A crummy rumor left thousands thinking Zach Randolph was paying their utility bills

Zach Randolph’s reputation for generosity with Memphis fans helped lead to some unfortunate confusion over the weekend. (Getty Images)

During his eight years with the Memphis Grizzlies, Zach Randolph became a hero to many Memphians nearly as much for his commitment to giving back to the community as for his blue-collar relentlessness on the court. Unfortunately, the veteran power forward’s reputation for generosity helped contribute to a state of confusion this weekend that led to thousands of city residents feeling short-changed when they attempted to take advantage of a deal on their utility bills … one that ultimately didn’t exist.

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At some point early Saturday morning, word began to spread on social media that Randolph — who last week agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal to join the Sacramento Kings — had made a $1 million donation to Memphis Light, Gas and Water, the utility company serving residents of Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn.

“I ran out of the house, didn’t even brush my hair or nothing, to come pay this light bill,” MLGW customer Anthony Gilliam told Memphis CBS affiliate WREG-TV. Gilliam showed WREG that after he’d gone to one of the utility company’s bill-pay kiosks and paid just 1 percent of his outstanding bill, “the screen displayed a zero balance.”

“Thank you, Zach Randolph,” Gilliam said.

That Randolph might make such a massive donation didn’t seem shocking. After all, in his first year in Memphis, he “paid a bunch of people’s electric bills” because he wanted as many residents as possible to have air conditioning during very hot weather, and then proceeded to make annual donations to a program that helped families get their heat turned back on after an interruption in service.

The idea that Z-Bo would make such a grand gesture on his way out of town seemed perfectly fitting. There was just one problem, though:

It wasn’t true.

OK — so if Randolph didn’t make a monster donation to help people pay off their bills, then why were customers like Gilliam seeing zero balance on their accounts after paying small percentages of the total amount they owed? The answer is as simple, boring and frustrating as you might expect from a story about a utility company:

Customers who have gone to an MLGW kiosk or Exxon on the Run/Tiger Mart kiosk since Friday to pay their bills need to call MLGW at 544-6549.

The kiosks did not produce accurate receipts and they are not producing accurate receipts today. We are working to solve that problem.

MLGW later learned that the issues stemmed from a “software problem” in the system of bill-payment processor TIO Networks that caused scores of self-payment kiosks in convenience stores, gas stations and grocery stores to malfunction. As of Monday evening, MLGW had continued suspending payments at nearly 200 such self-service kiosks as it sorts through the fallout from the billing-error glitch.

That explanation came too late to dissuade many, many people from hoping Randolph’s presumed generosity might help them:

From Jennifer Pignolet and Makayla Boswell of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

[MLGW President and CEO Jerry Collins] said that once the glitch is repaired, all bills will have to be paid in full.

“The customers have been taken advantage of by social media,” Collins said. “We apologize for any inconvenience that anyone has suffered and we want to make sure that everybody’s bills are kept in a good payment status.” […]

Because of the confusion, Collins said the company will not turn off anyone’s power on Monday.

Tywanna Clark said she rushed to a gas station to pay her bill Saturday morning because her husband isn’t working right now.

“I sure hope this is true,” she said. “I’m trying to do everything myself on minimum wage pay.”

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One silver lining to the confusion that left some residents believing they’d been scammed? That some other Memphians decided to follow Z-Bo’s community-service example and step in to lend a hand. From Ron Maxey of the Commercial Appeal:

A grassroots effort to raise $20,000 to assist MLGW customers kicked off early Sunday and had already raised $2,600 in contributions by Sunday evening.

John Carroll, founder of Choose 901, said the idea came to him when he read of the number of people taken in by the social media rumor that said a $1 million contribution from Memphis Grizzlies star Zach Randolph was responsible for steeply discounted utility bills. […]

“It broke my heart hearing of so many people chasing the rumor,” said Carroll, who was out of town but read about the mix-up.

He said it occurred to him that it wouldn’t take much for people to match the annual $20,000 fall contribution that Randolph makes to help with utility bills through the Plus-1 program, a joint venture of MLGW and the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA). […]

“It’ll go to the same Plus-1 program that Zach uses,” Carroll said. “MIFA is fully on board.”

As of 9:40 p.m. ET on Monday evening, the $50 for the City effort has raised $3,325 to put toward helping pay the MLGW bills of neighbors in need.

It’s a long way away from the $20,000 goal, let alone the rumored $1 million, but it’s pretty cool that a weekend of frustration over something that sounded to good to be true and wound up being false could produce something that might truly help at least some Memphians in need. Seems like a pretty great way to honor everything that Randolph’s meant to the city, and that the city has meant to him.

Randolph, for his part, says he plans to continue with his annual $20,000 donation to help Memphians in need pay their utility bills, even after he’s pulled up stakes and headed west to Sacramento.

“Memphis is home. It’s my city. It’ll forever be my city,” he told Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal. “I’m going to continue to be there. Those are my people. I guarantee you that.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!