A few years ago, Adam Drexler was in Brooklyn visiting his father, former Trail Blazers superstar and Naismith Hall of Fame member, Clyde Drexler. Clyde was in town for a Big 3 Media event with rapper Ice Cube and an ensemble of basketball stars. Adam had just returned from Japan after playing his first season of professional basketball. As the father and son left the hotel to the arena, taking the back exit to avoid the crowds that would inevitably be waiting at the front, Adam recalls his dad telling stories of his glory days in the NBA.
“My father said, ‘Well back in the day there still used to be fans at the back exit and we would get swarmed.’ And he was kind of reminiscing with me about it, and then we step outside and someone comes running from down the street.”
Adam and his dad were unable to avoid the crowd altogether, and as they left the building a voice behind them called out.
“Mr. Drexler! Mr. Drexler!”
Clyde stopped and turned around, prepared to greet the fan. But that wasn’t the Mr. Drexler he had his eyes on. The fan ran right past Clyde to Adam. He explained that he’d been a fan of Adam’s when he played overseas in Japan and was hoping for an autograph. Adam signed the autograph while his father—the long-beloved Portland Trail Blazer—looked on.
Adam recalls the story with a laugh. “I play overseas I didn’t think anyone would ever notice me in America, and my father was kind of like, ‘I’m-I’m a Hall of Famer’. So I think that was the funniest moment for me. Me and my dad talk about it all the time. I think it was a great experience for me and my father because it was a moment where he kind of got to recognize me as a professional player and also it’s something that we share. We are a basketball family.”
Clyde was drafted in 1983 by the Portland Trail Blazers. His youngest son, Adam, came into the world ten years later, in 1993. You could say that Adam was literally born into basketball. As a young child, Adam attended a few of his dad’s NBA games, but was more concerned with the food and his own basketball than what was going on on the court. In fact, Adam recalls not recognizing the extent of his dad’s career until he was a sophomore in high school and his interest in basketball began to grow. He would be in class looking up Clyde’s highlights on youtube—and that’s when he realized that his dad was a legit NBA legend.
“I think the first time I watched [his highlights], it like clicked to me. Like, oh my goodness my father is cool! Cuz before, like growing up, I don’t think that anyone thinks that their dad is just like the coolest person ever, and my dad was no exception to that. My dad was corny, you know, he’s dad. He’s just a father. At that point I became a fan too, it was weird. After that, the next time I saw him I was geeking out, showing him the videos like ‘how did you do that?’”
The fact that Adam discovered his father was a bona fide superstar via YouTube highlight videos points to his fairly normal childhood. Despite his father’s successful career, his parents never pushed basketball on him. Instead, they allowed him to pursue whatever he was interested in at the time. For most of his younger years, that meant music. Adam is a talented musician— playing the guitar, piano, drums, bass, violin and the mandolin.
“I could always run and jump and I was always athletic but to me, things like shooting, things like dribbling and creating lanes to the basket, creating your own shot. These were things that to me made the game feel more like an art form and that’s what I was used to. At the time I was playing music everyday, I was playing in bands and I just wanted to create art. So that’s when basketball started to transition from just being the sport that my dad played into an art form that I could create whatever I wanted. It was a canvas to me and I just wanted to paint it how I wanted.”
Adam spent his younger years playing in bands instead of playing on the court. Basketball wasn't something he took seriously. He skipped the early years of AAU that many kids participate in before moving on to higher levels of competitive basketball, although he did play for his school in 8th grade and on his freshman high school team. It was that year that something happened and forever changed how he viewed the game.
“It was my freshman year of high school. It was towards the end of the year. We had basketball class and that whole time I’d never really attempted to dunk. I thought that was an NBA thing and nothing else, cuz no one on my team really dunked. So one day I’m about to head over to lunch and the coach says, ‘hey Adam, you’re getting pretty tall.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, what of it?’ And he’s like ‘well, I’ll give you 5 dollars if you can dunk that basketball.’ And I’m sitting there thinking like okay I’m gonna jump up there, I’m not gonna make it, he’s gonna laugh, okay real funny. But then I jump, and I jump so high that I scared myself. I dunked the ball and after that I don’t think I ever stopped dunking. For the next year all I did was get in the gym and try to dunk. It was just like, the most fun thing ever. It was something that no one else around me could do, I was just obsessed with it.”
