GQ

How Bam Adebayo Went from “Terrible” Sixth Grade Hooper to NBA Star

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This past Sunday night, the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo hit his first-ever career buzzer-beater. The game-winning shot, which helped his team beat the Brooklyn Nets, capped a stretch of firsts for the 23-year-old, going back to the beginning of last season. The 2019-2020 season was his first as a permanent starter, after being drafted by Miami in 2017. Adebayo’s breakout year earned him his first All-Star appearance. After coronavirus forced NBA teams into the bubble, Adebayo would shine in his first deep playoff run, helping his team make an improbable run to the NBA Finals. Though they lost, Adebayo’s play firmly established him as one of the league’s brightest young talents. This offseason, the Heat signed the versatile 6’9” forward/center to a five-year extension, worth at least $163 million.

That money comes with some added perks. The son of a single mother living in a single wide trailer in rural Pinetown in Eastern Carolina, Adebayo was recently able to buy his mom a house. (And splurged on an automatic t-shirt roller for himself.) He’s also been able to grow his regular practice of engaging in random acts of kindness—what he calls RAKing. Sometimes he picks up the tab for an unsuspecting couple out to eat, or someone behind him in the drive-through. Other times, he fulfills entire Christmas wish lists for less fortunate kids.

Of course, the money also brings added expectations. Before his game-winner on Sunday, the Heat had lost three in a row. There were calls for Adebayo to be more aggressive, including from Miami star Jimmy Butler, who made comments encouraging his big man to attack the rim and play “bully ball.” Adebayo tallied 21 points, 15 rebounds, hit the game-winner, and now the Heat are riding a 3-game winning streak. This week, GQ caught up with Adebayo to talk about the evolution of his game, his special relationship with his mom, and how he first got into basketball in the sixth grade.

I think it’s fair to say last year was your breakout season. Did anything shift for you, or was it just the chance to get more minutes?

It was a shift for me because I got put in a starting role and my team depended on me. My first two years, I came in and brought energy and then, slowly, coach started giving me more minutes. Then the next year he made me a permanent starter. So going into the season, I was like, look, my teammate needs me. I need to be on my game, know the system, know the schemes.

It seems like team president Pat Riley and coach [Erik] Spoelstra have really created a deliberate culture in Miami. How would you describe that culture?

They hold you to a standard, and then they give you challenges along the way. So every day, when I would conquer another challenge in practice or in games, or my development would get better, they would add more challenges to the table. So, at first, I wasn’t a switching big. I could switch, but I wasn’t switching off. [Switching occurs in man-to-man defense when teammates switch who they’re guarding. Normally, if a forward/center “big” like Adebayo switches onto a smaller guard, it creates a mismatch. Adebayo, though, is versatile to guard any position.] And then it got to a point where it was automatic. Coach was like, look now you’re automatically switching. I got to expand my game and explore my game. And I had room for error. [laughs] There was growing pain, but I feel like they believed in me

There was a lot of talk before the win over the Nets, in large part because of Jimmy’s comments—which, as you pointed out, the media wanted to turn into a classic Jimmy vs. the team thing. But I’m curious if his comments—whether publicly about you playing bully ball or just privately, if he said anything to you—added extra fire to your performance Sunday night.

It didn’t. But I knew with Jimmy being out—whenever one of our main guys out, if it’s Jimmy, me, or Goran—we got to pick up that load for him. I talk to Jimmy all the time. Like I said, the narrative got switched. Jimmy knows my ability. I know his ability. I talk to Jimmy every day. Jimmy has grown into one of those people I can talk to about certain things because he’s been in the league so long. He sees a lot of the plays differently than I would. He has a lot more knowledge about the league than I have. It’s not like that was the one time Jimmy has ever said anything to me.

What’s the best thing you’ve learned from Jimmy?

He taught me how to draw fouls a lot—that’s why my free throw attempts and my free throw percentage have gone up. Jimmy really taught me how to manipulate the game in certain situations… He’s a great dude. That’s why I addressed it to the media because they don’t know Jimmy off the court. They just see him in the game and on virtual media sessions.

Why do you think the media so often mischaracterizes Jimmy?

I’d say because he’s honest. He’s really honest and to the point. Sometimes the media can switch somebody’s honesty and turn it into something else. Jimmy knows one way to tell somebody, and that’s the honest truth. And I respect that. That’s how I was raised: be honest with people, speak up.

