Lowe: The best, fiercest NBA player you don’t know


TOWARD THE END of Bam Adebayo‘s freshman year at Northside High School in tiny Pinetown in eastern North Carolina, two teachers, a coach, and a mother gathered in the coach’s classroom to discuss how they would wrap their arms around the mother’s son — a raw basketball prodigy already bordering on 6-foot-8.

“God gave Bam this talent,” the mother told the group, “and he can take it away — today. Not tomorrow. Today. Don’t take things for granted.”

Adebayo was a good kid, and a good student, but Marilyn Blount, his mother, was not the type to leave anything to chance. She was raising Bam alone in a single-wide trailer home; the boy’s father, John, separated from the family when Adebayo was young.

Blount rose every day at 5:45 and cooked Bam a hot breakfast as he slept. After Bam left for school, Blount walked to the Acre Station Meat Farm, where she took home about $12,000 per year as a cashier. When her son came home from basketball practice, she was already asleep.

She didn’t drive. She needed coaches and friends to take her son where he needed to go, and make sure he avoided places she didn’t want him to go. She asked teachers to tutor Bam, to guarantee he would be academically eligible for college.

What the adults in that meeting might not have known was that Adebayo had been watching his mother with fresh eyes. “When I was younger, it’s like, ‘Mom works. Normal adult stuff,'” Adebayo says. “But you mature and start to look at it differently. I watched my mom struggle. She comes home tired. She doesn’t want to do anything. As I got older, I started thinking, ‘My mom doesn’t deserve this.’ My whole devotion became to get my mom out of that trailer.”

Adebayo earned good grades. His mother didn’t need to call the school’s principal, Charles Clark, and request he summon Adebayo for periodic talking-tos.

“Talk stern to him,” she told Clark.

“I would say, ‘About what? ‘He’s one of our best kids!'” Clark recalls.

Adebayo verbalized his dreams for his mother to teammates, coaches, carpool drivers. He chose Kentucky because of John Calipari’s record of getting prospects to NBA riches fast. Calipari met Blount at the Meat Farm during one recruiting visit.

“I said to myself, ‘We gotta make this work because this woman deserves it,'” Calipari remembers.

At Kentucky, Adebayo installed a photo of his mother’s trailer as the background on his phone. At times with the Miami Heat, he has hung that photo in his locker and written the street address on game shoes.

Pat Riley was struck by Adebayo’s seriousness of purpose — how he talked about his mother — during pre-draft interviews. “He was,” Riley says, “already a grown-ass man.”

“He has such a beautiful relationship with his mom,” says Erik Spoelstra, Miami’s coach. “I want to do right by him, and by her. I don’t want to mess this up.”

Adebayo is heading to his first All-Star Game. He is in line for a huge contract once his rookie deal expires. He has reoriented Miami’s present and future. “He’s the Zo [Alonzo Mourning],” Riley says. “He’s the UD [Udonis Haslem]. He’s the Dwyane [Wade]. They were standard-bearers. Bam is that person. He is the real deal.”

Adebayo rents an apartment on the 48th floor of a high-rise in downtown Miami; Marilyn lives on the fifth. Adebayo drives her home from games. He bought her a Bichon Frise — Zeus — though he walks it so often, she jokes he really bought it for himself.

Blount keeps one of her old weekly pay stubs from the Meat Farm — $240 — as a reminder of where their journey started. She purchased some nicer jeans to wear to games. Adebayo pushes her to treat herself.

“You’re used to holding onto money, to being scared,” Blount says. “I still want to take that money and dress my baby, make sure my baby has money when he goes on the road. Sometimes, I sit here and I just cry. I look at my surroundings, and I don’t even believe it’s true.”

CALIPARI WAS STRAIGHT with Adebayo: He would not shoot jumpers or bring the ball up — skills that had blossomed over Adebayo’s high school career. He would set screens, roll hard, play defense.

“John didn’t let him do anything,” Riley chuckles.

Adebayo worked on other skills after practices and in night sessions with Kenny Payne, a Kentucky assistant. “He wanted to be a guard so badly,” De’Aaron Fox, Adebayo’s teammate at Kentucky, says with a laugh. “He also went to every class — a lot more than I did.”

Adebayo’s speed and fundamentals on defense leapt out in games. He trusted Calipari, trusted scouts would see his ball skills in practice and grab intel from Payne.

“He would say, ‘My mom will no longer live like this,'” Payne says.

Adebayo won over some executives at the draft combine with his single-minded focus. He had a line ready when teams asked about off-court interests: “I play basketball, hang out with my mom, and take s—-.” Some executives cackled at Adebayo’s deadpan delivery.

Even so, he slid down some draft boards. “The doubt was whether he could really do much on offense,” says Chet Kammerer, Miami’s senior advisor of basketball operations. That criticism got back to Kentucky’s coaches.

