Out on the hardwood, toward a far corner of the gym, crouches a 70-year-old man, thin and bespectacled, with a crook in his back, a hitch in his step and braces on his wrists to protect them from bullet passes. He is drilling a quartet of Golden State Warriors, each young enough to be his grandson.
At 5 feet 11 inches, Ron Adams is in a land of giants. Methodically, he orders centers and forwards, most of them nearly a foot taller, through defensive maneuvers and a shooting workout. His boss, Steve Kerr, eyes him intently, then smiles like a gambler admiring someone who is beating the odds. “I could watch him run drills all day,” Kerr says. “Seventy years old and still at it!”
Adams was in his mid-60s when Kerr, the Warriors’ head coach, hired him away from the Boston Celtics, where he was the lead assistant coach. What Kerr wanted was a venerable wise man, someone who had coached for decades but had no real desire to be promoted. Someone who would thus be free to speak his mind – like Tex Winter, who was Phil Jackson’s assistant in the 1990s when Kerr starred on the Chicago Bulls’ championship-winning teams.
In the summer of 2014, Kerr took Adams to dinner at A16, a trendy, red-brick restaurant in Oakland. Adams, who reads literature and poetry and likes fine wine, ordered a bottle of pinot noir for the table. The waiter poured a bit for him to try. He swirled it in his glass and took a sip. “That tastes nothing like a pinot,” he said, insisting the waiter bring another bottle.
“He sent the wine back!” Kerr recalls. He chuckles at the memory. “Ron is the first and only guy I have ever seen who sent the wine back!”
“I’m thinking,” he adds, with an expletive for emphasis, “’Who is this guy?’
“I wanted a truth-teller, somebody to tell me, ‘You gotta do this, and you gotta do that,’ completely unfiltered,” Kerr says. “Somebody whose experience and wisdom made everyone stand up and listen. I knew right then that we were talking to the right guy, and I’m just thankful we have him because he’s been instrumental in all that we’ve done.
“Ron Adams, he’s our Tex.”
A subtle activist
For a sports franchise, the Warriors are uncommonly engaged with the outside world, particularly when it comes to politics and social activism. Kerr and several of his players – superstars keenly sensitive to the hardships faced by black people – have been sharply critical of President Donald Trump.
They have taken public stances against police shootings, inequities in the justice system and the rise in racist rhetoric.
In December, the Warriors blared “Sweet Home Alabama” over the loudspeakers on their practice court the morning after Doug Jones, a Democrat, upset Roy Moore, a Republican who had been accused of sexual assault, in Alabama’s Senate race.
Adams, a renaissance man in professional basketball, plays a subtle role in this activism. He goads an already intellectually curious team to keep learning, keep reading, keep searching for more.
Adams is the exacting, behind-the-scenes coach known for sending out links to essays about Trump and race. He is the one eager to talk big ideas: philosophy, religion, sociology and especially politics. He is the one concerned about the pitfalls posed by big tech. He is the one who is best friends with a Gestalt psychologist.
“Maybe that’s the key to longevity,” says a fellow assistant coach, Bruce Fraser, 53.“This business can engulf you, especially for us younger guys, and it gets worse as the season moves on. Here’s the guy who has lasted, and he makes sure to always remind us that there is more to the world.”
Adams’ fascination with the world started early. His family raised cattle and grew alfalfa, corn and cotton on a 320-acre ranch in Laton.
Adams was in charge of feeding the cows bushels of cured, baled alfalfa, which were wrapped in wire mesh and required clipping. He learned to do it with care and close attention to detail. A cow could die from ingesting even a sliver of wire.
He learned something else. “On the farm, your rapport with your neighbor is critical,” Adams says. “There is a premium on honesty. You don’t fool people in that world.”
On the farm he learned to speak the truth – and to send the wine back. “My father, I remember him getting bales of hay,” he says, “and if it didn’t meet his standard, the response would be polite but firm: ‘This is good but not what I wanted.’”
Basketball was how he left the farm. He played guard in college at Fresno Pacific, where he became an assistant coach after graduation. It was 1969. He was 21.
Adams never played again.
He is not the oldest coach in the NBA. Bob Weiss, an assistant with the Denver Nuggets, is five years older, but Weiss played professional basketball for a dozen years. Adams kept coaching. In his mid-20s, he was promoted to head coach at his alma mater. By his mid-30s, he had honed a sophisticated defensive theory based in part on the tactics of a handful of coaches from the 1950s and 1960s. Adams put the theory into a booklet, “A Man-to-Man Pressure Defensive System,” and he developed a following.