Adam speaks with the same kindness and softness that fans of Clyde grew to appreciate in his father over the years. He also dunks with the same energy.
I met up with Adam at a basketball court a few weeks ago, and I watched him dunk over and over again. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a man dunk a basketball—I photograph professional basketball players regularly. But I’ve never seen someone look quite so happy about it. I mentioned to Adam that he’d had a smile on his face the whole time we’d been at the court. His reply? “I just really love the game.” It’s the same love that I saw on Clyde Drexler’s face when I was a child watching him play on my favorite team. I always imagined that Clyde was kind, warm, and friendly, just as he appeared to be every week on my TV screen. Adam confirmed that I was right to believe that. He told me about how, during his years in the NBA, his dad had been known to be late for practice, or to get on the bus for games. The reason isn’t what you might expect. Clyde was often caught up talking to fans. He didn’t brush them off or even hurriedly sign an autograph and move on. Instead he took his time with his fans. Adam says his father is still late to things.
“That’s probably the biggest take away, besides basketball, is just how he handles people. How he deals with people is with compassion and caring.There have been so many times where as a family we have gone out to dinner and people will be talking on the side, you know, ‘Hey Mr. Drexler!’ And he’ll invite them to come have dinner with us and pick their brains and answer any questions. He’ll do it on the street, and because of that he’s always late to places because he’s always just getting into random conversations with people. I think having the respect to appreciate people that appreciate your talents is amazing. I try to emulate that.”
Listening to Adam talk about his dad, I can hear the fondness and respect that comes from what is clearly a strong relationship. Several times throughout our conversation, he mentioned the special bond that basketball has created and how it’s drawn the two closer. I asked him what his dad’s reaction had been when Adam finally expressed an interest in pursuing competitive basketball. “He was really happy to have somebody to share that basketball experience with.”
While a love of the game is something that the two share, Adam is making the Drexler name his own as a professional basketball player. After realizing his potential to go pro, his focus shifted from just having fun and competing to getting serious about a profession that ran in his blood. Once again, he chose to emulate his father.
“After my sophomore year [of high school], I would go to pro runs. Wherever the pros were playing, that’s where I would be. You might not get in the game the first two games, but maybe you get in the third game playing against pros. I was just seeking out the best players. That’s what my dad did too when he was growing up. He was waiting on games at Fonde for Moses Malone and getting runs with those guys and Dr. J so I just kind of did the same thing. Everything my dad told me I would just replicate that.”
The hard work paid off. Adam landed a spot on the basketball team at Loyola Marymount University in California. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Much like his basketball story thus far, Adam’s college basketball career proved atypical. After his freshman season, news broke that the coach was being let go. Adam transferred to Clyde’s alma mater—the University of Houston. But then, in another twist of fate, the coach at U of H got let go after Adam’s red-shirt year, leaving him with a different coach each year of his college career.
Not long after that, Adam received a call from a trainer in Los Angeles that he used to work out with. The trainer was doing a summer training camp for the GuangDong Tigers in China and needed some American players. With no summer plans, Adam jumped on a plane and spent a week in China, playing against pros. From one of those games—when Adam had 23 points at halftime—his agent found him. Two months later he had a contract in hand and headed back overseas to start his professional career playing in Japan.
After returning home from his second year in Japan, Adam was in the middle of a pick up game and he got a phone call. “I was in the gym, and Danny Ainge called. And I was like ‘oh my goodness’ and he was like, ‘can you fly out now?’ And I was like ‘yep’. I left midgame. Then when Portland called I think I was at dinner with my mother. You know, I had a little bit more time with Portland. They gave me a day in advance.”
That summer, he attended both the Boston Celtics training camp and the Portland Trail Blazers’ version. It wasn’t his first time playing with an NBA team. He spent the prior summer with the Houston Rockets— then playing differently from when his dad’s name graced the roster.
When I asked Adam what it’s like taking advice from his dad—who played in a different era—and translating it to today’s game, he told me a story about his first practice with the Rockets. He shot a midrange shot and right away the coach stopped the game and explained that there would be no midrange shots, only threes and layups. It was a concept that was somewhat foreign to Adam.
