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.”

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