Bam's Beginnings: From humble origins, Adebayo has grown into a star
- Adebayo spent most of his childhood in a single-wide trailer in a small North Carolina town. The lessons he learned there prepared him for Kentucky & his impending pro future.
The single-wide trailer home at 76 Church Lane, the one with green paneling and black shutters and a small wooden porch out front, is the kind of place you find because people tell you where it is. A map of this part of eastern North Carolina is only mildly useful: Along a stretch of Highway 32 just around the corner, the town starts changing from door to door. A church with an address in Plymouth, a church in Pantego, then a meat farm in Pinetown, never mind that only two-tenths of a mile separates them. If the people around here felt a little dispossessed, they might not be blamed for it. But that narrow green box is surely there, cradled by a dense row of trees in the rear, and it was home enough for the people who lived in it.
Marilyn Blount cooked breakfast for her son every day before walking to her job as a cashier at the Acre Station Meat Farm up the road. Sometimes she’d come home so tired she went right to sleep. But the house stayed clean and the bills stayed paid and her son, Edrice Adebayo, known to everyone as “Bam” ever since he upended a table when he was 1, stayed happy and big. When Bam started playing neighborhood basketball on a portable rim in the street, he hardly knew how to catch. But he was huge—6' 6" by the time he was 13—and fast. And when he joined actual, organized teams, he blocked shots and rebounded and worked out the rest over time. He dunked on top prospects as an eighth-grader, averaged 30 points as a high school junior and became one of the country’s most coveted recruits. He signed with Kentucky, another freshman expected to treat Lexington as a layover in transit to the NBA.
So Bam arrived in early June for summer school, moved into the dorm by his mother and his AAU coach and then began this next, most consequential bit of growing on his own. A few weeks later, that coach, Kevin Graves, returned for a visit. He brought something for Bam’s room: An enlarged photo of 76 Church Lane, with that old basketball rim tipped over on the lawn in the foreground. Graves hung the picture on the wall. Near the bottom of the frame, there are 15 words engraved on a metal plate. They are the only directions Bam Adebayo needs: Never forget where you came from, and never lose sight of where you are going.
A great number of high-end talents enrolled in college basketball this year. Bam Adebayo may be the one with the end so high nobody can see it yet.
To date, the 6' 10", 260-pound freshman has done the expected for Kentucky: 13.5 points per game on 62.4% shooting, adding 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per night. He’s scored in double-figures in all but three games, and heading into a showdown with Kansas on Saturday, he's on a five-game streak during which he's made 21 of 25 shots. Adebayo also has a chance to break Anthony Davis’s single-season record for most dunks in the John Calipari era, with 62 to this point. (Davis had 92 in 2011–12.) He is the snarly presence that the Wildcats lacked last year, when Indiana bounced them in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32. “I think it’s the difference in winning championship-quality games,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne says. “In a perfect world, you’d rather have a guy that’s skilled and physical. But at times you win with guys that will fight for the win. You want a guy that just can get it done, a guy who’s not worried about his skills. You want a guy that will just fight—fight to get a rebound, fight to get a basket. It’s just his will. You get a guy like that, he helps you win championships.”
But the best way to contextualize how far Adebayo can go? Refer to how far he has come.
Consider present-day Bam’s scouting report on seven-years-ago Bam, when those neighborhood friends initially coaxed him into street ball games. “I sucked,” Adebayo says. “It was my first time picking up a basketball. I watched it on TV, but I never knew what to really do with it. I mean, I needed help with everything.”
His size and potential earned him a spot on a local AAU team, which brought him to a camp where he caught the attention of Graves, who convinced Adebayo to join his Karolina Diamonds program for the next summer. Graves was struck by Adebayo’s foot speed and how fluid his lateral movement was for an adolescent with such an outsize frame. He also was astonished by just how untrained Adebayo was. “When I say ‘super raw,’” Graves says, “he wasn’t a basketball player.” Thus began the building of Bam Adebayo. Before he could learn about hook shots, he had to master basic footwork. In three-on-three drills, in three-man weaves, Adebayo traveled constantly. So Graves put his pupil through guard drills for years, thinking: If I make you do jab step drills and stutter drills, guess what? Your post moves are going to be easy.
In the macro view, Adebayo’s growth to a potential first-round pick has been exponential. It felt more painstaking as it happened. Early on, Adebayo was only a cog on that AAU tam, which featured future Division I players like Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State), Seventh Woods (North Carolina) and Ty Graves, Kevin’s son (Boston College before transferring to Saint Louis). Adebayo once missed four dunks during a single game in Memphis. Kevin Graves even drew up a backdoor lob play to get Adebayo a slam in that outing; after receiving a perfect pass, Adebayo flubbed the finish, looked to the bench and burst out laughing. In the eighth-grade AAU national championship game the following year, Adebayo’s lone bucket was a dunk off a baseline pass on the ascendant big man prodigy of that moment, Thon Maker. “After that,” Kevin Graves says, “he started dunking on anyone.”
