A rising young Sun

Center Alvan Adams is a slick, savvy candidate for rookie honors
March 15, 1976

There are a lot of unusual things to report about Alvan Adams, beyond the fact that he is an extraordinarily good 6'9", 210-pound white rookie center in the National Basketball Association. Like the spelling of his first name, which he says is from "one of those long lists" in the Old Testament. Like his college grades, which were good enough to get him into medical school had he chosen to go that route. And like his appetite. Indeed, Adams has a good chance for a rare double: to become both Rookie of the Year and Trencherman of the Year in the NBA.

Adams, who plays for the Phoenix Suns, was the lone rookie picked for this year's NBA All-Star Game. Since he was behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he played only 11 minutes and when he got back to Phoenix he was asked if he was disappointed.

"Yes," he said. "If I had known Kareem wasn't going to make it to the banquet, I would have eaten his salad. I would have eaten his steak, too. The only thing that stopped me was that I was afraid he'd walk in when I was halfway done. He might have been upset."

Suns publicist Tom Ambrose remembers asking Adams to make a 5-to-7 p.m. appearance at the grand opening of a fast-food stand.

"Well, I don't know if I can eat for two straight hours," said Adams. "Alvan," said Ambrose, "it's not an eating contest, it's a public appearance."

John Shumate, who was with the Suns at the time, was supposed to go to the opening, too, but took sick and could not. According to Ambrose, Adams ate enough for both of them while talking amiably with the customers. Toward the end he seemed to be nearly full but reached deep within himself like a true champion and made a finishing sprint: a taco and a double cheeseburger.

There is, of course, more to Adams than a digestive tract, as opponents have discovered:

•In a game against Los Angeles he scored 35 points, had four steals, eight assists and a blocked shot.

•In a game against Philadelphia he scored 30 points, had three steals, six assists, 18 rebounds and three blocked shots.

•In a game against the champion Golden State Warriors he scored 33 points, had two steals, 10 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid who should be in the middle of his senior season at Oklahoma. Not bad for a stringbean who is the lightest center in the league, and one of the shortest. Adams has a soft, arcing jump shot that is accurate from as far out as the corners or the top of the key and has helped him average 19.1 points a game. He cannot muscle anybody around under the basket, but the Suns have burly Forwards Curtis Perry and Garfield Heard to help him rebound. Adams plays defense adequately, although he needs to become more aggressive without fouling. He is also capable of putting the ball on the floor and driving. What he really is, is a good NBA forward playing out of position.

Adams' forte is passing, a skill he mastered by the 10th grade in high school in Putnam City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, where Suns Coach John McLeod first saw him while he was coaching at the University of Oklahoma. Too often in the NBA when the basketball is passed to the center, his teammates never see it again until it either goes through the hoop or comes bouncing back to them off the rim. When it goes to Adams, who is usually stationed at the high post, the ball reappears more often than not; he is fourth in the NBA in assists with an average of 6.0 a game. The next-best center is Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets, with 5.5.

"He's the best passing center since Johnny Kerr," says Suns Assistant Coach Al Bianchi, who has been in pro ball for 20 seasons. "He's the most popular guy on the team because he'll give it up. They love him."

Adams is especially adept at whipping the ball to teammate Paul Westphal under the hoop. Westphal was down in the dumps when Boston sent him to Phoenix last summer in return for Charlie Scott. But he cheered up considerably the first time he played with Adams in the Los Angeles pro summer league.

"I knew from that first game that he was good," says Westphal. "Just by the way he handled himself, how he protected the ball, how he moved so smoothly."

"Alvan surprised people his first time around," says Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo. "He's by far the best pick we've ever made. No question about it. He has great hands, a great pair of hands. He's an offensive threat passing the ball. It's nice to try to project what he'll be two or three years from now, with experience."

Adams is a very confident, poised young man, yet he never expected instant success in the pros. Perhaps one reason was that the University of Oklahoma has not exactly been a fertile garden for basketball players—Clifford Ray of Golden State, Heard and Adams are the only Sooners in pro ball today. Adams is without doubt the finest player in Oklahoma's history, having been named Big Eight Player of the Year as a freshman, sophomore and junior and MVP of the Big Eight Tournament the same three years. And he has been just as successful off the court. He made Eagle Scout in the eighth grade, was an honor student in high school and had a 3.8 grade average out of a possible 4.0 in pre-med at Oklahoma. He was a three-year starter on the Putnam City basketball team—leading it to a 67-11 record and the Class 4A state championship his senior year.

UCLA, Maryland, Vanderbilt and Kansas were among the colleges lined up at his door, but he stayed close to home, mainly because of his fondness for McLeod, who moved on to coach Phoenix after Adams' freshman year.

Following his sophomore year Adams applied for NBA "hardship" status (which merely means that he signed a statement that he had no job; his father Paul is a fairly prosperous petroleum geologist) but later withdrew his name. After his junior year he applied again and let it stick, it being all but a certainty that he would go to Phoenix and to his old coach, McLeod, as the No. 4 pick in the league after David Thompson, David Meyers and Marvin Webster. Which is what happened.

"Governor David Hall and the president of OU tried to talk me into staying," Adams says. "Hall was a Rhodes-scholar and played up that angle, but I didn't want that and I didn't plan to be single, which you have to be to get a Rhodes. There was no hate mail and at the end the coach said, 'O.K., we wish you the best.' "

Adams settled into an east Phoenix apartment with his bride Sara, who is continuing her interior-design studies at nearby Arizona State. He originally planned to play in the NBA for five years and then go to medical school. Now he is not so sure. The Suns have an outside-shot at making the playoffs. He and Westphal are talking of joining forces in an Adams-Westphal basketball camp on the ASU campus. And, best of all, Adams has found a restaurant in town that serves just about the finest cornbread he's ever tasted.