“The motto has always been ‘shoot when you’re tired’. You know the first thing you should try to do is jump over everybody, then the second thing you should do is shoot a midrange shot. So that had kind of been my play style, was to get as close as I can to the basket and then work my way from there. But then I’m running an offense where he wants us to shoot a shot in less than 7 seconds. So I had to make an adjustment. When I told my father about it, he freaked out. He was, ‘No! No! Just keep shooting the midrange I mean, if it goes in, he’ll love it.’ I’m like, ‘well I’m not Clyde Drexler so I don’t have that pull with the Rockets yet.’”
Adam speaks fondly of his stop in Houston and how he was treated there, but his favorite time was in Portland.
“Houston’s nice, and I love Houston, they were so cool to me but the Trail Blazers— I think the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball was when the Trail Blazers had me over for the mini-camp. It was like every day was just magical. You see a mural of your dad in the practice gym, and everyone’s kind of— there’s no ego involved, everyone’s there to get better, everyone’s there to be a professional. Getting to play and just not having any people trying to— ‘oh well you know, you’re Clyde Drexler’s son, do what he does.” No it was just go out there and play ball. That’s my favorite environment.’”
In fact, not only did they not expect him to be Clyde Drexler—they didn’t even seem to know he was related. Out of the 15 guys on the roster, the coaches and the trainers, only one person seemed to recognize Adam as the son of the Trail Blazers legend—and it was Damian Lillard.
“We’d go to Drexler Drive and you know my dad’s mural is in the back and no one’s saying anything, and you know I thought maybe people were told, just not to speak of it or anything like that. I think the only person that knew immediately was Damian Lillard. He walked up to me and was like ‘Hey Drex how’s it going? How’s your father? How’s everybody? How’s your family?’ And I was like ‘how did you know?’. Then after a few days the coaches started catching on, ‘Drexler’ they’re reading off their lists, ‘You related to Clyde?’ Then it kind of just became this funny joke. They were like, you didn’t say anything and I was like, well why would I? I can’t channel my father, I gotta be me. It was just fun to know that I was able to just kind of hoop and not have the expectation to be my father or anything like that over my head.”
Playing in Portland was a dream for Adam, who once had aspirations of being a Trail Blazer himself and winning the ring that his dad didn’t win with the team. Even though Clyde was traded to Houston when Adam was very young, Portland was, and always will be, home. To this day, he’s a Portland Trail Blazers fan and follows the team his dad once played for— a team that he says feels like family.
“It was unique to me because some of the other teams, it’s very clear okay these are our superstar players, and I’m not naming any names but they’re superstars. They’re great and they’re treated as such. Portland, of course you have stars like Dame, and they’re amazing, but it felt more like a family. It just felt like everyone kind of put their ego aside and was just able to just play ball and try to win because that’s what it’s all about. So I definitely found the experience to be unique. Simple things like the GM and all of the staff, everyone’s eating together. Normally it’s like people are taking their meals and going all over the place but we are all in the cafeteria together hanging out, watching TV, and it just felt more like a family organization. To me, I’m from Portland so I just felt right at home.”
Portland may feel like home for the 6’6” forward, but Adam is currently in Houston, waiting to hear from his agent about where he will go next. This is common for an overseas player— many times contracts are only for one season and players don’t know where they’ll be from year to year. COVID-19 shut down his last season prematurely, sending him back to Houston with his family. This is the longest he’s been in one place in years, and while many players faced the same frustrating fate over the last eighteen months, Adam has found the bright side, as he seems to do in most circumstances. He explains that it’s forced him to slow down and given him time to work on areas of his game that he’s struggled with, turning weaknesses into strengths instead of just getting ready for the next season. Now he waits to hear from his agent about where he will go next. But regardless of where he ends up, Adam will be Adam, and that’s exactly what he wants.
“I’m my father’s son, I try my best to emulate him. He’s one of the people who taught me how to play. In that regard I do try to do a lot of the same things. But another part of it is just individual style, personality and creativity on the court. I mean, I am my own person as well. I have to play in the way that I think that Adam Drexler plays. I’m there to play ball, so every time I step on the court I’m there to show everybody that Adam Drexler plays basketball too. That’s the focus whenever you do that. I think if you get caught up trying to be someone else, or worrying about what other people think, I think that’s where mentally that can really affect you. So I just stay out of that and people can think whatever they want but to me, basketball is precious so I’m doing it because I love the game.”