• Zach Randolph still has a chance to earn fans' forgiveness
Typically, Zach Randolph carries himself with a happy-go-lucky demeanor that gives the impression he hasn't a care in the world.
On the court, though, the Trail Blazers' third-year power forward is all business. And the results this season have been astonishing. In his first month as a full-time starter, Randolph has posted All-Star-caliber numbers.
At age 22, he had become the darling of the diminishing faithful still occupying the Rose Garden. At least until this week.
Just when it seemed as if Randolph could do no wrong, he was arrested early Tuesday. Subsequent charges of driving while under the influence of intoxicants Ñ reportedly marijuana Ñ tarnished a burgeoning image as the good kid on a team stocked with bad apples.
It's not as if Randolph hasn't had problems in the past, however.
There was the celebrated incident last season in which he sucker punched teammate Ruben Patterson at practice after an altercation between Patterson and Qyntel Woods, Randolph's closest friend on the team. Randolph was suspended for two games by Blazer management, and he and Patterson Ñ who says he will never forget the incident or forgive Randolph for it Ñ still give each other wide berth in the locker room and on the court.
As a teenager growing up in Marion, Ind., he had at least three brushes with the law. He served 30 days apiece in a juvenile detention center on separate charges of receiving stolen weapons and shoplifting, and 30 days of house arrest for battery.
Randolph had one more legal problem, in the summer after his rookie year in Portland. He was cited for underage drinking in Marion just two weeks before his 21st birthday. Though he pleaded guilty, he considers it a bum rap.
'I had one beer,' he says. 'I wasn't driving, was just out on the street. I wasn't causing no trouble. A cop came up. He knew who I was, and we had a conversation. I felt like I got singled out there. It was bull, really, a small-town thing.'
Randolph would have a harder time rationalizing his latest mishap, given that three teammates Ñ Woods, Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire Ñ had all been cited in drug-related incidents within the past year.
Maybe there will be an epiphany for Randolph, so driven on the basketball court to be one of the best.
'I just want to stay focused on taking care of business on the court and stay out of trouble off it,' Randolph told the Tribune just a week before Tuesday's incident.
Who would have thought? Two years ago, as a rookie out of Michigan State, Randolph was a little-used backup to Wallace, averaging only 3.1 points and playing only half the games. Last season, the 6-9, 255-pound Randolph had his moments, starting 11 games and showing promise, mostly while Wallace was injured or suspended.
Then, late in the regular season, Randolph exploded onto the scene, collecting 31 points and 20 rebounds against Memphis on April 11, and hitting 13 of 17 shots for 27 points against Phoenix four days later.
With that in mind, coach Maurice Cheeks elected to go with a big lineup in the playoffs against Dallas, starting Randolph alongside the 6-11 Wallace at forward. Randolph responded by shooting .525 from the field while averaging 13.9 points and 8.7 rebounds as the Blazers nearly overcame losses in the first three games of the series, winning the next three before losing Game 7.
Cheeks made no promises as fall training camp began, but it was clear the coach couldn't keep the prodigy out of the starting lineup.
Through the first month of the season, Randolph has been not only a regular, but he's been by far the most productive of the Blazers. He ranks 10th in the NBA in scoring, with a 21.6-point average, and is fifth in rebounding, with an 11.1 average Ñ both team highs. He is fourth in the league in offensive rebounds (3.9) and eighth in field-goal percentage (.517).
The remarkable statistic: Using a formula that considers points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, turnovers and shooting percentages, Randolph ranks third in the NBA in efficiency Ñ behind a couple of guys named Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Only four players Ñ Randolph, Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal Ñ are averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
'To be up there with those guys É I mean, they are some of the greatest players ever,' Randolph says. 'I can't complain about that.'
The stat that tickles Randolph, however, is this one: Going into this week, he ranked 13th in the league in minutes played, at 38.7 a game.
'Makes me feel good to play all those minutes,' he says. 'I always wanted to play last year but didn't get the chance, really, until the playoffs. That's the only way you can get better. It does make a difference.'
A year ago it would have been unthinkable. Now, selection to participate in the All-Star Game in February isn't out of the question.
