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."