A van full of Jordan Adams' biggest fans will trek 10 hours Friday night into Saturday morning to watch UCLA's leading scorer and his teammates take on Missouri, their most formidable opponent of the season.
Included in the group will be a mother still unable to speak seven months after suffering a stroke and a grandmother recently free of cancer who raves about Adams online and is finally healthy enough to see the Bruins play in person. Also making the journey from suburban Atlanta to Columbia, Mo., will be a devoted 7-year-old sister who watches every game she can and a father whose discipline helped make a sharpshooter.
While recovering from a broken foot last spring, Adams made an earlier-than-expected trip home to see them. But despite a sobering summer, Adams, 19, hasn't missed a step to start this season. The sophomore guard has led or tied for the team lead in scoring in each of undefeated UCLA's eight games.
Behind "Mr. J's" consistency is a family that has helped keep him on track through a nod, text messages and a lifetime of seeing what taking charge means.
"To see how he started this year says a lot about his focus, considering what he's been through the last six months," said his father, John Adams. "The motivation is there to make his parents and family proud."
Jordan moved from his mother's house to his father's during fourth grade as life began to center on football and basketball. His parents never married but remain friends.
Sabrina Robinson Johnson, a dental hygienist at a veterans' hospital, couldn't ferry Adams to every practice and game. John Adams, a nutrition manager at a high school, relished the opportunity. From when Jordan was 6 to age 16, his dad was almost always one of his coaches. The elder Adams wanted to be involved because he's always been one to say, "If I'm not the one to personally initiate it, it won't get done."
The mantra of accepting challenges transferred to Jordan, his father said.
"Basketball is a team sport, but you got to have the mentality, 'I'm going to get it done,'" John Adams said. "Jordan wants the ball in hands at the end of the game, in an unselfish way, because he doesn't want the team to lose."
Adams' attitude came to bear in his final game last season. He scored 11 points in the final six minutes of UCLA's come-from-behind victory over Arizona in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal. Unfortunately, Adams' right foot landed sideways during the final play. He'd fractured the foot in high school. This time, it was a complete break — the worst injury he'd ever suffered.
Without him, UCLA lost its next two games, including its NCAA tournament opener against Minnesota, and its season was over.
After Adams' surgery in March, his dad pestered him about his diet and checked in with UCLA's athletic trainers every couple of weeks. "Just to make sure that the process is going good and that I wasn't rushing back into it — that I was doing everything right to come back healthy again," Adams said.
In early May, the Friday before Mother's Day brought a more urgent call. Johnson, 42 at the time, was hospitalized after the stroke. Two hours earlier, she had been discussing plans with John's mother for a family party when Adams returned for summer break.
Instead, Adams arrived at the hospital Monday along with UCLA assistant coach Duane Broussard. Friends and family praised Jordan for his poise. John tried to help him hold onto it.
"Knowing how important school was to his mother — she was especially hard on him about that — I was telling him how important to her it was that he do well," John Adams said. "He had to focus more so on the positive."
Adams' mind wandered a little, though. He considered moving back to Georgia so he could be closer to Johnson, whose prognosis for regaining speech still is unclear. But Adams never came close to transferring, he said.
"I asked her, 'Do you want me to transfer closer back here or stay at UCLA?' and she just nodded," he said. "That was my key to staying here."
Two days after the March 22 loss to Minnesota, UCLA fired coach Ben Howland; six days after that Steve Alford was hired.
"I trusted Coach Alford, and we built a great relationship," he said. "I wanted to stay here."
Back on campus, Adams took on a leadership role as freshmen guards Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford came to him for advice. He'd prefer they watch him and follow along, but he shared what he knew about how the season would get harder as it went and how teams would pick up on their tendencies. He also helped them understand their roles.
"I told Zach, don't worry about not starting because as long as you're playing in the game, that's good enough," Adams said.
He told Bryce Alford to bring energy off the bench and shared the mind-set he'd used as a freshman last season: "Those players who started have been in longer than I have, so I'm coming out fresh, so I have an advantage over them," he said.
When he returned to practice, Adams worried about his "wasted" summer when "players get better . . . work out hardest . . . and have all the potential to gain." He didn't want to falter post-surgery, like Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose did in his comeback from a major knee injury.
UCLA's two exhibition games brought an end to the anxiety.
"I realized my game was still the same, that I was the player I was before I broke my foot," he said. "I didn't really need to go out there and prove myself."
In fact, he began the season leaner and stronger.
"I can tell when I'm out there playing on the court how some defenders bounce off me and that I can go to the rim and finish," he said.
Steve Alford has pushed him to improve his defense, but on offense, the coach said, Adams is potent the way he is. He's averaging 21.5 points per game this season, shooting 55.3% from the field and 40% from three-point range.
"I'm glad we got him and other people have to guard him because he's a very difficult matchup," Alford said. "He can post you. He can drive you. He's great in transition. And he's a lethal shooter."
Adams comes from a family of athletes, including softball players and runners. He'd be the first to reach the pros if he enters the NBA, said his dad's mother, Arnita Vintes-Brown. She calls herself Adams' No. 1 fan, commenting about him at the bottom of articles online and regularly going to a library to print out everything she can find about her "Mr. J."
The clippings are nested in sheet protectors inside binders that she plans to give to Adams someday.
"She knows everything I've accomplished, every stat I've done, every place in the world I've been," Adams said. She even has his high school senior-year baseball jersey, the one season he played the sport the two used to watch and play together.
Vintes-Brown regularly texts Adams about grabbing more offensive rebounds, increasing the arc on his three-point shots and, most of all, winning.
"She says we need to win every game, but that's impossible to win every game," he said. "But we'll try."
Adams knows well to respond too. Vintes-Brown said he called her back after the Bruins' game against Morehead State last month and said, "I thought I better call you because I know you gonna be ticked off if I didn't."
"Yup, I was going to take the first jet leaving Atlanta if you didn't call me," she said. "I think he thinks I'm just a crazy grandmother."
Among her most recent texts was one asking Adams to pray for her, his parents, his little sister Journey and his aunt and uncle during their travels to Missouri.
"I'm all excited for that," Adams said of his family's trip.
Asked if he had special plans for the time with his family, Adams said, "Just hopefully win, so we can stay undefeated."
Twitter: @peard33Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times