OAKLAND – There is a basketball game to be played, a big one, the biggest one Bradley University has played in 20 years. So that's where Zach Andrews, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, will focus his attention. His new family needs him.
But, forgive him if, perhaps, there are other thoughts swirling in his head Thursday afternoon when the 13th-seeded Braves square off against the top-seeded Memphis Tigers, thoughts of his other family, the one he never had.
In the stands, he believes, will be his biological father, Gary. Until a few weeks ago, when his father reached him on his cell in Peoria, Ill., the two hadn't spoken in several years.
"I was shocked," said Andrews, who played at Cordova High School in Sacramento, about 75 miles away. They talked again Wednesday morning. Without being asked, he took it upon himself to find a ticket for his father.
"I still love the guy," Andrews, 21, said. "It's just not as strong as it would be."
Andrews has even less contact with his mother, Julia Lockhart. Abandoned by his parents, Andrews lived in foster homes between the ages of 3 and 14. He was then taken in and brought up by Valerie Lopez, a friend's mother. Fortunately, between his friends and the coaches he's had in basketball, there have been many others who have come to his support.
"I just had great friends," he said, "helping me keep my focus, especially with not being able to be with my mom because of the choices she made and stuck with. My friends allow me to stay strong."
In high school, coach Bob Jones was a strong figure in his life, the same role currently occupied by Bradley coach Jim Les.
"He's a tremendous young man," Les said of Andrews. "He's a survivor, a guy who was looking for a place where he could call home, where someone was going to take care of him, someone he could trust, and we just developed during the recruiting process that relationship."
On the court, Andrews, who has averaged 5.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, has not been a tremendous factor in recent games. In the tournament, against Kansas and Pittsburgh, he has played a total of 21 minutes, scoring four points and pulling down eight rebounds. But Les still values his importance to the squad. In a game earlier this season against Western Kentucky, Andrews finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds. His 11 offensive rebounds tied a school record.
"He's an energizer, a long, athletic rebounder and a very good defender," Les said. "He makes momentum plays with his ability to get offensive rebounds."
Andrews is aware of how difficult the journey has been. After high school, he attended Yuba College in Marysville, Calif., for two years. Last season, he led his conference in rebounds (10.5) and blocked shots (2.2) per game, and finished second in field goal percentage (.584).
"I look back and think about how far I've made it, and what I've accomplished," he said.
WAIT TILL THIS YEAR
Who can forget the scene last year of the college freshman who missed two free throws with no time left on the clock, costing his team a berth in the NCAA tournament?
Well, that freshman is now a sophomore, and this time his team is in the tournament, with a good chance to make it to the Final Four.
"It's a different year," said Memphis guard Darius Washington Jr., who missed two of three free throws, which allowed Louisville to prevail, 75-74, in the Conference USA tournament championship game last season. Without the automatic bid or at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, the Tigers instead were invited to the NIT.
Washington said it took about a month to get over the setback. He received tremendous support from his family, friends, and the fans in Memphis. So far this season, Washington has converted 78.5 percent of his free throws. He is third on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points per game.
The comparisons to Larry Bird have been endless, but now, finally, it is time to hear the opinion from the subject of those comparisons, Gonzaga star Adam Morrison.
"People have to realize I'm not trying to be Larry Bird, and I'll never be Larry Bird. He was a three-time NBA champion, three-time MVP. I'm a college player. I'm just trying to win games for Gonzaga."
Michael Arkush, a freelance writer and author of eight books based in Virginia, is covering the Oakland regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.
- Memphis Tigers