Before Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace could introduce Zach Randolph as the newest member of the Memphis Grizzlies at a 2 p.m. FedExForum press conference, he had to deliver a different message:
"Before we start, the Grizzlies would like to send out our prayers to Antonio Burks," Wallace said, in reference to the former University of Memphis and later Memphis Grizzlies point guard, who had been shot Monday night in a robbery while observing a dice game outside a South Memphis home, according to a Commercial Appeal report.
Initially in critical condition, Burks had been upgraded to stable by the time of this afternoon's press conference. But the coincidence of Burks' shooting and Randolph's introduction presented a stark reminder that it can be difficult for people — and not just basketball players — to extricate themselves from dangerous environments, even after they've achieved the means to do so.
Randolph, as has been well-documented (here and, more recently, here), has as long a track record of off-court issues as any player in the league, which is the primary (though not only) reason he has been moved so often for so little return despite his considerable production. And though both the frequency and severity of his troubles have waned significantly since leaving Portland in the summer of 2007, he has not put his record behind him. So, even as Randolph was insisting today that he didn't want to talk about the past, the subject was inevitable.
This is Randolph's third new team in the past two years, so he must be sick of the questions about his past, and you could see his frustration. But he also acknowledged that it's up to him to put an end to those questions and "start a new chapter." (This in contrast to one person at the press conference who tried to get on Randolph's good side by suggesting that Randolph's baggage is somehow a media-created story.)
Randolph cited the impending birth of a daughter during the press conference (his second child, he told me afterward) and asserted later that he'd grown up a lot since the Portland years. If this creeping maturity (one of six reasons I've cited that could help Randolph work out here) does indeed continue, then coming to the Grizzlies could be a great opportunity for Randolph. Helping turn around a losing situation here would be a first for him as a pro and would go a long way toward rehabilitating his reputation (and helping him secure another big contract two summers from now). Plus, if he works out on and off the court, I have no doubt that he will be embraced by the fan base here.
Another reason Memphis could work is the presence of Damon Stoudemire on the coaching staff. Stoudemire was a teammate of Randolph's in Portland, knows him well on and off the court, and should have a pretty good sense for what went wrong in Portland.
Randolph said that he's spoken to Stoudemire since the trade and that he views having him on staff is a big positive.
"Damon is a guy I look up to," Randolph said after the press conference, and acknowledged that Stoudemire having overcoming his own (admittedly more minor) issues in Portland to be first a respected veteran and now an assistant coach is something from which he can draw inspiration.
Though Randolph has been criticized for his conditioning in the past and has occasionally had weight issues, he looked trim today in his black-pinstriped suit over a white patterned shirt. And he was, of course, optimistic about the on-court fit with the team.
"I feel like I can balance this team out," Randolph said. "We've got the great scoring on the perimeter."
"I just want to fit in. I just want to win," he said later.
After struggling to fit in next to the roughly similar Eddy Curry in New York but thriving next to Marcus Camby in Los Angeles (in the relatively few games where they were both able to be on the court together), Randolph said he felt that both Marc Gasol and Hasheem Thabeet would be good frontcourt fits with him. A point I tend to agree on.
The day a player is introduced in a new city is always one of optimism, and so it should be with Randolph, despite all the red flags. He's got every opportunity to put his career on a whole new track, starting today. We'll be anxious to see if he can do it.
Chris Wallace introduced Randolph as "a proven winner in his past back to his days at Marion High School," which unintentionally evoked Shaquille O'Neal's once-infamous assertion than he'd been a "winner at every level, except college and the pros." Wallace also mentioned Randolph's track record as a "20-10" guy, and if you'd made that phrase the focus of a drinking game today you'd be in bad shape.
Randolph was not bashful about acknowledging his past record as a Griz Killer: "I've had some pretty good games in Memphis," he acknowledged.
Can we please call a moratorium on the standard barbecue exchange at press conferences? A reporter asks new player what he knows about Memphis. Player mentions having good barbecue. Everyone chuckles appreciatively. This scenario occurs at every new-player press conference without fail.
At one point in the press conference, Randolph gestured to TV play-by-play man Pete Pranica, another former Trailblazer, and exclaimed: "That's my man! He knows me!"
Randolph defending his past on The Chris Vernon Show: "You pull up the record. I don’t have one felony on my record."
After the press conference, Wallace said that the team had gotten positive reports from Randolph's former teammates and coaches. Wallace also said the team "needed a guy that age." At 28, Randolph is what you would call a young vet — in his prime with, presumably, plenty of years left at a high level. Last years team was (minus an ineffective Marko Jaric and Quinton Ross) all kids and players on the way down.