Zach Randolph sat at his locker two hours before tipoff Tuesday, already in his game shorts, but sockless and shoeless, as he began his, um, impressive pregame ritual. Trust me. You don’t see this every night in the NBA, not to this extent, nor with this degree of effort.
He reaches for a pair of latex gloves in his stall, then guides one over his right hand with the practiced skill of a nurse or a surgeon. He grabs a tube of cream, and accompanied by the sounds of grunts and groans, massages the product into his sore quads, knees, calves, feet and ankles. He was most generous around the ankles – almost a deep-tissue massage – and sweating heavily when he finished.
“FlexPower,” Randolph explained, handing over the cream for examination. The product ingredients include Arnica, Glucosamine, green tea and tissue nutrients and claim to provide “a gradual heat that helps keep your joints and muscles toasty warm.”
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“But I don’t know,” the power forward says, shrugging. “I’ve been using it for years. But I think it might be more of a mind thing.”
Whatever works. The man is 36, for heaven’s sake. The dual role Kings general manager Vlade Divac and coach Dave Joerger envisioned for the 17-year veteran includes a heavier workload than originally anticipated. Amid the club’s early struggles and erratic performances from the younger “bigs,” the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Randolph has been relied on for more than limited minutes and a positive locker room presence.
He leads the Kings in scoring (12.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.3 boards), and is averaging 24.6 minutes over eight starts. After coming off a strong effort in Tuesday’s victory over Oklahoma City, he might even need a little more of the goop with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers at Golden 1 Center on Thursday. Randolph also would like a little more time at center, where his bruising screens, ability to draw double-teams and crafty passing led to backcuts, ball movement and open jumpers against the Thunder.
But Joerger is saving his guarantees for a future date. He is searching for the most cohesive combinations, particularly on offense, and has been given permission – no, a mandate – to develop his younger players while demanding they earn their minutes. This tricky balancing act, this super dainty dance, will persist throughout the season.
The more immediate goal is reversing the pattern of sluggish starts and a lack of physicality. Randolph’s considerable skills aside, this is where his presence is so significant. Off the court he is a smiling, engaging teddy bear of a man. On the court he is a beast, imposing his will on opponents and, of late, on his teammates.
“I’ve just been telling the young guys that the main thing is to hit the other guys first,” he said after practice. “You hit first, you draw the most force. That sets the tenor, the physical nature of the game. We have been missing some of that.”
There were glimpses of progress against the Thunder. Skal Labissiere answered a Carmelo Anthony shove with a less-than-subtle push that earned him a technical. Kosta Koufos took a blow to the forehead that left a gash. Bogdan Bogdanovic blocked a layup by Russell Westbrook, and later, caught a hand to his face while contesting one of the reigning MVP’s left-side jumpers.
But back to Randolph’s pregame ritual and those sore limbs. His body isn’t what it used to be, he says, but he should be in better shape. He gained weight and his offseason conditioning routine was disrupted when he was arrested in Los Angeles on felony marijuana charges. The charges were reduced to misdemeanors, and if he completes a diversion program and 150 hours of community service, the case will be dismissed.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said, “but I tell the young guys, ‘Things happen in life. You grow from adversity.’ For me, just taking care of everything, dealing with all that stuff, really threw me off. I’ve got the type of body that’s top heavy, like Cuz (DeMarcus Cousins). But even though you’re built differently than slim guys like Skal or Willie (Cauley-Stein), that’s no excuse. You’ve got to be in shape.”
Randolph’s mental adjustment has not been without a few hiccups, either. His wife and three children remained in Memphis to maintain a stable family environment, and from a professional perspective, the longtime Grizzlies star is transitioning from a perennial playoff team to a franchise in the midst of a major reconstruction.
With no realistic chance of reaching the postseason this season, Randolph is pushing for the Kings to exceed last year’s victory total (32). Then again. After a long pause and second thoughts, the two-time All-Star isn’t willing to completely concede a postseason appearance.
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“That’s in the back of my mind,” he said, with another smile. “But this is a time when I’m teaching these young guys, learning from these young guys, and working on my leadership and mentoring skills. Stay positive, good body language, don’t let the team split. It’s a blessing. A lot of guys my age are sitting at home by now. We just have to learn how to win, how to fit together.”
Randolph, who hired a chef to help him lose weight and eat healthier, wants to play a few more years, but admits to pondering the NBA afterlife. Player development, maybe. An NBA front office position, maybe. A job in Memphis is his preference, but if not, Sacramento would be fine.
“Man, I love this team, this organization,” he added. “I’m a people person. These kids all have great character. They (front office) did a good job. The talent level is off the roof, with (De’Aaron) Fox, Bogi, Skal, Buddy (Hield), Justin (Jackson), Willie. I call them ‘The Franchises.’ ”
As he rises slowly from a chair in a corner of the practice facility, he turns and smiles one last time. “People say I look mean on the court. What do you think?” Then he laughs and ambles toward the training room.