In his late 30s, after serving as Boyd Grant’s assistant, he replaced the legend as head coach at Fresno State. He was an unusual blend: professorial, bookish and hard-charging.
“Bobby Knight-ish in some ways,” says Jervis Cole, one of his key players, drawing a comparison more with Knight’s authoritarian style than his histrionics. “Coach Adams cared about us in a way that was special.”
But he was also demanding and structured to an extreme. One of his most talented forwards struggled under the dictates, transferred to Colorado State and became player of the year in the rival Western Athletic Conference. “It was, ‘My way or the highway,’” Cole says of Adams’ philosophy.
“That is the way things were done in that era,” Adams says, ruefully. “Top-down. The chain of command was everything. The coach was very much in charge. When I look back, knowing what I know now, as a more experienced human being, I say to myself, ‘You sure could have taken a lot different approach.’”
At the same time, his reputation for teaching the game kept soaring. He grounded his players in the same minutiae he now preaches to the Warriors: angles, foot positions, how to spread their hands, how to be an instigator instead of lying in wait, how to be flexible enough as a unit to protect multiple positions. Fresno State defended well, but it was short of talent. The Bulldogs won 43 games and lost 72.
Adams resigned. “A very tough time for me,” he says. “Coaching the team in the area where you grew up, and you have parents and friends and family there, and it doesn’t go as well as you want it to go …” His voice, ordinarily steady, trails off.
He would never be a head coach again. It was 1990, the year Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were born and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant turned 2.
Beating back the angst
Career assistants don’t make enough money to retire early.
Soon Adams began teaching his principles of defense to Jerry Tarkanian’s teams at UNLV. Then he was in Iowa, at Drake. When Tarkanian took over the San Antonio Spurs, Adams joined him. When Tarkanian got fired, the new coach, John Lucas, kept Adams on. When Lucas bolted for Philadelphia, Adams went along. The NBA grind, constant change with little job security, became part of life for Adams, his wife, Leah, and their two children. Says Leah: “I became an absolute expert at packing up and moving.”
Still, doubt tore at Adams, not about his defensive tactics, but about coaching itself.
About every four or five months, he says, he had “an existential crisis about what I should be doing.”
“We all think we should be doing more than what we are, but the restrictiveness of what I do, and have done for almost 50 years, has been limiting,” he says. “In some ways, it has kept me from pursuits that I think are the most important.”
He could imagine himself, for instance, in national politics.
“There are a lot of needs out there,” he says. “So much crap is going on in our country, it’s worrisome. Our country is taking steps backward.”
What of Curry, Durant, Green and all the other Warriors who are growing more and more comfortable with speaking out? “All of that makes me much prouder than anything they have ever done on the court,” he says. “We have players speaking truth to power. They should, because they see the world they come from in much more depth than someone who does not come from their background.”
As Adams moved from team to team, whenever he worried about whether he was doing enough to change the world, he beat back the angst. His love of the game and the people who play it and coach it – their strategies and tactics and vibrant energy – kept him in thrall.
“Whether you were a superstar like Ray Allen or a journeyman like me, he invested his life into you,” says Kevin Ollie, who played on a pair of Adams’ NBA teams and is now a title-holding coach at the University of Connecticut. “He made you see what you could become.”
Ollie has another recollection: The Adams of yesteryear went about his work with such driving earnestness that Ollie rarely saw him smile.
The years folded one into the other, and on Adams went: Milwaukee, Chicago, Oklahoma City, back to Chicago, and finally to Boston, where he and Brad Stevens, head coach of the Celtics, took over a dismal young team.
To this day, Stevens credits Adams, whom he calls “my editor,” with helping him establish the habits and expectations that have come to characterize the Celtics, now one of the best teams in the league. It looked like Boston would be his last stop.
But then Kerr took Adams to dinner at A16.
Over pizza, Kerr spoke of creating a dynamic Warrior offense that was forceful, fluid and fast. He also spoke of embracing Adams’ tenets so that he could establish a team defense with the same characteristics. No team in league history had played in that style on both ends of the court and won a title. At least, not yet.
And Kerr had another bold idea, too. He wanted to change the Warrior culture. He would blend old school tenacity with outright fun.
Adams was interested. On June 23, 2014, he joined the team.
And at first, he was wary.
Old school ran deep in his veins, and Kerr was creating a culture unlike any Adams had seen. He remembers his first Warrior practices. The team was jovial and loose. Hip-hop was ripping through a sound system.
“I had to learn to put up with their crap music,” he says, a glint in his eye and sarcasm in his voice.
“I’m an older coach,” Adams adds, “and I had to change.”
