Zach Andrews knocks on a closed door inside the Learning Express offices at Cordova High School, enters and waves to a counselor speaking on the phone, and with a charmer's grin, plucks a protein bar out of the snack basket.
Back when he was a Lancer before he graduated from college, spent four seasons overseas and returned home for tryouts with the Lakers' and Kings' NBA Development League teams he went straight for the hot chocolate. He craved sweets and sought comfort, and sometimes even asked for a bed.
"We only had a mobile (learning) unit at the time, and Zach would be waiting when we drove up," recalled Charlene Hunt, the district liaison for homeless services in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. "He would ask for his hot chocolate and hang around. We'd help him with his homework, help edit his essays. That was how we learned his story. He would say, 'I stayed in this home last night, but I don't know where I'm staying tonight.' We all did what we could."
On the Cordova campus that remains his village, Andrews was nurtured by caring teachers and coaches, by friends and neighboring families who offered a couch, who provided clothing and meals, who asked few questions. They already knew the answers.
"They understood," Andrews says with a smile.
Now 26 and back in his hometown, Andrews is a compelling success story a product of a foster care system who at times was homeless and who, on more than a few occasions, despaired over his bleak circumstances. His late father was never in the picture. His mother is still around, he said, but was never really there.
He often visits his old high school (class of 2003) to encourage other youngsters confronting similar situations but also to reconnect with the former teachers, counselors and coaches he says "transformed" his life. In his four years at Cordova, he discovered theater arts and developed decent study habits, and as he grew into his gangly 6-foot-9 frame, emerged as one of the area's elite basketball players.
"And at some point, Zach decided basketball was his way out," said Sherry Burch, a social studies teacher and a former Lancers coach. "Then it was up to the rest of us to help him get there."
Hardship was an adventure, he insists
Andrews, who spoke at Loaves & Fishes during last month's protest against Sacramento County's budget cuts that eliminated the seasonal shelter program, carries himself with a surprising lightness, with a springy, bouncy gait. He characterizes every step as an adventure, refusing to dwell on the hardship. Yet as he recounted details of his background while walking around Cordova the other day, he was particularly animated about a few topics.
The abundance and choices of food in his friends' homes, for instance. That overwhelmed him. The security of sometimes sharing the bottom bunk bed with his late classmate, Maurice Belton. That still moves him to tears. The sight of his sister Shavonna coaching the Lancers' girls volleyball team. That makes him burst with pride.
And the school field trip to Arco Arena and his first in-person glimpse of Mitch Richmond?
That's when it began in earnest, his infatuation with basketball, his love of the Kings.
"Then when I got older, it was Vlade Divac, Jason Williams, Bobby Jackson," Andrews said. "All I wanted was to play for the Kings."
The latest interesting twist to this? There are a few, actually.
Andrews last weekend tried out for the L.A. D-fenders, the Lakers' minor league affiliate headed by former Kings coach Eric Musselman. If Musselman offers a job, Andrews will take it. But he still plans to try out for the Kings' affiliate, the Reno Bighorns, next Sunday.
In his gut, he hopes the Kings come through.
He already has had conversations with the team sort of.
When Andrews returned last spring after playing the past four seasons in Spain, Bosnia, Turkey and Japan, he began calling the Kings' switchboard, hoping somehow to get through to Geoff Petrie. Six, seven, eight times he estimates he dialed the main switchboard number. In a fluke, he was finally transferred to the basketball operations department. He left a long, rambling message, citing his background and making his case for a tryout.
"Then one day my phone rings, and it was Mike Petrie," said Andrews. "I said, 'Who?' I almost dropped the phone. He said the Kings would let me know when they were having public tryouts and that they knew all about me."
He hopes for a chance with the Kings
There's an interesting thing about Power Balance Pavilion turns out, the old dump is its own little village.
While Andrews was earning all-conference honors at Cordova, Monarchs video coordinator Doug Cornelius was doubling as the Yuba College men's basketball coach. He recruited Andrews to Yuba City and, a year later, contacted former Monarchs assistant Jim Les, who had been named head coach at Bradley University. Les, the new UC Davis coach, was impressed enough by Andrews' exceptional raw athleticism to offer a scholarship.
Over the next two seasons, Andrews, by then a muscular 225 pounds, backed up center Patrick O'Bryant on the Braves' NCAA Sweet 16 team and anchored the team during its NIT appearance. But, according to Les, Andrews' presence was even larger on campus than on the court.
"He was the California kid, riding a skateboard around campus, always with a smile on his face," said Les. "And can you imagine? Being homeless? Not knowing where your next meal is coming? Sometimes we would look around and say to ourselves, 'Who are we to gripe and complain about anything? Look at what this kid has done.' "
Andrews insists he is either the next Dennis Rodman or the next Denzel Washington.
During Andrews' senior year, Les led a procession of Braves into the front row of seats for the drama department's presentation of "Love's Labour's Lost." Andrews had a minor role. Three lines, he thinks.
"My players were going, 'We have to go to a play? And Shakespeare, no less?' " Les related, chuckling. "But when I think about it Zach is what college sports is supposed to be all about. There wasn't a prouder moment than watching him walk down the aisle at graduation (2007), the crowd cheering wildly, everyone on their feet."
But, Andrews says, Hollywood can wait. So can another season earning approximately $60,000 overseas.
"No one would dive for more loose balls or hustle more than I would," he said. "Once this lockout ends, I really hope I just get an opportunity. Just an opportunity."
As he stood and started walking toward the parking lot, he nodded, forcefully. He wants to offer hope for those who know homelessness, he added, for people like him.
He isn't hiding from anything. He just loves to play.