OAKLAND — 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“Maybe that’s the key to longevity,” says a fellow assistant coach, Bruce Fraser, 53. “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 parents had a 320-acre farm in tiny Laton, on the plains of central California. The family raised cattle and grew alfalfa, corn and cotton.
Basketball was how he left the farm. He played guard in college at what is now Fresno Pacific University, where he became an assistant coach after graduation. It was 1969. He was 21.
Adams never played again.
In his late 30s, he became the head coach at Fresno State. He was an unusual blend: professorial, bookish and hard-charging.
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.
The NBA grind, constant change with little job security, became part of life for Adams, his wife, Leah, and their two children.