As he began high school, Adebayo says he became confident enough to establish performance parameters for himself, far beyond avoiding an extra step here or there. “I needed double-doubles, I needed 30-point games, I needed 40-point games,” he says. “I was just setting goals for myself that I knew I could achieve.” He sprouted into a player who averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds as a junior for Northside High School in Pinetown, N.C., after which he transferred to High Point Christian Academy for his final season, seeking a higher level of competition than Class 1A clashes could offer. He also wanted to outrace any questions that his production was a byproduct of weak opposition. “I didn’t want to leave,” Adebayo says. “But I knew what I had to do.” Adebayo played in events in Florida and Massachusetts, against teams featuring fellow future freshman stars like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Duke’s Jayson Tatum, and finished as a McDonald’s All-American. “Now, nobody can say you’re not dominating,” Graves says. “When you got 25 points on Chino Hills, now y’all can shut up.”
But the move to Kentucky meant Adebayo—and his burgeoning skills—would face his most significant challenges. So Graves called on a friend with some strong credentials: Rasheed Wallace, the former North Carolina standout and four-time NBA All-Star. Between the end of high school basketball season and the beginning of summer school in Lexington, Wallace drove to Greensboro a couple times a week to train Adebayo at the Brown YMCA. “He basically taught him for three months how to play against taller players,” Graves says of Wallace. “In high school, Bam is 6' 10" playing against 6' 4" [players]. You get to Kentucky, everybody is 6' 10". Rasheed taught Bam all the leveraging moves to use against the taller guys.”
Synergy Sports statistics show a player with a total of six jump shots launched all season, and 121 half-court attempts off post-ups or around the rim. A deeper dive hints at a wider array of skills lurking in Adebayo’s arsenal. “He’s so much more comfortable now having the ball in his hands two and three and four and five seconds, to where he’s a basketball player, versus just a guy who’s a dunker,” Kentucky assistant Joel Justus says. Adebayo’s proficiency in handling hard double-teams suggests Justus is correct; when Adebayo has passed out to spot-up shooters in those situations, Kentucky gets a respectable 1.188 points per possession, a figure in the 69th percentile nationally.
Coaches insist Adebayo’s under-deployed jumper has come along, behind closed doors. With school out for the Martin Luther King holiday, Adebayo and Payne held a pre-practice workout. Payne had Adebayo take pick-and-pop midrange jumpers until he hit 20. Managers shouted out the big man’s make-to-miss ratio with each attempt. Ultimately, Adebayo required 30 shots to get 20 makes, indicative of a touch that Kentucky hasn’t so far needed (and that has been oddly lacking with Adebayo’s 61.8% free throw shooting). “I can see him learning to be able to be a three-point shooter one day,” Payne says.
Other glimpses of Adebayo’s sprawling potential are more self-evident. Against Texas A&M on Jan. 3, Adebayo deflected a pass, collected the loose ball and finished with a Eurostep into a layup at the other end. But his most significant contribution is the attitude that has given the team’s medical staff some unscheduled needlework practice. Sacha Killeya-Jones had never gotten stitches in his life before arriving in Lexington. The 6' 10" freshman has now required two sets—one to the forehead, one to the lip—thanks to Adebayo. “He’s meaner than I thought,” Justus says. “Everybody always talked about how nice he was. He’s mean. He’s a mean rebounder; he’s an angry post finisher. And there’s not one thing wrong with it. But he’s nasty. And then he smiles after he does it. It’s a beautiful thing when he’s mean.”
Or as star freshman guard Malik Monk puts it: “Every team is scared of him, I think.”
This is somewhat amusing when you consider this fearsome presence occasionally calms his mind before games by listening to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” And as for being so nasty to the other boys . . . Well, now what would his mother think about that?
Before Adebayo moved to, as he puts it, “the backwoods of somewhere,” he was a young boy in Newark, N.J., who knew to go inside once the streetlights came on. His parents met there, he was born there and he lived on South 17th Street, on the West Side. In Adebayo’s recollection, he was spared the worst of what a child might see in a rougher corner of the city. A lot of violence, he says. “I had to stay in the house a lot because my Mom didn’t want to see me on the news,” Adebayo says. “I wasn’t a bad child. She just didn’t want me in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He was seven, he says, when Marilyn decided to flee. “She was like, I can’t have my son grow up in this,” Adebayo recalls. (Marilyn declined to be interviewed for this story. Bam’s father, John Adebayo, remained in New Jersey and didn’t play an active role in his upbringing.) They left for Marilyn’s native North Carolina, staying with her sister until she could get on her feet. She secured both the cashier’s job at the Acre Station Meat Farm and the green trailer on Church Lane and that is where a new life began. Adebayo remembers wondering at the quiet and all the trees. Best of all, he could stay outside after dark.
