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Why Andre Drummond joining Doc Rivers was a decade in the making

The new Sixers center has a longtime friendship with Rivers’ adopted son. Now, Drummond hopes the Sixers coach can help him revitalize his NBA career.

Andre Drummond signed with the Sixers to be part of a winning team, to prove that he can be a winning player.
Andre Drummond signed with the Sixers to be part of a winning team, to prove that he can be a winning player.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Before Doc Rivers called Andre Drummond, he sent a text to Adam Jones.

It was a message to a son and a best friend, unveiling that Rivers was ready to make a long-running family joke a reality.

“Hey, what do you think about us getting Andre?” Rivers sent Jones, whom Doc and wife, Kris, legally adopted as a teenager just before he and Drummond became prep-school teammates.

“I was like, ‘Look, I think that’s a great idea,’” Jones recalled last week. “...Literally probably 30 minutes later, Andre signed with the Sixers. I FaceTimed him and I was just like, ‘Hey, man. It finally happened. We’ve been talking about it for years. I can’t wait.’”

Drummond was thrilled that Rivers interrupted his offseason workout in Miami with that phone call last summer. The 6-foot-10 veteran was also bewildered that he was in his current situation. He was once an All-Star, the NBA’s rebounding leader and a max-contract player. But after being traded, bought out, and benched during the playoffs over a span of 18 months, he only commanded a veteran-minimum contract offer in free agency.

Perhaps there is nowhere better for Drummond to attempt to reignite his career. He has joined a 76ers team that values traditional centers and needs a reliable backup to Joel Embiid and spot starter when the MVP contender rests or is injured. An impressive preseason gave a glimpse at what Drummond still has left as a 28-year-old who unleashes brute force on the court, but aims to smile “98 percent of the time” off of it.

This opportunity also doubles as a neat full-circle moment for Drummond, Jones, and the Rivers family. They’ve all known each other for more than a decade because Drummond calls Jones “the big brother I never had.” Now, they are reuniting in Philadelphia.

“When [Rivers] called me, he was just like, ‘I understand the situation you’re in and I want to help you,’ and he didn’t have to do that,” Drummond said. “For that, I owe him everything that I have and I’m gonna give him the best that I have this entire season. It’s one of those feelings that you can’t really explain, to have somebody believe in you and want to help you. You want to run through a wall for a guy like that. …

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere besides here right now.”

» READ MORE: Ben Simmons returns to Sixers practice

Adam and Andre

Jones vividly remembers the first time he and Drummond met.

They were opponents on Court 3 of what was then called the Milk House at the Walt Disney World sports complex. Drummond was “killing our bigs” until “I came in the game, and all that stopped,” Jones said with a chuckle.

While on the court, Drummond mentioned that he played for St. Thomas More, a rural Connecticut prep school with a rich basketball tradition. That same day, Kris Rivers chatted with Drummond’s mother, Christine Cameron.

A few weeks after that, Jones joined Drummond at St. Thomas More and “literally we’ve been tied to the hip ever since,” Jones said.

Drummond is the son of a single mom of Jamaican descent, and used to walk five miles each way to play basketball against older boys at the YMCA in Middletown, Conn., from 6 a.m. until it closed at 9 p.m. Jones, meanwhile, had already overcome more hardship than any teenager should endure. An AAU teammate of current Denver Nugget and Rivers’ son, Austin, Doc and Kris became Jones’ legal guardians after his uncle, who needed a kidney transplant, became unable to provide a stable home life.

The two teenagers instantly bonded because of their passion for basketball and their goofy, carefree personalities. They put on their blue blazers and gray pants each day to navigate the structured, all-boys boarding environment together. But when basketball practice called for the team to split up into “bigs and littles” for position-specific drills, coach Jere Quinn — who typically worked with the guards and wings — could not help but notice that Drummond and Jones “seemed to be having more fun than our side of the court.”

“So I switched,” said Quinn, who has been the coach at St. Thomas More since 1978. “… Sometimes the dynamics just work, and with those guys, it was just instantaneous.”

Drummond was already displaying a rare blend of athleticism and quickness with his imposing physical frame. Yet Jones, who back then was about 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds, claims he never lost one of their one-on-one battles. Drummond credits Jones with instilling what he calls the “F it” style he plays with today.

“I tried to do a lot of cute plays and try to have the cute finishes,” Drummond said. “… He gave me [the mentality] that every possession should be a hard-fought possession. There should be nothing cute.”

Added Jones: “He’s 7 feet and he’s strong as an ox, and he would like to flip the ball around the basket. I’m like, ‘No, be Shaquille O’Neal. Go up and dunk it. Tear the rim down.’”

Drummond and Jones created a dominant frontcourt tandem for a St. Thomas More team that won the 2011 National Prep School Championship. They each became a Division I signee — Drummond at Connecticut and Jones at Fairfield (he later transferred to Division II Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.).

That time period is also when Drummond, with some guidance from Quinn, first realized he could carve out an NBA path if he perfected a singular skill. That prompted him to ask himself, “Why not just be the best rebounder ever?”

Away from the court, Drummond had already endeared himself on campus, eventually becoming a resident assistant in his dormitory via a selection process that had nothing to do with basketball. Yet he said Jones “took me under his wing immediately,” and that learning more about Jones’ perseverance inspired him and deepened their friendship.

Jones feels similarly. At St. Thomas More, Jones struggled with the adjustment of being isolated from his family and friends back in Florida. He did not love being in the classroom or studying. Drummond, though, showed Jones how to apply work ethic to all areas of life. And on the weekends, Drummond invited Jones back to his home for overnight stays.

