It’s a vivid memory for Zach Randolph: Visiting his hometown church in Marion, Ind., and participating in the annual Angel Tree program each Christmas. The Prison Fellowship initiative touches over 2.7 million U.S. children each year, allowing benefactors to gift anonymous presents to kids with an incarcerated parent.
The program is coordinated in the fall, with parents registering their children’s names, clothing and shoe sizes along with several gift suggestions. Church members can then select a child’s name tag off the Angel Tree display to purchase, wrap and place gifts back under the tree on behalf of the incarcerated parent. “I was the kid who was at the Angel Tree and talking to my brother about how I hoped we’d get something nice,” Randolph recalled. “Hopefully somebody with a bunch of money picked us, so we could get some clothes or get a nice gift.”
Over the years, Randolph received toys, new jeans and sneakers. “Coming up I didn’t have nothing,” he said. Today, the Memphis Grizzlies star forward is the generous donor supporting misfortunate children. “I wish Reggie Miller would’ve came to our neighborhood,” Randolph said. “Or Rik Smits when he was coming up.”
On Thanksgiving, Randolph distributed 500 turkeys and hams to families across Memphis. On Dec. 4, he hosted another food giveaway for local families at nearby Hamilton High School. The next day, he facilitated a Polar Express Event, a Christmas toy drive. On Dec. 7, Randolph and Tony Allen ran their annual Shopping Spree for hundreds of Memphis kids at a local Wal-Mart. Randolph also paid for over 100 families’ electric bills to provide heat and air conditioning to many who otherwise could not afford it.
“He’s always looking for more ways, better ways, that he can have an impact on kids in the city and it’s very sincere,” said Diane Terrell, Grizzlies Vice President of Community Engagement and Executive Director of the Grizzlies Foundation. “A lot of the stuff he does is really under the radar. We only sometimes learn of it after the fact, so he’s not in it for any kind of self-aggrandizement, he’s in it for the real thing.”
“It’s not just something he does during the holidays. Zach gives all year round,” said Todd Jacobson, NBA Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “It’s something that he genuinely believes in and it’s a part of who he is.”
Randolph has forged a unique relationship with the Memphis community. “I think Memphis is a blue-collar town and nothing comes easy,” Randolph said. “People work for what they get and they see that in me.” The city has famously embraced Randolph after a bizarre journey took him from Portland to New York to Los Angeles before arriving on Beale Street.
He’s shed his troubled past. Years after countless run-ins with the authorities, once following the path of his imprisoned father, Randolph is now a multi-time NBA Community Assist Award winner and an inspiring role model to Memphis youth. “I’m talking to them. I’m asking how their grades are,” Randolph said. “‘Hey, don’t pick up this gun. Education and school is important. They can’t take your mind from you. You’re playing basketball or football, but hey, man, how’s them books going? Are you listening? Are you staying out of trouble? Because that’s important.”
“He goes into some of the neediest, least served neighborhoods in Memphis and he’ll know people by name. Kids, adults, everyone,” Terrell said. “The thing about Zach is he has these real relationships with people in the very communities that he’s investing in.”
Randolph’s influence stems from a lesson his single mother, Mae, taught him in seventh grade. After Mae learned her son had mouthed off to a teacher whose class he was struggling to pass, she yanked Randolph off an AAU team that was bound for the national tournament that weekend. “She really took something from me that I liked to do,” Randolph said. “‘You got to stay out of trouble and get your grades or I’m not going to let you play,’” he remembered his mother preaching.
Two decades later, Randolph has paid that message forward. And then some.