You started playing basketball in sixth grade. How did you find it, or how did it find you?

I was with my cousin one day, at his house. We were watching Kobe and they had like a midday game. I was a Kobe fan, but I had no skill. My older cousin was sitting near me and he was getting ready for, I think, high school tryouts. So we’re sitting there talking and he was like, “Hey man, you should get on the travel ball team.” And I was like, “I mean, I will. It gives me something to do.” That’s how I kind of thought about basketball, it gives me something to do. Cause where I’m from, it’s rural. So it’s not like New York where a kid growing up can have an amount of things to do. It was one of those towns where there weren’t a lot of people but family. It was one of those things just to give me some extra to do. And I fell in love with it.

Were you pretty good off the bat, or how was that?

I was terrible. Terrible. Offensively, I was terrible. Defensively, I had the hang of just grabbing rebounds and being athletic.

What was it you liked about basketball? Cause if you were terrible, I can imagine it was frustrating at first.

I mean, as a young kid, you don’t know you bad until you look at at film four years from that point. So when I was in the sixth grade, I knew I wasn’t better than everybody, but I was decent. I had the work ethic and I had the mindset that I wanted to be better. So every day I would just do certain drills in the middle of the street where I lived.

Some of the drills I was doing when I was in sixth grade, I still do to this day. It’s kind of like your daily vitamin drills: you got to do this everyday just to keep sharp. There’s a cone drill that I’ve been doing since I was in the sixth grade. Now I just add more combo moves to it. That’s one thing I always liked about the game of basketball. You can always have a countermove to a countermove. And that comes with creativity of you and your mind. When I used to dribble up and down my road, I used to just do combo moves and kind of shadow box myself.

I know you wear 13 because your mom wore 13—has she given you any clues about what her game was like?

She has this one picture or her and her basketball team—I think she was in high school. And it was funny because she was the tallest girl on her team. When I got drafted, my PR people asked me, what number do you want? I was stuck between 24 and 13, because I’ve been a Kobe fan since I was younger. So when I got to be on travel ball teams, I always picked 24. But when I got to the NBA, it was, do I want 24 or 13? And then it was kind of like, I think it would be a dope story if people ask me why I wore 13, [and I say it’s] because my mom wore it in high school. And also it goes with my name now. So now when people write Bam, the B can be like a 13.

The relationship between you and your mom is clearly very special. You said when you were younger, you just kind of thought, Mom works a lot. And as you got older, you realized, This isn’t what it’s like for everyone else. When did you realize that?

I started realizing it when I got to high school. Going to some of my friend’s houses, my house didn’t look like theirs. My mom didn’t have a car. My mom walked to work. And I lived in a single-wide trailer. Looking at some of my friends, they have both parents, their parents had cars.

And I’d notice Mom, she’d be tired. She’d wake up at 6:00 AM, wake me up, cook me breakfast, and then she’ll be out the door. And I wouldn’t see her until 8:00 that night. It was a lot of growing up by yourself in the house. My mom was one of those parents where she always told me, there’s a difference between getting what you want and what you need. I thank her for it. Cause now I look at my life like that. It’s not what I want. It’s what I need. That’s kind of how I realized that we were poor, compared to all my other friends. But it took me until I got to high school to realize that. She made that single wide trailer feel like I was living in a mansion.

After you signed the contract extension this offseason, you got her a place. What was that moment like?

First of all, we had five days to get her house fully decorated—furniture, TVs, everything. Five days. My interior decorator, my realtor, and my manager made it happen. I don’t know how they made it happen, but they did. [laughs]

I told her I was going to take her to dinner for her birthday. So the whole time I’m with her, I’m having sweats. I’m having chills, I’m nervous. I was trying to keep myself from breaking down the whole time.

Me and my realtor, we’re like, okay, we’re going to show her two houses, but the second house is going to be hers. For the first house, I was like, make it the ugliest house ever so she won’t want it. [laughs] So we showed her this house, and she was like, I don’t like this house. And then we pulled up to her house and she was like, “Hm, I like the way this house looks.” When she walks in, there’s a picture of my single-wide trailer up there. And it’s got that quote under it: “Never forget where you come from, but never lose sight of where you’re going.” So when she seen the picture, that’s when she knew it was her house. It was shocking to her. And then she slowly started to melt. It hit home. I thought I was going to be the first person to cry. My manager was actually the first person to cry because he was my AAU coach when I was younger. So he seen me go through what I went through since I was 12.

