by Harry Cummins
Sitting on a folding chair in a corner of an empty gymnasium, Zach Richardson is explaining to his early morning visitor how the disparate events of his young life have led him to this unlikeliest of landing spots.
With a sweeping glance toward the still half-asleep campus outside, Richardson remarks, “This is exactly where I am supposed to be.”
Such perspective on one’s positional significance in the world is uncommon and perhaps the proper vantage point to begin our story. The story about the boy who was always looking for the road less traveled. The kid who went right when all those around him were turning left.
Founded on the site of a former mortuary, Multnomah University is a private, non-denominational Christian university situated in a modest neighborhood of Portland,Oregon. It’s a home-spun setting where its 300 or so undergraduate students are more inclined to ponder the meaning of life than the fortunes of its basketball team, which at present, happens to be leading the nation in scoring, averaging nearly 100 points a game.
The school’s veteran coach, Curt Bickley, operates on a budget so small that he doubles as the team’s bus driver on long road trips thru Oregon, Washington and Idaho in pursuit of a playoff spot as the newest member of the highly competitive Cascade Collegiate Conference.
This is where the 19 year-old son of Clint Richardson Jr. currently finds himself, the father’s name so familiar as side-kick to Julius Erving and Moses Malone on the 1982-83 NBA World Champion Philadelphia 76ers.
This could be the sort of place, the son reasons, where a person might push away the shadows of a famous father, deflect those half-intended jabs aimed at the imagination. A place where you could finally grab hold of your own identity.
A quick glance at this season’s basketball statistics would seem to concur. With the regular season drawing to a close, Richardson is one of the top scoring freshmen in the NAIA, and pacing all first year CCC players with an average of 17.4 ppg. He is among the national leaders in 3-point baskets and has registered eye-popping games this season of 49 and 42 points.
Coach Bickley, in his 16th season at Multnomah, first made a phone pitch to the 6-foot guard from neighboring Washington as Zach was on a return flight from a recruiting visit to one of the several basketball schools courting his services.
Although still waiting to hear back from NCAA Division 1 Texas Christian, along with small college powerhouse Carroll College in Montana, Richardson decided to accept Bickley’s invitation to visit the school he had never heard of. By now, he had grown weary of balancing the tangled ball of maybe’s and nice words masquerading as his basketball future.
Following a quick tour of Multnomah’s compact campus, Bickley and his recruit headed for the gym. It would be a chance for Richardson to shoot a few 3 pointers and Bickley to explain his unique ‘shoot before you turn the ball over’ theory of offense.
Seventy-five made 3’s in one hundred attempts later,coach Bickley had found a future foundation for Multnomah Lions basketball and Zach Richardson could start to straighten out the twists and turns in his life.
Richardson is the youngest of Clint Richardson’s four children. He was measured early on with an underdog’s collar, obedient to the adulation and clamor for the famous father and forced to carry, by now, what had become a weighted baton as the anchor runner on a generational family relay.
Clint Richardson Sr. was a multi-event All-American track star at Washington State University in the 1950’s. His four children, Clint,Craig,Keith and Colleen were no less accomplished. Zach’s father, Clint, ascended to NBA royalty as an all-state MVP at O’Dea High School and remains the only player in Seattle University history to lead the team in scoring four consecutive seasons.
Craig Richardson was at one time the leading kick returner in the nation for Eastern Washington University and had brief flings with both the Rams and Chiefs of the NFL. Keith Richardson was a wide receiver for the University of Washington and invited to camp with the Buffalo Bills. Colleen Richardson was a sprint and jump star at UW as well. The pressure to advance this tradition of athletic excellence was unspoken, but no less real for a young Zach Richardson.
“Throughout his life, Zach has really tried to separate himself from the pack and from who people expected him to be” relates his mother Kim Seng. “He would go to basketball camps and nobody would know much about him as a player. I think Zach learned to embrace that role.”
“Some would say he had a tough childhood, but the one thing that always kept him going was being told he couldn’t achieve something.”