He knew his mom worked hard, making the short quarter-mile walk to the meat farm every day whether it was raining or snowing or sweltering outside. He could tell when she was tired, but he didn’t say anything. He thought he had everything and it never occurred to him to feel otherwise. “She fought for us,” Adebayo says. “She made it happen. She made it work. . . . Growing up in a trailer, you think everything you get is good. I always thought it was a gift from God, because some people are out here struggling and on the street. We had warmth. We had clothes. We had a roof over our head.”
The best memories are the simple ones. Bam and Marilyn sat on that small porch—she in a chair, Bam on the wooden planks—and talked about everything. Marilyn cooked a family dinner every Sunday; if baked ziti or banana pudding was on the menu, Bam was giddy with anticipation hours before the food hit the plate. This was a small world that orbited around one boy. Marilyn always reserved enough money to take Bam school shopping. She didn’t own a car but saved enough money to buy Bam a used Ford Explorer when he was old enough to drive. And not one basketball exploit went unrecognized inside that trailer. “If you scan from kitchen to the living area [and then] down the hall, all you saw was Bam,” Graves says. “Like a trailer trophy museum.” Everything from the medals and plaques Bam earned as a middle-schooler all the way through the gold shoe trophy he won as MVP of the 2015 Under Armour Elite 24 game that sat on the kitchen counter.
The place became a monument built by a mother for her son, and the person she hoped he’d become. “It was a trailer, but you know what? It was the quaintest trailer in the world,” Graves says. “It was a trailer, but the lights were always paid. It was a trailer, but water was never cut off. It was a trailer, but Bam would always be able to put the cable on and watch North Carolina and Duke and UCLA play. You might have a big house, but it’s raggedy. She had a humble house, but everything about it said responsible.”
Bam Adebayo understood the message. He moved into Graves’ home, three hours away in Greensboro, for his senior season at High Point Christian taking the spare bedroom. As Graves puts it: The new boarder was the type of kid that makes you feel like you don’t have another kid in the house. Adebayo did his own laundry and kept his room clean. If Graves assigned chores, Adebayo asked if he should vacuum or pull weeds. He played Lincoln Logs with Graves’ 6-year-old daughter. Conscientious habits extended beyond the front door, too. When Adebayo committed to Kentucky on Mike & Mike in Nov. 2015, he wore the same suit Graves gave him as a seventh-grader. Adebayo skipped the Nike Hoops Summit game last April because it fell between two other showcase events and the travel was going to leave him without sufficient time to study for a chemistry exam.
Even while awash in the resources and spoils provided to players at places like Kentucky, Adebayo just seems aware. When he arrived at the Joe Craft Center for an interview, a staffer asked if Adebayo needed anything to drink. The freshman pivoted without a word, left the room and retrieved a Gatorade himself. Earlier this season, Adebayo noticed roommate Wenyen Gabriel, a fellow freshman, struggling and put in a request to Payne: KP, when I work out, can Wenyen come work out with me?
“Through recruiting, we talk about, this is going to be about you from the coaches’ standpoint, but you have to be about everybody else,” Justus says. “If you talk about [Bam’s] upbringing, that’s it to a ‘T.’ His mom did everything she could for him, and all he had to do was take care of business and be a great kid and be a great teammate.”
The verve with which Adebayo approaches every day is, from his perspective, common sense. “I just bring energy, try to put myself in a good mood, because you’re not going to get through practice if you’re drowsy, don’t feel like doing nothing,” he says. “Then it’s going to be a long practice and coach is going to be all over you.” But there’s more to it than practicality. He thinks about how, just this past fall, he walked through a sea of fans camping out for Big Blue Madness and clamoring for his autograph. And he thinks about how he left life in a trailer in the backwoods of somewhere not too long before. “I’m grateful that it happened,” Adebayo says. “It’s got a place in my heart that I’ll never forget.”
A story from John Calipari about Bam Adebayo, before Kentucky played Auburn in mid-January: The Wildcats coach had gathered his team and apparently had addressed, multiple times, the progress the freshman big man had made. Calipari insisted he wasn’t taking digs at the rest of the roster. But he says he asked the group one question: Who’s the hardest worker in the gym?
“They all pointed to Bam,” Calipari said. “And I said, ‘There you go. My point is made.’ That is why he is making strides that are just crazy.”
Moving the narrative along a couple weeks later, Payne says Adebayo’s rapid improvements are a function of his growing love for the work. Coaches saw a tired freshman and prodded him anyway—You got some more? What else you got?—and Adebayo smiled and laughed and tried to find some more. That work ethic, Payne says, puts Adebayo in the same category as the likes of Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Brandon Knight: Players who came to Kentucky and worked so hard that, eventually, the staff couldn’t throw enough at them.
They all had their reasons. The next member of that select group has his. He’s reminded of it when he wakes up in the morning and sees a picture of a green trailer on his wall. “She scuffled for me,” Bam Adebayo says of his mother, “so now I’m scuffling for her.”