“Take your pretty jump-shooting bigs, and give me Bam,” Payne would tell NBA executives. “Give me the guy who will do anything to win — the guy who will block a shot at a critical moment, or switch onto a guard and shut him down.”

The Heat tested Adebayo when they hosted him for a pre-draft workout. They put him through a “hands” drill in which a half-dozen staffers circled Adebayo, and chucked basketballs at him in random patterns. He caught every one.

One Heat official asked Adebayo what percentage of corner 3s he could hit in practice. Adebayo answered with bravado: 60%. Prove it, they said. Adebayo hit 31-of-50 — 62%.

“He’s the Zo [Mourning]. He’s the UD [Udonis Haslem]. He’s the Dwyane [Wade]. They were standard-bearers. Bam is that person. He is the real deal.”

Pat Riley

They ran Adebayo ragged: block-to-block sprints culminating in an attempt to reject a shot at the rim; lane agility tests; footwork drills. After an hour, with exhaustion setting in, Heat officials began the drill they were really there to see. They asked Adebayo to switch onto perimeter players, including Justin Jackson, another prospect in attendance, and stay in front of them.

Adebayo turned to Heat brass, including Riley and Spoelstra, and shouted: “Oh, you got me f—ing confused! You got me f—ed up!” Translation: Don’t you know who I am? As the stops — “kills” in Heat parlance — piled up, the trash talk flowed. “Oh, it was explicit,” Adebayo says. It was not friendly taunting. Adebayo was not smiling.

“We were like, ‘Is this guy kinda crazy?'” Spoelstra says.

Juwan Howard, then a Miami assistant, locked eyes with Dan Craig, the coach running the drill. “Our eyes got wide,” Howard says. “We said, ‘This is a Heat guy.’ To have the balls to say that in front of Pat Riley — to say, ‘You’re not going to pick on me!’ — that’s a Heat guy.”

“I’m lucky they like guys with edge,” Adebayo says.

Adebayo’s agents had cautioned him against overreacting to mistakes in pre-draft workouts. “If I miss two shots in a row, I might kick the ball across the floor,” Adebayo says. “I was not gonna do that in front of Pat Riley, but behind closed doors, it’s ‘m—–f—– this and m—–f—– that.'”

IF THERE WAS something that was hard to project — something evaluators missed — it was Adebayo’s ability to channel that almost violent competitive rage into healthy directions: toward self-actualization and winning, never greed.

When Team USA cut him before last summer’s FIBA World Basketball Cup, Adebayo warned those close to him: They will pay. “They” included Gregg Popovich, Team USA’s coach, and every player who made the team. “When I see them, I remember,” Adebayo says. “I could have helped.”

Adebayo’s friends smiled when he fooled Myles Turner — a center who made Team USA — with a fake handoff on Jan. 8 against Indiana, and dunked. “He caught Turner standing like a giraffe,” says Kevin Graves, Adebayo’s AAU coach and one of the people Adebayo credits with teaching him fundamentals — low dribbles, a wide defensive stance.

Team USA cut Adebayo after a scrimmage on Aug. 9 in Las Vegas. He took a red-eye to Miami. The next day, Kammerer glanced out his office window and was stunned to see Adebayo in the gym.

In those summer workouts, Chris Quinn, another Heat assistant, came up with a “two outbursts” rule. Adebayo got one ball-booting tantrum. The second came with a price: sprinting baseline to baseline and back.

Payne is an expert at stoking that fury. When the Heat were in Minneapolis to play the Timberwolves last April ahead of the Final Four there, Payne organized a dinner with Calipari, Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns — another Kentucky alum — the night before the game. “Take it easy on my baby Bam,” Payne told Towns in front of the group. “Don’t embarrass him.”

“It’s on his coaches to send double-teams,” Towns replied.

“I could feel Bam’s leg shaking under the table,” Payne says.

At Miami’s walkthrough the next morning, Spoelstra rehearsed coverages for Towns — including double-teams. “F– that, Spo,” Adebayo yelled. “We ain’t doubling.”

“It was, ‘OK, I guess we’re not doubling,'” Spoelstra says.

Towns finished with 13 points and 11 turnovers, the most of his career. Adebayo swiped four steals, and coaxed Towns into a traveling violation and an offensive foul. “I took it personally,” Adebayo says. He texted Payne after the game, Payne says: “You think he respects me more now?”

ADEBAYO’s ADDICTION TO defense — to breaking his opponent’s will — shined in pre-draft workouts. One scout for the New York Knicks, who held the No. 8 pick, worked with Adebayo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, to schedule New York for Adebayo’s first workout, Saratsis says. Adebayo left without any hint of New York’s interest level. (They selected Frank Ntilikina.)

In Detroit, the big-man prospect scheduled to work out against Adebayo canceled. The Pistons rushed Aaron Gray, then an assistant coach, into a 3-on-3 game to guard Adebayo.

