the second while coaches
and teammates were trying to separate them--before Patterson
escaped and chased him around the practice facility. The two
players have since reached a truce.
When Randolph entered the draft after his freshman year at
Michigan State (he had almost turned pro out of high school), his
most alarming stat was that he had served three sentences as a
teenager in his hometown of Marion, Ind., for shoplifting (30
days), battery (30 days) and selling a stolen gun for $120 (26
days). How else does the star of Indiana's state-championship
team and the MVP of the 2000 McDonald's All-American game last
until the 19th pick? "When you're drafting Number 5, 6 or 7, it's
real easy to talk about character," says Portland player
personnel director Mark Warkentien. "The farther you get to the
rear, the larger the warts that players have."
Contrary to the Blazers' reputation for indifference to players'
conduct, Warkentien says he prepared for the 2001 draft by hiring
a private investigator who produced an 85-page report on
Randolph's troubles in Marion, where he and three younger
siblings were raised by his mother, Mae, after Zach's father went
to prison for robbery when Zach was in grade school. Warkentien's
conclusion--backed up by Marion High coach Moe Smedley and
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo--was that Randolph was a decent kid
in very difficult circumstances who was vulnerable to bad
That report suggests that the Blazers' locker room would be the
least auspicious place for Randolph to begin his pro career. Now,
Nash hopes to help build him into a franchise player by providing
him with an effective support system. (Such measures were not a
high priority for the previous team president, Bob Whitsitt.) "We
have to let the players know they are important to us," says
former Portland forward Jerome Kersey, 41, who in his role as
director of player programs is serving as a mentor to Randolph.
"Then maybe those good feelings will influence the way they think
off the court."
The Blazers' faith in Randolph is based on a couple of factors:
his good nature and his eagerness to improve. "He's like a magnet
for people," says Izzo. "After games recruits would hover around
Zach's locker because he's such a likable kid and easy to talk
to." The team hopes that warmth will endear him to fans; already,
his appetite to succeed has made him coachable enough to accept
criticism from coach Maurice Cheeks--especially in his
development from a horrible defender into a reliable one. "I want
to be one of the best players," Randolph says. "When they mention
Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shaq and Kobe, I want them to mention
my name too."
He may not be reaching too high. If Randolph were entering the
draft as a college senior this spring, he might be the consensus
No. 1 pick because of his long arms, soft hands and knack for
offensive rebounding. Above all, there's his exquisite feel for
the low post. Randolph's usual approach isn't to back down a
defender but to cut to the open space, bump him and beat him with
a quick but unhurried spin move. He has an acute instinct for
which way the defender is leaning and has overcome his lack of
height and hops by learning to flick his attempts over the shot
blockers before they can get off the ground. Though summers of
hard daily practices at the Marion Boys and Girls Club with
Blazers assistant John Loyer have helped Randolph extend his
face-up jumper out to 17 feet, his strength is wearing out
defenses like an NFL fullback. If the Blazers ever do rise back
into contention, they'll have a low-post weapon made for the
tempo of playoff basketball.
"You don't see many 6'9" bruisers who want to stay in the paint
anymore," says Milwaukee Bucks coach Terry Porter. "These days
the perimeter players want to post up, and the big guys want to
stay on the perimeter. It's all mixed up."
Porter might well be speaking about the 6'11" Wallace, who in
spite of his vast array of skills and $17 million salary has
seldom shown Randolph's desire for the ball with the game on the
line. Before the marijuana arrest Nash told the Portland Tribune
that extending Randolph's contract was "a no-brainer," and that
"Zach could be a max-out guy." If that remains the case, the
Blazers would offer him a seven-year deal worth some $94 million
that would start in 2005-06. For that investment to really pay
off, Randolph would have to be instrumental in the team's
resurrecting its image in the community.
That's a lot to ask of a 22-year-old, no matter how gifted he is.
"You ask Zach to do anything, and he'll try to do it for you,"
says Cheeks. To rescue this franchise, all Randolph has to do is
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FAIR SHAKE On the court Randolph has given Portland plenty to cheer about, but he has shown Jail Blazer tendencies off it.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON Z FACTOR Soft hands, a wide body and an unerring nose for the ball make Randolph one of the league's leading rebounders.
CAN THE BLAZERS RELY ON RANDOLPH to put a more appealing face on
the franchise? "They can," he says, "and I think they are."