My mom didn’t see me cry. I had to go outside and take my little 30-second cry break, and come back in the house. I couldn’t have it on TV.

Has it been an adjustment to now being able to buy things you need and things you want?

It has because I still have that frugal mindset. I don’t ever want it to leave.

Did I read you bought an automatic t-shirt roller, though?

[laughs] Yeah. That was probably the only thing that I really wanted, but I didn’t need. It’s helpful to me. It’s actually an essential. After I get done drying my clothes, I’ll fold shorts and my other stuff. But sometimes, when you look at a pile of t-shirts, you just be like, I’ll do it tomorrow. So I got me a t-shirt folder. At that point, I was like, alright, let me work smarter, not harder.

Did this new contract add pressure or take it off?

I wouldn’t say pressure. Pressure is like a homeless man trying to find his next meal. That’s pressure. This is accountability. I don’t feel that as pressure. You gotta be held accountable for the rewards you get. What’s the saying? More is given, more is expected.

Speaking of pressure, is it true that you listen to recordings of thunderstorms to calm yourself down?

Yeah. I started doing it in the bubble.

What does that practice look like?

It’s kind of like meditation. Turn all the lights off and just sit in the dark and turn on YouTube and go to thunderstorms. You envision yourself playing the game without playing the game again, if that makes sense.

So it’s like a visualization process?

Yeah. When a lot of boxers have matches, they envision the move they’re gonna hit the dude with for a knockout. Then you get in that moment and it’s like, alright, this is the move. Or you’re just in that locked in mindset to where you’re like, alright, I’m taking over.

Why thunderstorms?

When I was younger, cause I lived in a single-wide trailer, my house was thin. If somebody was yelling outside, you could hear it. It felt like they was right next to your window. I had tin around my house, so when the rain would hit it, you could hear it. It was one of those like soothing sounds to me. It’s calming. Cause when you have a big game, like you’re in the Eastern Conference Finals, or in the playoffs period, you gotta be locked in and focused. Every game matters, every moment matters, every possession matters. So you gotta make sure you’re sharp in the mind.

How do you choose which thunderstorms to listen to?

I mean, after awhile, when you log into YouTube, it’s already got the recent history. It doesn’t matter which one, because they have so many, and they’re all like 10 plus hours. I’m only gonna use it for like an hour and a half, two hours.

That’s a long time!

Sometimes I’ll fall asleep.

How did the random acts of kindness start?

It’s because of my mom. Even though my mom didn’t have a lot, she was always trying to help somebody who was less fortunate than us. A lot of times we’d be sitting there watching TV and you know, the sad commercials that come on? They got the sad music and it’s like, feed a kid? Those commercials would pop on, and she would always say to me, you never know who’s doing worse than you, so always treat people with respect, and if they are doing worse, try to at least help.

Now when I go back home and I eat in some of the restaurants, I’ll pick a certain couple and pay for their food. I don’t even know them. They don’t even know me. Or if I’m in the drive-through somewhere, I’ll say, “I want to pay for the person behind me. Don’t tell ‘em.” [laughs] Or like during Christmastime, I get a couple kids from Miami, and from my hometown and they’ll write their wishlists and I’d get them everything on a wishlist. When I do RAKing, it comes from the heart. It’s not about getting exposure from it.

I don’t want people to struggle like I struggled. I never wanted that. I don’t want anybody to go through it. So if I can possibly help a kid to where he feels like his single-wide trailer is a mansion and then he knows like I can do better than this and develop and end up being, I don’t know, a star football player, basketball player, an entrepreneur, a brain surgeon, then I feel like that kid’ll take the knowledge that I gave him and start doing random acts of kindness. It slowly starts to become a domino effect.

Even though I was a poor kid myself, the way I acted and how I presented myself to people—how I talked and how I walked—you probably would’ve been like, “Yo, he has nothing, but his attitude says he has everything. He’s perfectly fine in his skin. He’s gonna make a way out.” And that’s how I wanted other people to feel. I never wanted to feel like this is the end for me. Like, This is it. This is what my life is, and I’m going to live with that. I came from a single-wide trailer to be in this. It can happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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