'I want to be an All-Star this year,' Randolph says. Then, displaying a touch of naivetŽ, he asks a reporter: 'What you think?'
'If he holds those numbers up, I don't see how they can keep him out,' says Mark Warkentien, the Blazers' director of player personnel, who was most responsible for Portland's choosing Randolph with the 19th pick of the 2001 draft.
Randolph's rapid rise to stardom is surprising, but not so much to Warkentien, who saw him as a sensational prospect when he watched him play several times in high school and during his one season at Michigan State.
'Zach was the best rebounder I ever saw come out of the state of Indiana,' Warkentien says. 'He stuck out like a sore thumb. I saw him in a national all-star game in Indianapolis after his senior season, and none of the guys going against him could stop him.
'Probably the most compelling piece of information we had on his year at Michigan State was a statistical study we did of rebounders in the Big Ten. We took every player in Big Ten history who was drafted by the NBA and found Zach to be the most effective rebounder in conference history per minutes played. And that has always been a conference noted for rugged big men.'
Still, Randolph was only the sixth man as a Michigan State freshman under hard-nosed coach Tom Izzo. And he had baggage. That turned off many NBA suitors. Not Warkentien, who was born and raised in Huntington, Ind., just 18 miles from Marion. He knows many people in the area, including some in law enforcement, with whom he discussed Randolph at length.
The Blazers also hired private investigators, who came up with 85 pages of notes but nothing that incriminated Randolph as unworthy of draft selection, Warkentien says.
'Zach had some knucklehead indiscretions on his record, but the locals vouched for him,' Warkentien says. 'The thing about him not starting at Michigan State didn't bother me, because no one starts for Izzo as a freshman.'
In June 2001, just before the NBA's predraft camp in Chicago, Warkentien flew to Marion to meet with Randolph, primarily to try to dissuade him from attending the camp and allowing representatives of other NBA clubs to fall in love with his talents.
'I had a three-hour lunch with Zach,' Warkentien recalls. 'I wanted to get his version of everything that had happened in his past. His account jibed with what the locals had told us and what the investigators told us. In most cases, he told how he had screwed up, and I believed what he told me.'
Warkentien left the meeting with another impression.
'There was no way you -couldn't like this kid,' he says.
John Nash didn't come aboard as Portland's general manager until this summer, but he is left with the same opinion.
'I view myself as a good judge of people, and I think Zach is a good person,' Nash says. 'I watched him on our hospital tours, and he is very sensitive and extends himself to the kids.
'He really enjoys playing basketball. He has a lot of self-motivation. He will play a real good game and not be particularly happy, because he could have done better. He sets a high standard for himself. He has a sense of respect for people in authority.'
Randolph is very close to his three siblings Ñ brother Roger and sisters Tomika and Kelly Ñ and especially to his mother, Mae. The entire family flew from Indiana to Portland to be with him for Thanksgiving.
'So great to have them with me,' he says. 'Ma raised four kids all by herself, all good kids. Love my mom.'
He laughs, only a little embarrassed at being a self-professed 'mama's boy.'
Randolph has other things going for him. He has a likable personality and relates well with fans and the media.
He has a home in the posh Dunthorpe area of Southwest Portland, sharing it with longtime girlfriend Faune Drake, a prenursing student at Portland State. He owns two nice cars Ñ the 2002 Cadillac Escalade in which he was arrested Tuesday night, along with a saucy '76 Chevy Caprice Ñ and a lease on a lavish lifestyle to which he grew up unaccustomed.
'It's all so different now,' he said in the Tribune interview a week before the Tuesday incident. 'I grew up in the ghetto. Never had nothing. That's why I take things in perspective. You think everything is given to you, but it ain't. What you got today could be gone tomorrow.'
If he continues to play as well as he has the first month, and keeps his nose clean off the court, most Blazer fans will probably be quick to forgive Randolph for his most recent mistep. They cheered him Wednesday night in his first appearance since his drug arrest, in which he collected a career-high 34 points and nine boards in an overtime victory over Indiana at the Garden.
Even so, he would be wise to heed his own words in the future.