The image does not change. The little kid stands at the edge of the playground in the shadows of the Bellevue Square housing projects in Hartford. He has been waiting forever to play. Nine bigger players, taller players, older players, have been chosen for the two sides. There is no 10th, not unless.... Michael, do you want to play? He is always the last one picked. Michael Adams always has something to prove.
"The first year I played in the NBA, in 1985, I made $65,000," says Adams, the 5'10", 175-pound point guard of the Washington Bullets. "Actually I didn't even make that much. I was cut on the day when salaries would have been guaranteed. I wound up playing in the CBA, making $500 a week."
His pants are too large and his body is too small. What chance does he have? He still is the little kid. He cannot even dunk. How can anyone play in this game that has been reinvented above the rim if he cannot jump that high? He tried to dunk once in his final game in high school. Felt good. Felt strong. Didn't come close. Hasn't tried again.
"The second year in the NBA, I made the $65,000 again," he says. "I was cut again, though. I was going back to the CBA until someone was hurt and I was called back to the Bullets."
Every night has to be a revelation. The audition never ends. He has to be a character from one of those sticky-sweet commercials, the grammar school hopeful dribbling like a wizard past Michael Jordan because the hopeful wears some brand of shoes or drinks some instant-energy drink. He has to turn cute fiction, contrivance, into reality. Every night.
"The third year, I was traded to Denver," he says. "I made $160,000."
His game has to be based on speed and cunning. The game in the air has to be changed to a game on the floor. He has to sweep up the leftovers that the big men drop, taking the ball and zipping in another direction. He has to sneak around and through the big men, a mouse in a living room filled with big cats, a cartoon Jerry avoiding a succession of cartoon Toms. His little-kid jump shot, lifted from his hip as if the ball weighs 50 pounds, is a heave. The heave has to go into the basket almost as often as it misses. His drives have to stop before he reaches the basket, a five-foot jumper off the backboard substituted for a big-man's slam.
"The fourth year, $375,000," he says. "The fifth year, $400,000. The sixth year, that one was renegotiated, so I made $800,000."
Nothing was ever easy. Nothing. In a game where money is handed out to big people sight unseen, as if they are Arabian princes receiving their proper birthright, the little kid had to earn each dollar individually. His last game had to be his best game. His next game had to be even better. Now he finally has landed, in his seventh year in the league and back with the Bullets, in a place where he has been given the ball and a team to run: sharing the job with no one, 15th in the entire league in scoring, fourth in assists. But still he cannot relax. He has to be an every-night dynamo, electricity.
"I'm making $1.2 million this year, so I guess you can say I'm finally a millionaire," he says. "I'm playing one season and making more than a million dollars."
He had asked for more in Denver. He had noticed, a year ago, that he was starting and that first-round draft choice Chris Jackson from LSU was coming off the bench. The market had gone crazy. Jackson was making twice as much money. More than twice. Shouldn't the player who plays make more than the one who does not? Or at least as much? Adams asked. The Nuggets put him with one of their first-round 1991 draft choices in a package and traded him back to the Bullets for Washington's higher first-round draft choice last June.
Jackson still sits, now behind Winston Garland. In Washington, meanwhile, the little kid plays and the Bullets are pushing for a place for him on the All-Star team. He earns every dollar he makes. That is the way it has to be.
"My other kids always were telling me to come see Michael play basketball," Grace Adams says. "I'd never seen him, until his senior year of high school. I knew he was going down to the playground all the time, playing, but I'd never gone to a game. The kids kept saying that he was really good, but I kept saying, 'I don't like basketball.' "
Michael's mother was one of the earliest skeptics. How could this little kid be so good? He was the eighth of her nine children, five boys and four girls. She worked hard, taking a bus to the tobacco fields outside Hartford, working the fields in a strange mix of life that touched both the memories of her girlhood in Georgia and the realities of ghetto life in the Northeast. Basketball? Her husband, Oliver, worked nights in the Pratt and Whitney plant. Nine kids filled the project apartment, two and three to a bedroom. There was a lot to do.
"I finally went to a game," she says. "I think it was up in Glastonbury. I watched him running around, scoring all those points, and I said, 'Good grief, I didn't know he could play like that.' I didn't miss very many games after that, I'll tell you."
He played at Hartford Public, an inner-city high school with a storied basketball past. His style, if not his unorthodox shot, brought back memories of Calvin Murphy, another little Connecticut kid with explosive speed, who had gone all the way to the pros. Adams was the state's leading scorer as a senior, a whiz. But he still had virtually no college offers.
The knocks were the familiar "too small" and the also familiar "out of control." What did that mean? Out of control? Who said it? Who? Somebody said it, and it came to be regarded as fact. The situation was embarrassing. There was some interest from nearby Central Connecticut, then a Division II school, but even that wasn't solid. Summer arrived, and everyone seemed to be going somewhere, and Adams still was available. People would ask him where he was going to go. He would mumble. He had no idea.
Luckily, he played in a summer all-star tournament in Bridgeport and was the most valuable player among all the celebrated names who were going to the celebrated places. Luckily, Kevin Mackey, then an assistant coach at Boston College under Tom Davis, was watching the show. Luckily, BC had been pursuing Patrick Ewing with a hope and more than a few prayers, but Ewing chose Georgetown. Luckily, there was that one scholarship left. Adams received Ewing's scholarship at the same late hour that the Boston College football coaches were deciding, what the heck, to give their final scholarship to this other local little kid, this Doug Flutie.