It was at one such camp in the summer of 2017 that Zach Richardson’s life was altered forever. Showing up as an unheralded 17 year-old just finishing his junior year of high school, Richardson quickly played his way onto a hand-picked team of top players selected to represent Fred Crowell’s prestigious NBC camp. The elite traveling squad would soon head to Rome where they would play a series of games against older, more experienced semi-professional teams in Italy.
Richardson’s experiences during those indelible weeks in Italy remain embedded in his consciousness. He remembers the carefree afternoons swimming in the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Amalfi coastline. The profound moment spent inside the dark, damp prison chamber once occupied by the apostle Paul.
For the first time he might now understand how suffering could produce good. How light could shine from darkness. “I was, and remain, a seriously changed person”, confirms Zach.
At the airport, waiting to return home, a bomb scare and the faces of frightened children stirred something more in this impressionable young athlete. “I was overwhelmed with what I saw, and the feeling that I must do something to help,” remembers Zach. He now considers a future as a United States Marshall when his playing days end.
If you want to better understand the maturation of Zach Richardson, pay a visit to Matt Sinnes, his senior year coach at Auburn Mountain View High School. Playing in a conference that showcased the state’s current No 1 recruit, Jalen McDaniels, Richardson averaged over 19 points a game and was a 1st team all-league selection.
“One of my favorite parts of Zach’s story was how overlooked he was, even after that great senior season,” says Sinnes. “To this day, he carries a chip on his shoulder when he plays, tho he probably will never admit it.”
Serving as more than coach, Sinnes could resonate with Zach as a fellow traveler on a rutted road. His own father, Lee, was an accomplished athlete and esteemed coach for many years, now enshrined in several state halls of recognition. “Zach and I would often talk about the importance of finding your own path,” remembers Sinnes.
“Recently my dad suffered a heart attack and had major heart surgery. Zach would text me several times a week asking how my father was doing and if I was doing alright. At times I’m sure Zach comes across as cocky, but if you know him at all, you know that’s not the truth. He is just extremely confident in his abilities as a basketball player.”
Richardson’s mother, Kim, confirms the “killer” instinct Zach shares with his father. “Zach is driven to win,” she says. “But I can see his soft side under the tough guy skin. And when I do, it’s a thing of joy.”
Since the first day of classes last Fall at Multnomah, Zach began to forge a special friendship with Justin Martin, the team’s most notable player and affectionately dubbed ‘Big Dog’ by teammates.
In one memorable game in mid-November, the two fast friends scored an unheard of 49 points each in a record setting win over NCAA foe Pacific University. The team presented Richardson with a t-shirt that read ‘Puppers’ in deference to his fledgling status. At practice, coach Bickley can still be heard admonishing Richardson to “be a dog.”
Puppers, it seems, has been paying attention.
In recent months, Martin has gone on to post a mind-boggling 71 point game while Richardson recently tallied 42 points in a contest Martin was forced to miss due to injury. Their special bond has been perfectly encapsulated in a single photograph of the jubilant pair chest bumping at center court in the middle of a recent upset win.
Richardson claims Martin is “like another older brother to me” and says the more experienced guard has helped him with the mental aspects of basketball. “He helps me see different reads that I can make on the floor, how to pick out defenses,” says Zach. “Because of him,I am able to see things before they happen.”
Martin conversely explains how much he has come to appreciate the wisdom and maturity of his understudy. “We can talk honestly about real problems we both face in life,” says Martin.
“He also makes me laugh like no one else,” says Justin, glimpsing the lighter side of Richardson that Matt Sinnes likes to describe as “just plain goofy.”
From inside his cramped office decorated with reminders of his love affair with the Milwaukee Brewers, Curt Bickley can daily look across the hall and watch Zach and Justin alone in the gym working on their games.
“Zach’s desire to get better is paramount in his life,” says Bickley.
“You have to remind yourself that he is still just a freshman. It is rare that a first year player can come into this conference and put up the numbers he has. He wonders why every game isn’t a great game for him,” says Bickley
“He has such great expectations every single time he takes the floor. He is a future leader for us for sure. I am proud of the player and the person he is becoming.”