“He was talking so much garbage,” Gray says. You’re too old. Oh, you thought I could only dunk?

The other prospects there were borderline second-rounders. Adebayo screened hard for them, rolled hard, hit them with pinpoint passes. During breaks, he chatted them up. “A lot of prospects, if you’re not in their range, they barely talk to you,” Gray says. “Bam loved being around those guys.”

He has been wired that way as long as anyone remembers. At Northside, Adebayo invited team managers into scrimmages. When one deep reserve finally got into a game, Adebayo crashed the offensive glass and kicked the ball to him every chance, says Gerald Klas, a Northside assistant.

“It wasn’t fun for everyone to watch me get triple-teamed,” Adebayo says.

In search of better competition, Adebayo transferred for his senior year to High Point Christian Academy, a private basketball powerhouse near Greensboro, North Carolina — four hours from home. The team was loaded with Division I prospects, but beset by infighting.

On one pregame drive to Subway, he asked a teammate, De’Shaun Taylor, about Taylor’s experience on High Point’s state championship football team — about off-court habits and camaraderie, and whether chemistry drove winning.

“He caught me off guard,” Taylor says. “He was going to Kentucky already. High Point had no more bearing on his life. He probably doesn’t even remember that conversation, but it stuck with me.”

Adebayo lived that year with Graves, his AAU coach, in Greensboro. Adebayo and Graves’ son, Ty, drove 25 minutes to school every day for 6 a.m. workouts.

“He has such a beautiful relationship with his mom. I want to do right by him, and by her. I don’t want to mess this up.”

Erik Spoelstra

Adebayo tried to mimic Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork. He loved passing. “He probably threw more lobs than teammates threw him,” says Brandon Clifford, High Point’s coach that season.

The Heat heard stories like these. They saw Adebayo’s combine testing results, marking him as one of the most athletic bigs in recent draft history. They slotted Adebayo 10th on their draft board.

Adebayo’s final pre-draft workout came with the Charlotte Hornets, who held the No. 11 pick. He felt he performed well. He loved the idea of playing close to home — close to Mom. “I wanted Charlotte,” he says.

He was laying in bed at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan two nights before the draft, relaxing with his mother and Jabari Ashe, a Northside teammate and perhaps his closest friend, when Saratsis burst in with news: Charlotte had traded for Dwight Howard. The Hornets would not select Adebayo.

In the green room two nights later, he had no idea where he would go. Saratsis had the impression Miami was not interested.

In its war room, Miami’s brain trust focused on Denver picking 13th — one spot before the Heat. They were confident Detroit — at No. 12, with Andre Drummond — would not pick Adebayo.

“Denver didn’t need anything specific,” says Adam Simon, Miami’s assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations. “I had a feeling they were open to trading the pick, but you don’t know where. Your fingers are crossed.”

Denver traded the pick to the Utah Jazz, who selected Donovan Mitchell. Spoelstra and Riley took one last pro forma canvas of the room: OK, what’s the pick?

Kammerer, normally mild-mannered, pounded his fist on the conference table: “Our pick is Bam!” he screamed, Spoelstra and others recall.

THE HEAT REALIZED right away Adebayo’s competitive fire was as advertised. He arrived early for summer league practices and stayed late, often jumping in with guards for ballhandling drills when he finished his own work.

He made it clear he would back down from no one. In one practice, Adebayo and Eric Mika, a bruiser from Brigham Young University, guarded each other. Adebayo thought Mika’s physicality crossed the line into dangerous agitation — an injury risk.

Adebayo tossed Mika to the ground and delivered a message: “We can compete, but if you are gonna play like that, I am gonna f— you up.”

“When Mika saw Bam’s reaction, he didn’t want any part of it,” Howard says.

The regular NBA proved a tougher adjustment. Adebayo grew homesick on road trips. “It took a toll when I couldn’t see my mom as much,” Adebayo says. If Blount’s birthday falls during a road trip, Adebayo now arranges for her to join the team.

Adebayo didn’t play in nine of Miami’s first 20 games, stuck behind Hassan Whiteside. “The only thing I was frustrated about was that Spo couldn’t find me 30 seconds,” Adebayo says. “I don’t care if I don’t clock a minute. But you can find me 30 seconds.”

He never verbalized that to Spoelstra. When friends complained to Adebayo, urging him to push back, he demurred. “He would just say, ‘I’m gonna be patient, and when I get in, I’m gonna do my thing,'” Taylor says.

“This is bigger than me,” he would tell Graves.

Adebayo kept inviting himself into drills reserved for guards. When he learned Alonzo Mourning held most of the team’s weight-room records — the room is named ‘Zo’s Zone — he resolved to break them. Coaches warned it would take him five or six years just to flirt with them.

