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 influences.
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."