A conversation with Richardson is like watching him bring a basketball up-court–straight forward and smooth. “I am an open book,” he says. I walk with my chest out. I am a confident person, but I surely don’t think I am better than anyone else.”
Emboldened by his Christian faith, a tattoo on the inside bicep of his right arm reads, “Fear not, for I am with you.”
“I try to think of others first but sometimes I risk being hurt when my kindness is mistaken for weakness,” he says.
This infrequent expression of vulnerability can manifest itself on the basketball court as well.
“Sometimes I really do feel like I am in a snipers cross-hairs out there,” he confesses.”I hear the trash talk from my opponents and feel the hard fouls that go uncalled in the game. It is as if they are saying “we will put an end to this upstart freshman.”
” I know now I will experience off-nights and no one is to blame,” he says. “Early in the year I thought I should be scoring 20 points a night. I came to realize I wasn’t playing the game for the right reasons. When my shot is off, my basketball IQ must remain the same. My defense must remain the same. The reason why I play this game must always remain the same.”
Former Multnomah player and now assistant coach Blake Updike says “Zach leads our team in steals but that is not the whole story. Count the number of times his hands deflect a pass or how many loose balls he comes up with during the course of a game. It may be the most important thing that never appears on the stat sheet.”
Surprisingly, Clint Richardson Jr. has never once worked out with his aspiring son, but continues to educate Zach in the subtle ways of the game. “He tells me to always dribble to the middle of the floor where I can see things. It’s where the value of a smart player impacts the game the most,” says Zach.
Clint regularly attends his son’s games, symbolically perched in the arena’s upper regions, as far from the court as possible. Conversations between father and son these days are frequent but seldom linger on the subject of basketball. A recent evening found Clint more eager to talk about Zach’s girlfriend Taylor Altick, a senior at Auburn Mountain View High School, who Zach first met at a volunteer camp.
“She’s way smarter than me,” laughs Zach.
Although Zach was an honor student his senior year of high school (“I owe that all to my grandmother”) and continues to earn good marks at Multnomah, he admits to a fickle passion when it comes to academics. “It can be hard to juggle short term goals with long range plans,” he says.
While his focus centers on his next game, Richardson will allow his dreams to drift to a possible professional basketball career overseas. Or maybe he will explore the field of sports psychology, he says, continuing to unfurl the alternate script that has become his life.
For now, tho,Richardson’s goal is to increase his physical strength in matching up with the bigger,stronger players that populate the rosters of the rugged Cascade Collegiate conference.
To that end, he will spend another summer with his personal trainer at Big Wu Fitness in Kent, Washington. He says he will bring Justin Martin with him, a sobering thought for the rest of the CCC.
The freshman can still hear the words reverberate from his older teammate and friend, words spoken to him the day after Martin and his 71 points blew-up the nation’s sports pages.
“Zach, you won’t believe me now, but one day you are going to be better than me,”
As an awe-struck youth, Richardson remembers meeting many of his dad’s famous NBA friends, recounting the day he hung with Bill Russell and thinking to himself, “where am I.”
He no longer asks that question.
Later this day, Richardson will help unload the team bus in Caldwell, Idaho, where Multnomah will face the No. 3 team in the nation. He will be responsible for lugging his teammates uniforms to the visitors locker room.
One more rite of passage. One more curve on that relay leg.
In the end, how do you really come to understand our story of the little pup with the higher purpose, well on his way to becoming a Big Dog?
You need only wake tomorrow to a new day and all that it holds. See the orange tint of the horizon, rising above the power lines and roof tops. Rising above the pretensions and scars of a modern world. Rising like a jump shooter, arms lifted high in so much expectation.
You wake, too, and think about all those people in your life. The special ones that seem to put others above themselves. Maybe you even think about how you could be that kind of person.
You think about all these things, all these relationships, until you come to realize……
….they are your blessings.