It was difficult. Kerr wanted the team to learn from its losses – but not to wallow in them. Adams, however, “took losses really hard,” Kerr says.
During Adams’ first season with the Warriors, the Memphis Grizzlies broke a 16-game Golden State winning streak. In the locker room afterward, Adams’ fellow coaches did their best to take the edge off. They reviewed what had gone wrong, but they laughed, jibed one another and reveled in how long they had been winning.
Adams wanted nothing to do with such lightness. He sat apart from them, pored over game statistics and obsessed about the team’s blunders.
“He was despondent, and he didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Kerr says. “I don’t like that. I want everyone to be able to commiserate and talk ourselves off the ledge, and Ron was not even looking at us. He was just in the corner, staring at his notebook.”
It took time to adjust, but as the Warriors continued their steady walk to their first NBA championship in 40 years, Adams approached Kerr.
“I have an admission,” Kerr remembers him saying. “I didn’t know if what you were doing would work. I didn’t know if playing music and being loose and carefree could cut it. But what you’ve got going, it’s working, all right. You’ve cooked up an interesting stew.”
Players and the other assistants noticed how Adams was evolving.
Today, on a supremely tight-knit team, he’s like a revered grandfather: wise and beloved, confident enough to let himself be ribbed for his age, still stern and sharp enough to command respect and set a high bar.
Kerr has discovered that Adams’ truth-telling doesn’t show itself in dramatic confrontation but in the steady grind of the day to day. Even during a winning streak, “Ron will tell me, ‘We stunk last night,’” Kerr says. “He will say it to my face. He does not get fooled by our record. He’ll walk into practice and tell me we have to do a certain defensive drill, we can’t forget the fundamentals, because we’ve been awful.’”
Durant, Curry and Thompson laud Adams for holding them accountable. “’You could have contested that shot. … You could have made that guy miss. … You’ve got to use that length of yours … Verticality! Verticality!’” Durant says, mimicking the way Adams bends his ear.
Green, unsurprisingly, is a bit different. “Draymond yells at me,” Adams says, “but I like that. I like healthy exchanges when people believe what they are trying to get across. I love him. He’s just totally unique, and I love that.”
Although Adams has mellowed, he still gets animated. An opponent will catch the Warriors unaware, run through the lane and get an easy dunk. Adams, in his customary seat on the bench next to Kerr, will look as if he has just seen a traffic accident. He will lean back in his chair and fix his eyes on the rafters as if to say, “Good God, what in the hell is happening!”
His contortions sometimes get spliced into the game videos shown at practice. The Warriors laugh. These days, Adams laughs with them. But losing still hurts. In a mid-January home game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lou Williams, probably the best sixth man in the league, torched Golden State for a career-high 50 points. Adams smoldered.
At the buzzer, he walked straight off the court.
When he emerged from the locker room, he was stern, tight-lipped, angry. In the parking lot, he stepped into his black Volkswagen sedan and gripped the wheel. “Throughout his barrage,” he fumed, “we just treated Lou Williams like another guy! Another guy!”
He looked across the front seat. “Nights like this one are hard on me.”
So is age. The NBA season is a marathon: nine months and about 100 games for a championship team. To run it, Adams avoids overeating and cuts back on late-night wine. He stretches as often as he can. He gets away from basketball by playing tennis.
His thumbs, stiffened by time and the rigors of basketball, sometimes hurt so badly that he has trouble cleaning his glasses. A chiropractor helps him with a neck condition that has curved his spine.
Getting enough sleep is impossible. When the Warriors play night games, they sometimes climb on a plane that takes off at 2 a.m. and lands just before dawn.
“You can wake up in a hotel room and not know where the hell you are,” Adams says. “It gets worse as you get older. Sometimes we’ll be on a flight taking off, and the impulse is, ‘What city were we just in?’ It’s crazy.”
Golden State, Adams says, is his last stop. For now, though, he is in what he calls “basketball nirvana.”
He is the defensive coordinator for a well-oiled troupe that has won two world titles on his watch and is the heavy favorite to take a third. League general managers have voted him the best NBA assistant for three years running. There have been times this season when he has laughed and joked with his team more than he can ever recall doing in the past.
And though in professional basketball he has never been a head coach, he says, “it probably worked out the way it should.”
“I try to be an artisan,” he adds. “There is a purity to teaching as an assistant – a virtue in being a craftsman and having a craft. It’s the nuts-and-bolts stuff that appeals to me, and the relationships.
“Plus, quite frankly, I don’t think, until the last five or six years of my life, I have exhibited the flexibility to be a head coach. The level where I’ve found myself is just perfect.”