LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Miami Heat center Edrice Femi “Bam” Adebayo got an unexpected phone call in June just weeks before entering the NBA bubble. It was from his half-brother, who delivered the news that their father, John Adebayo, had died in Nigeria.
“My father passed away, but I never really talked to him,” Adebayo told The Undefeated. “He was around when I was younger, and then my mom moved to North Carolina. So, he kind of became distant. I can’t really credit him for a lot of stuff.
“But, at the end of the day, he did make me. So, I give him props for that.”
Adebayo, 23, has gone on to flourish in the NBA bubble, averaging 18.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists in the 2020 playoffs. On Wednesday night, he’ll lead the Heat into Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
While Miami fans have enjoyed watching the No. 14 pick in the 2017 NBA draft blossom into an All-Star, there is also growing pride in Nigeria over Adebayo given his heritage.
“People are so excited about Adebayo in Nigeria,” said former NBA agent Ugo Udezue, who is the founder of Africa-based AFA Sports sportswear company, in a phone call from Nigeria. “I know most of Nigeria will be learning more about him. Most people didn’t know about him before the season, but they do now. I even got a text from my uncle who doesn’t even watch basketball that said, ‘Bam Bam.’ They are just getting to know and are supportive of him.”
For much of Adebayo’s early life, he did not want to acknowledge his Nigerian roots because his father did not play a strong role in his upbringing.
Adebayo and his mother, Marilyn Blount, moved from Newark, New Jersey, to a small town in North Carolina when he was 7. Given the distance, he grew resentful of his father and his last name.
“I feel like … my dad’s not in my life,” Adebayo said. “I don’t want to learn about that part of my family. And, I had to grow out of that. And, it was tough for me, it was growing pains. Because, from 15 to younger, everybody has regular names like Williams, Bennett, you got all the names that sound normal. And, then you got the one kid that has Adebayo. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re African,’ and this, that and the third. And, coming from a small city, everybody looks at you differently.
“When I was younger, I never wanted it because I was like, ‘Man, he wasn’t in my life. Why do I have his last name?’ ”
Looking back now, Adebayo says it was “small-minded” of him not to embrace his last name during his youth. Around age 16, he yearned to learn more about his Nigerian roots.
“Once I got older, it was kind of like, ‘Man, I got a beautiful last name. It rings well. It goes well with Bam,” said Adebayo, who got his nickname from a Flintstones character. “Bam Adebayo clicks, it just sounds good going off the tongue. …
“I know that my last name means like born in the joyful time. Just thinking about that, it means something to me. I feel like it clicks with my personality and who I am.”
Adebayo has since become a big fan of fufu, a popular African and Caribbean food often made by pounding starchy food crops such as cassava, yam, plantain and others with hot water. His mother, who is African American, has been supportive of him getting to know more about his Nigerian roots.
Adebayo planned on going to Nigeria for the first time this summer as part of the Basketball Without Borders camp in Africa. But COVID-19 ruined those plans.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Nigeria,” Adebayo said. “I always wanted to see the place. See what it’s like. I might go over there, and I might be some king that I don’t even know about. I might have a mansion over there that’s mine, and I don’t even know. So, I’m looking forward to going over there. …
“Because at the end of the day I’m half-Nigerian. But, I don’t want to say that and not know the history of my name, or where my tribe is.”
Adebayo says he will make the trip when it’s safer to travel. And when he finally does, he can expect a warm welcome.
“His All-Star selection cemented the interest in him,” Basketball Africa League president Amadou Fall told The Undefeated. “You hear the name and know the Nigerian connection. People are definitely following what he is doing as one of the best players on his team in terms of productivity. He is a star player and he is the subject in a lot of conversation in Africa in general.”
Adebayo has come a long way.
It was only in August 2019 that USA Basketball cut Adebayo from its World Cup roster. Adebayo said he took it personally and is still stunned by the decision.
“I feel like I should have been on that team,” Adebayo said of Team USA, which finished a disappointing seventh in the FIBA World Cup. “I feel like I could have helped the team in numerous arrays. But, everybody has their opinion, and they went with what they wanted.
“So, at the end of the day, I had to take that one to the chin.”
Adebayo used that USA Basketball chip on his shoulder to have a breakthrough season for the Heat, becoming an All-Star for the first time. And when the Heat needed a big performance to get to the Finals, it was Adebayo who led the way with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists in a 125-113 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel expressed strong respect for Adebayo ahead of their Finals matchup.
“I got a chance to spend a little time with him on All-Star Weekend,” Vogel said. “He’s a terrific young man. A great talent. He really fits the modern NBA in terms of playing the center position with all that he can do. Obviously, being a dynamic roller [to the basket]. Like [Denver Nuggets center] Nikola Jokic, he will bring the ball up in the [center] position on the [fast] break. … He can really do it all.”
The future is bright for Adebayo, and he’ll look to make an even bigger name for himself in his first Finals appearance and potentially next year’s Olympics in Japan. Team USA and Nigeria are both expected to consider him for their rosters. (The Nigerian national team, coached by Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, is expected to include NBA players Gabe Vincent, Josh Okogie, Chimezie Metu, Jahlil Okafor, Al Farouq-Aminu and possibly Spencer Dinwiddie, along with former NBA players Ike Diogu and Ekpe Udoh.)
“I’m still thinking on it,” Adebayo said of the Olympics. “It’s still in the back of my mind. When we played in the regular season a lot of dudes see me, and give me a little elbow, like, ‘Man, Nigerian team looking kind of nice.’ ”