MIAMI — As Bam Adebayo sat between Heat team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for his introductory press conference, his motivation sat right in front of him.
“My motivation is the lady in the front in the green. It’s always been my mom,” Adebayo said Friday afternoon at his first Heat press conference staged on the team’s practice court at AmericanAirlines Arena. “When I was young she was a single parent. So, we lived in a single-wide trailer. She was a cashier. As a young man you never want to see your mom struggle. So, I worked my tail off and I got here so my mom will never struggle again.”
Adebayo’s mother, Marilyn Blount, made the trip to Miami to share Friday’s experience with her son. It came a day after Adebayo was drafted by the Heat with the 14th overall pick.
The 19-year-old forward/center proved to be a physical paint presence in just one season at Kentucky before making the jump to the NBA. Many of the questions asked by reporters on Friday were about Adebayo’s basketball fit with the Heat.
But it was Adebayo’s journey to AmericanAirlines Arena that overshadowed the basketball stuff. He grew up in Little Washington, N.C. in a green single-wide trailer home with his mother working as a cashier.
“It was hard for me because my mom worked so much,” Adebayo said. “I barely saw her and I was in school. She would come home from work, she would cook and go to sleep. So I come from practice and she would already be asleep. So it was like, ‘OK, good night.’ She woke me up every morning, even in high school she still woke me up. I guess it was a sense of her being a mother that she had to do it. She was always good to me. I never wanted nothing. She made sure I had everything I needed. Just having that just humbles you.
“I had a 1999 Ford Explorer and it was the color of some type of brown. But she got me a car. I was happy with that. When you’re pulling up to school sometimes, you look next to you and there’s some dude with like a BMW. I was just grateful that I had a car. I was always humble. I never took anything for granted.”
Along with the chiseled 6-foot-10, 243-pound frame, it’s that story that drew the Heat to Adebayo.
“A great story that we really connected with,” Spoelstra said. “And it’s taken a lot for him to get to this point to be a professional basketball player. We believe in these kind of stories, guys that have to show perseverance and great individual character. That matters. That matters in this league.”
As far as how he will fit in as a rookie, Spoelstra dismissed the belief that physical big men like Adebayo don’t have a place in today’s small ball NBA. Outside media outlets gave Miami a mediocre grade for drafting him at No. 14, with grades ranging from a “B-” to a “D.”
“I think a lot of it is so overstated,” Spoelstra said. “I think the narrative changes very quickly in this league. Yes, there is a place, certainly, for a player of Bam’s skill set and ability and physicality, that he can also make teams and players actually adjust to him. But we love his work ethic. We love how he’s developed, how he’s improved from the very first day at Kentucky to the end of the year. We think that he has an incredibly high ceiling.
“We don’t care about positions. We don’t care about conventional boxes, where players fit in. We may play, who knows, five guys over 6-9 next year in certain segments of a game without a point guard, and make teams adjust to us. You have to have guys that have ability, have skill sets and we look forward to learning more about Bam’s game.”
At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Adebayo’s size should allow him to play as a forward and center. Whether it’s as Whiteside’s backup or as one of the Heat’s forwards, Adebayo’s versatility is a trait Miami covets.
Growing up, Adebayo tried to pattern his game after future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. And Spoelstra didn’t dismiss that comparison.
“I’ll take that one of Kevin Garnett,” Spoelstra said. “We have no problem with that but we also would like to maybe work on thinking differently with him and him becoming the best Bam that he can become. Maybe that’s somebody that 20 years from now younger kids emulate and try to copy his game.”
Without even being asked, Riley gave his own comparison for Adebayo. He compared him to a six-time All-Star.
“I remember when I was coaching back in L.A.,” Riley said of his time with the Lakers. “Jerry West called me on the phone and he said, ‘I want you to come over to Loyola. I’m going to be working out a player,’ you know, back in the ’80s. He didn’t tell me who it was. I went over there and it was an 18-year-old high school kid by the name of Shawn Kemp.
“When I saw [Adebayo] in our gym here, I leaned over to Chet [Kammerer] and I said, ‘He reminds me of Shawn Kemp.’ At least physically and the mature, already developed athletic body for professional basketball. So that was a comparison and we all know what kind of career he had.”
Those are high expectations for Adebayo. And as he begins his NBA journey next week at Heat rookie camp in preparation for the summer league, he won’t forget the road he took to this point.
A framed photo of the single-wide trailer home he grew up in hung on one of the walls of his Kentucky dorm. 15 words were engraved on a metal plate near the bottom of the frame: “Never forget where you came from, and never lose sight of where you are going.”
That photo will follow Adebayo to his new home in Miami.
“That picture will go everywhere with me,” he said. “It’s always been something that I hang on to and it’s always been a part of me now. So just looking at that every day, it shows what I came from and how I made it out. It was rough for me. Everybody had bigger and better things than I do. But it was all good because I didn’t get discouraged. I kept fighting and I kept working hard, and it paid off for me.”