He has already smashed two, including the hamstring curl.

“He is the strongest guy we’ve ever had,” Spoelstra says, “and as ferocious a competitor as has ever been through these walls.”

Adebayo kept it simple off the court. He has little interest in the trappings. Last summer, he waffled over $900 of patio furniture so long, the sales clerk whispered that the store offered layaway, says Rudy Poindexter, Adebayo’s personal chef and confidante.

He made fast friends with Josh Richardson, and hung out often at Richardson’s house. A big night out for them is hitting balls at Top Golf. Adebayo wears the free Tissot watches players receive as part of the company’s NBA sponsorship deal. He met Poindexter when the chef worked for Whiteside; Adebayo realized he could mooch healthy meals at Whiteside’s house.

He dresses in sweats. “You are not going to see Bam on LeagueFits,” an Instagram account chronicling NBA fashion, says teammate Derrick Jones Jr.

“I always ask, ‘What are you gonna buy?'” says Clifford, his high school coach. “He says, ‘I don’t need anything — just Mom.'”

Adebayo recently confided to teammates that he finally splurged on something: an automatic T-shirt folder. He was tired of folding laundry. Adebayo does his own housework. His apartment is immaculate — Blount’s influence. “She was strict,” Graves says. “That trailer was the cleanest house I’ve ever been in.”

Adebayo’s on-court career changed two months into his rookie season, when Spoelstra let him play most of the fourth quarter in a blowout loss in Cleveland. Adebayo scored 19 points on 7-of-7 shooting, including a dunk on a certain Miami legend who would rejoin the Heat two months later:

“I didn’t have a chance,” Wade says. “From that moment, I was a fan. Bam has a chance to be a lifer in Miami.”

EARLY THIS SEASON, Wade texted Adebayo that he wanted him to break Wade’s franchise records. They have a pending bet on Adebayo’s season stat line, though neither will disclose the terms. Bob McAdoo, a longtime Miami assistant, made similar wagers with Wade and Haslem early in their careers, Wade says.

If there is an assist component to that bet, Adebayo is probably shattering it. Spoelstra has given him leeway to push the ball and run Miami’s offense. Adebayo was ready to seize that role without permission. “You’re stuck in between,” he says. “Like I can do it, but if I f— it up, I know [Spoelstra] is gonna be upset. You just say, ‘F— it,’ and go for it.'”

There have been growing pains — too many high-risk turnovers. “He’s going through exploration,” Spoelstra says. “The only way to get better is experience. I want him to be a different player six weeks from now, three months from now. And then I’ll move the goal posts again.”

Adebayo assumed a leadership role faster than Heat officials expected. When Spoelstra calls timeout and huddles on the floor with his staff, Adebayo often takes Spoelstra’s chair and gathers the team for a message. “It’s never about him — never, ‘Oh, you missed me on that play,'” says Meyers Leonard. “It’s always something uplifting, or something we might be having trouble with on defense.”

Adebayo knew this could be a pivotal season. As a rookie, he promised Poindexter he would hire him as his chef once he signed his first big NBA contract, but he decided to make the move over the summer. Poindexter tossed Adebayo’s junk food, and introduced health dishes du jour: quinoa, egg whites, turkey sausage, apple slices, bone broth.

Adebayo is down to 6.75% body fat. When he feels light, he lifts his shirt and orders Poindexter to admire his abs.

On the road, Adebayo texts Poindexter screenshots of menus and asks what to order. At home, he can’t eat as much of his mom’s cooking anymore.

Blount wants to move back to the country soon. Adebayo has promised to buy her a house once he signs his next contract. “He was practically in tears telling me,” Poindexter says.

“My mom is a country lady,” Adebayo says. “She wants to be in the trees. I’m really gonna miss her. It has always been me and her.” She will still visit, stay with Adebayo, cheer at games. Richardson can still hear her shouting, “Why didn’t you windmill it?” when Adebayo gently dunked on one fast break.

Blount’s dream is a house in Greensboro or Kentucky, far from the trailer in Pinetown. But that trailer — and that community — follows Adebayo. A dozen Northside coaches and teachers trekked to Washington, D.C., last season to watch Adebayo against the Wizards. He still texts often with Meredith Proctor, the wife of Adebayo’s Northside coach, Mike Proctor, who died of cancer in 2018. “I miss your face” is one of Adebayo’s favored replies.

When Adebayo was named an All-Star, Proctor texted Adebayo to look out the window at the sun and know it was her husband beaming. “I’m trying not to cry today, Ms. Meredith,” he replied.

Adebayo’s adult mentors recall how sheepish he would be when he took them to that trailer for the first time. “I didn’t want to be looked at as a below-the-poverty-line kid,” he says. “But now I think, that trailer is where I got the ambition. The anger. If we had a better life, I wouldn’t be here. That trailer made me.”

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