“That was the perfect time [for us to become friends],” Jones said. “I wasn’t comfortable, and just right away, him being a gentle giant, a big teddy bear, he just made it easier for me just by being him. By being caring. By being nice.”

Spending so much time with Jones meant Drummond also got to be around Rivers during some formative years.

When they first met, Rivers could not believe a teenager could already have Drummond’s stature. His demeanor was “silly as hell,” the coach said. Drummond and Jones went to Boston Celtics games, where Rivers was coaching at the time. Drummond says today that, at the time, he did not fully grasp how special it was to know a former NBA player and championship-winning coach. Rivers, meanwhile, never predicted back then that Drummond would eventually have a decade-long NBA career.

Jones, though, immediately noticed all that Drummond naturally absorbed from Rivers.

“He was going into a new phase in his life and uncharted territory,” Jones said. “But he kind of had a head start, because he got some background knowledge from a successful player and a coach.”

Drummond became a 2012 lottery draft pick by the Detroit Pistons and morphed into a double-double machine with passing and shot-blocking skills. He has averaged 14.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game during his career, was an All-Star in 2016 and 2018, and led the NBA in rebounding in 2015-16 and for three consecutive seasons (2017-20, including a career-high 16 per game in 2017-18).

And each time Drummond went up against Rivers as an opposing player, their sideline banter took a specific turn.

“One day I’m gonna end up playing for you,” Drummond would tell Rivers. “It’s gonna come. I don’t know when or how it’s gonna happen, but it will. We speak things to existence.”

Playing in Motown

Drummond and Jones established an off-day tradition whenever Jones visited Detroit. They would always head to Dave & Busters to play games, ranging from Pop-A-Shot to Mario Kart, from open to close — and would typically pay for the meal of the family sitting next to them and leave a hefty tip for the server on the way out.

That’s how Drummond and Jones kept things light during the grind of the NBA season. In between those visits, Jones’ texts and calls to Drummond would range from encouraging (“Go get me 20-20”) to brutally honest (“Andre, you’re playing too soft”).

“Instead of taking things like that personal, we understand and respect where it’s coming from and try to build off of that,” Jones said. " … At the time, it may not be received — just as human nature, you’re upset and you’re not trying to hear it — but then when you go out and play the next day, you can see, ‘message well-received.’”

Rivers is now utilizing a similarly direct approach.

It began with that initial phone call, when the coach’s response to Drummond’s dried-up free-agency market was, “That’s on you. We have to fix that, but I need your cooperation.” Rivers reminded Drummond that he would no longer be an everyday starter with Embiid on the roster. Throughout the preseason, Rivers has implored Drummond not to force backdoor passes because they result in silly turnovers, and to remain aggressive while defending the pick and roll.

Each day, Drummond returns with the same question: What do you expect from me?

“I’m not here to do anything else besides help,” Drummond said. “I’m not here to cause any problems. I’m not here to take away from nobody. I ask the big fella Joel the same thing every day, too. I’m like, ‘Brother, what can I do to help you be better? Because if I make you better, we win.’

“I’m not here to be a star of a team; I’m just here to play my role the best way I can.”

When Embiid missed preseason games to rest, Drummond thrashed Toronto in the first half (19 points, 14 rebounds, three assists) on Oct. 4, and countered boos in his return to Detroit on Friday while finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds, and three assists.

Embiid, who now says it’s “great to be on the same side” as Drummond after some prior Twitter beef, believes Drummond’s athleticism, hands, basketball IQ, and ability to run the floor will help the Sixers maintain leads when Embiid is on the bench. Rivers has also lauded the way Drummond has embraced his more limited role and been a “light” inside a Sixers locker room navigating tumult this preseason due to the Ben Simmons saga.

“He’s showing that he’s more than a minimum player — clearly,” Rivers said of Drummond after Friday’s game in Detroit. “And he’s gonna do it every night.”

» READ MORE: Sixers look to stay focused amid Simmons drama.

That’s why Drummond and Jones still have their eyes on some lofty goals for the upcoming season, such as continuing to lead the league in rebounding even as a reserve and being a Sixth Man of the Year contender.

Most importantly, Drummond believes winning a championship “is the only thing that’s missing with my legacy.” He made the playoffs twice with Detroit, but was swept both times, feeding into an outside narrative that he is an empty-stats player. His experience last season of joining the Lakers off the buyout market for the stretch run gave him a better understanding of the level of intensity, preparation, and detail required to truly contend for a title.

“Everybody knows I can put up 30 and 20 on a nightly basis,” Drummond said. “But, ‘Can he win?’ is the next question. And that’s why I’m here — to win.”

Drummond and Jones were last together at the place their friendship blossomed right before the pandemic hit. They both played in an alumni game at a St. Thomas More Hall of Fame event. Now, they can spend much more time with each other in person.

Jones was already planning to move to the Philadelphia area before Drummond signed with the Sixers, after accepting a job to help launch Scholar Athlete Leadership Academy’s middle-school’s basketball program in New Jersey. About every other day since Drummond arrived in town, Jones has made the 15-minute drive to Drummond’s home to watch a game or play NBA 2K.

“ … Or just sit in the room and say nothing,” Jones said. “I love it, just hanging out with my buddy.”

This is a reunion that was a decade in the making, and was sealed by Rivers with a text to Jones and a phone call to Drummond. Their long-running joke has become a reality. And Drummond trusts that being around these familiar faces, on this team, will revitalize his career.

“At the end of the day, whatever situation you fall into, you’ve got to be grateful for it,” Drummond said. “Is it the situation that I expected? No. Is it something that I can fix and come out of? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, who knows what’s gonna come from this year. …

“Later on in my career, I have a chance to play for a guy that I truly respect. It’s an honor, and I’m excited to play for him.”