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Udonis Haslem remembers when Bam Adebayo first caught his attention.
Adebayo was a 20-year-old Miami Heat rookie in 2017 who, despite being a lottery pick, was still relatively unknown around the NBA. But he made his presence felt in the Heat’s 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 pick-up games played on the team’s practice court at FTX Arena.
“Every young fella that comes through our organization has taken part in those 2-on-2, 3-on-3 games,” Haslem said to the Miami Herald. “J-Rich [Josh Richardson] to Tyler Johnson to James Johnson to Bam Adebayo to Hassan Whiteside. It literally has gone on and on. So Bam came through those 2-on-2 games, and he approached them violently. He approached those 2-on-2 games violently to the point where I had to be violent back. That’s when I knew this kid was different, and I had to come with it.”
They have grown friendlier since then, with Haslem and Adebayo developing a close relationship on and and off the court during the past four years: Haslem, 41, as the mentor entering his 19th NBA season and Adebayo, 24, as the student entering his fifth NBA season.
“You hear the stories, you hear the background and you hear he’s the culture” Adebayo said. “Once you get in it, you start to understand why they name the culture after him. Why he’s a cornerstone and always will be a cornerstone in this organization. Why he’s one of the blueprints like D-Wade. It’s just his honesty, his tenacity and his passion for the game.”
But with the Heat preparing to open the 2021-22 season on Thursday against the Milwaukee Bucks at FTX Arena, Haslem and Adebayo have reached an important point of their friendship. Haslem now knows Adebayo is ready to take over when he decides to retire.
“We talk about Heat culture, I’m the keeper of the culture right now,” Haslem said. “But at some point, it has to be someone else. I think it will and it is going to be Bam.”
That’s the ultimate compliment from Haslem, who is entering his 15th consecutive season as a Heat captain. He’s also set to become only the fifth player to spend an entire NBA career lasting at least 19 seasons with one team, joining a short list that includes Dirk Nowitzki (21 seasons with Dallas Mavericks), Kobe Bryant (20 seasons with Los Angeles Lakers), John Stockton (19 seasons with Utah Jazz) and Tim Duncan (19 seasons with San Antonio Spurs).
Why does Haslem believe Adebayo is next in line?
“Basketball wise, I just never met a kid that’s more eager to be great,” Haslem said. “He really wants to be great. It’s not a joke. He doesn’t talk about it or just expect it to happen. The kid actually puts in the work. He has goals. He’s reaching for mine and Dwyane’s records. He’s not just talking about it, he’s putting in the work to achieve those goals and break those records. I see it every day.”
But Adebayo’s off-court persona has been just as convincing to Haslem, especially the way Adebayo cares for his mother, Marilyn Blount. It reminds Haslem of the close relationship he had with his mother, Debra Haslem, who died of cancer in July 2010.
“I love the way he admires and loves and cares for his mother. That’s how it should be,” Haslem said. “I remember the same admiration and love that I had for my mom. I understand it. I see the way he looks at her and I see the way she looks at him, and that’s just powerful and it’s real. I just remember being that same kid and having those same feelings about my mom. So often times, kids his age get caught up in the fast life. So much is going on and they lose sight of what’s really important, and he never has. He never loses sight of what’s important.
“So for me, a kid like that who was raised the right way, who has a similar background as myself and just approaches life that way, it’s just a joy for me to be around somebody like that. He just reminds me so much of myself in so many different ways that I would love to see him succeed and reach all his goals and break me and D-Wade’s records. Break them, please break them.”
Adebayo is not only on track to overtake Haslem as the Heat’s all-time leading rebounder one day, he will likely hold multiple franchise records if he sticks with the team long enough.
Adebayo, who’s entering the first year of a five-year, $163 million max contract extension, already has made made one All-Star Game and has been selected for the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in each of the past two seasons. He has become a franchise cornerstone for the Heat.
“It’s really a special bond the two of them have. I view them as brotherly love,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They always say the best relationships that you can have in life is when both people benefit equally from the relationship. So, clearly you see that UD has been a great mentor to Bam. But in turn, Bam has also really inspired UD because he has been not only just a willing student, but also somebody that is willing to take on the responsibility to carry the torch for the franchise moving forward.
“I think that has been incredibly uplifting for UD, particularly at this point in his career. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship. It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve witnessed in my coaching profession.”
Haslem has not yet decided when he’ll retire as an NBA player. But his impact is mostly felt behind the scenes now, as he has played in just 29 games since the start of the 2017-18 season.
One of the things that has kept Haslem around this long is Adebayo, with the two motivating and pushing each other during offseason workouts in South Florida.
“There are days when I don’t feel like getting up and there are days when I don’t feel like doing it,” Haslem said. “Then I got Bam talking in my ear. ‘I’m going to break your record. You’re getting old.’ Stuff like that, so it’s motivation that keeps me going. But also, as well, it’s just teaching him about things that are important in this league and in the offseason. No, you don’t have to dribble a basketball and run up and down the court all offseason. But taking care of your body in the weight room, just little small functional things.”
Haslem brought Adebayo to meet with his personal training staff this past offseason to discuss a summer workout plan. The goal became “putting back on some weight” after a shoulder injury kept Adebayo from his usual weightlifting routine, and he accomplished it by adding about 15 pounds this offseason.
The bulked up Adebayo looked sharp during the preseason, averaging 16 points on 60.5 percent shooting and six rebounds in 20.7 minutes. He totaled an efficient 64 points on 43 shots.
“It’s crazy because he’s almost the same age as my son. I got a 22-year-old son,” Haslem said. “I see Bam as the person who actually kind of holds me accountable and keeps me to hold the standard because I never want to steer this kid wrong. When I look at Bam, I just look at him as somebody who I always want to give the best advice to and I always want to see succeed regardless of what I have to do to make that happen for him.”
Like watching Adebayo pass him to set a new franchise rebounding record one day.
“I can’t wait until he does. It’s going to be a great day,” Haslem said. “For me, whoever thought I would have the record anyway. Just to say I had that record at some point, for me is a lot. So when he does break it, I’ll be happy.”
That’s a statement that Adebayo believes “100 percent.”
“That just shows how selfless he is,” said Adebayo, who honored Haslem recently by wearing his No. 40 for the first training camp practice while Haslem was away following the death of his father. “I feel like if it was anybody else, he would probably be mad. But I feel like since it’s me, I’m one of his closest dudes on the team. I don’t think he would mind. That’s an achievement I want and I’m looking to break that.”
Every offseason, Adebayo pushes Haslem to continue his playing career. But one day, his campaigning won’t be enough to keep Haslem around.
Adebayo doesn’t want to think about that day.
“I don’t want to think about it,” Adebayo said of Haslem’s eventual retirement. “He’s been one of my closest teammates, best friend, brother on my team for the last five years. It’s all love at the end of the day. When he’s ready, I don’t want the phone call. But yeah, I’m pushing it away and not thinking about it. That’s the best thing for me because I don’t want to ask him and get the wrong answer that I don’t want.”
Until then, their pregame ritual will continue.
Adebayo will fall down to the court to stretch just before player introductions. And Haslem will pull him up into the air and onto his feet when Adebayo is ready.
“Very few people reach down and help people up, you know what I’m saying,” Haslem said. “They actually end up knocking you back down on your knees most of the time. That’s most of the time in life. So my brother is down, he’s stretching and I went over one day and I reached out my hand and I helped him up. We just kept doing it from that point on. For me, it’s just a brother reaching down to pick up a brother. That’s pretty much what it is.”