"I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't gotten that scholarship," Adams says. "I don't know where I would have gone. No one seemed interested." BC was the perfect answer. Grace and Oliver and assorted brothers, sisters and cousins made the easy trip from Hartford. (One older cousin is Marlon Starling, the former welterweight champion of the world.) Adams was a starter as an all-around point guard for his last three seasons, and he is proudest of all of the fact that he graduated in four years with a degree in speech communications. The family came and filled his apartment in celebration: the first member of the family to graduate from college. But there was little interest from the NBA.
Too small? Out of control? Whatever. He was drafted in the third round by the Sacramento Kings. The 66th player chosen. Simply making the team was a feat. Even when he did that, Adams was considered an end-of-the-bench curiosity. He hardly played, and just as the magic date arrived in December when salaries would be guaranteed for the year, he was cut. He remembers practicing on that day, thinking he had made the team, then being called to the coach's office.
"It really didn't hit me about what had happened until I was in the shower later," he says. "LaSalle Thompson had arranged for some of the rookies to use cars. He was saying that now that contracts were guaranteed, the rookies were going to have to pay for the cars. It was then I realized I wasn't part of this anymore. It was the first time I'd ever been cut from a team."
He called his mother and she said, "Well, if you're not there, then just come on home, baby"—words that he still remembers. He came on home and played the rest of the 1985-86 season for the Bay State Bombardiers in the CBA. Then the Washington Bullets signed him as a free agent. Again, he was an end-of-the-bench afterthought, making the team, being cut, then being brought back when Frank Johnson was injured. He was traded, along with forward Jay Vincent, on Nov. 2, 1987, to Denver for forward Mark Alarie and guard Darrell Walker.
"Most people at the time thought he was a throw-in, but that was far from the truth," Doug Moe, the Nugget coach at the time, says. "Michael Adams was an important part of that deal for us. We really wanted him. We liked his speed. He had the ability to go fast and sort of bring everyone else with him. Then, he started hitting that three-point shot. It was such a weapon. He didn't even have to hit it that much; he just had to have it. People had to play him out there, and it opened everything up for us. We wanted him, but he turned out to be so much more than we ever thought he would be."
The three-pointer became Adams's little-man equalizer. Moe let him shoot it whenever he wanted. He shot. He became the NBA's alltime leader in three-pointers, both made and attempted. He ran off a streak of 79 games over two seasons with at least one three-pointer, a league record. In three years under Moe he became an offensive threat on an offensive team. In his sixth year, last season, he became part of the doors-open, all-offense circus of new coach Paul Westhead. He became the lead acrobat. Out of control? What's out of control? This was an offense based on lack of control. Adams, who observers expected would sit behind Jackson, wound up as the sixth-leading scorer in the NBA at 26.5 points per game and led the Nuggets in assists, steals and minutes played. The 54 points that he scored on one memorable night against the Milwaukee Bucks were the most by a NBA player in a single game last season.
Denver, alas, was terrible. The Nuggets went 20-62. Changes were promised. Changes were made. Adams noticed he had superstar numbers. He asked if perhaps he also could have superstar pay. He is now a Bullet.
"I haven't bought many extravagant things," he says. "My one extravagance was the Mercedes. I always wanted a Mercedes. It was a dream. I didn't buy it until last year. Even then, I called my agent, Frank Catapano, and asked if I could do it. He said I could, that I deserved the car. I had to ask him again. I wasn't sure. He told me to go ahead. I'm proud of that car. I'm going to drive it for the rest of my life."
Adams's yardsticks for success are the normal-sized yardsticks that the rest of the world uses. There is the four-bedroom house he bought three years ago, which is located about a mile from the Capital Centre. Michael's wife, Kris, is from Washington, and they wanted to live in the area, even before he was traded to the Bullets. In the playroom are a pool table and a video game and a giant television. There is a volleyball court in the backyard. There is the car. There also is a house purchased in Windsor, outside Hartford, for Grace and Oliver.
"My dream house," Grace says. "I always wanted a house with a big porch and a big backyard, and now I've got it. Michael just said, 'Find what you want, and I'll buy it." Well, we didn't find anything, so we had it built. Everything I want is in here. When the kids want to visit, they can, and when they're through, they go home. That's good. There's some quiet."
The closing on the house was in August. In November, there was another pleasant moment. The Bullets were playing the Boston Celtics in Hartford in the 14th game of the season, and Adams was off to the best start of his career. He was second in the league in scoring behind Jordan, third in assists behind John Stockton of the Utah Jazz and Tim Hardaway of the Golden State Warriors. He already had hit the Celtics with a 40-point night in a 126-118 overtime win. When he was watching television a few days before the trip to Hartford, he saw a story about Mike Tyson donating turkeys to needy families in different cities. Adams bought 200 turkeys and distributed them himself in his old neighborhood.
"It was a nice thing," he says. "It really worked out. I liked that."
In the game that night—Nov. 19—he fell hard and sprained his right wrist. Six days later he dislocated the middle finger of his left hand. The injuries caused him to miss three games and have affected his shooting since, causing his scoring average to drop from 27.9 to 21.5.
There has been no talk about increasing his salary, but he figures that will come. He will prove things the way he always has proved things, game by game and day by day.
"You could always sit out," someone suggests. "That is not a tactic that would be new to this league. Players do it all the time."
"Michael Adams does not sit out," Michael Adams says, rejecting even the thought. "Michael Adams would never sit out."
The image does not change. He is on the court now, and he just ain't leaving.