Kid Kiwi shoots for the stars

By Steve Deane

NBA star Steven Adams' universe has changed dramatically since his time growing up in Wellington

Steven Adams' sense of humour has gone down a treat with fans, the media and his NBA teammates. Photo / AFP
Steven Adams' sense of humour has gone down a treat with fans, the media and his NBA teammates. Photo / AFP

At a converted tugboat moored at Wellington's Oriental Parade, $18 buys a large stack of pancakes layered with streaky bacon and maple syrup, bananas and blueberries. It's a breakfast that takes a bit of eating, by all accounts. Unless you're Steven Adams. The basketball prodigy never ordered from the menu when he pitched up at the Boat Cafe every Saturday morning. He didn't need to. Already well on the way to his final, towering 2.13m height, the giant teenager "was like a part of the family here", says duty manager Trey Ngatai. So much so that he even had his own meal - the Stevie Stack. "It was a bit of everything," says Ngatai. "But three times as big as what a normal customer would get."

A multimillion-dollar deal with title contending Oklahoma City Thunder - which yesterday advanced to the NBA Western Conference Finals by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers 104-98 and taking the best-of-seven series four games to two - means the budding superstar's universe has changed dramatically since those days. His appetite hasn't.

"Two roasts at one time - that's ah-may-zing," an impressed Adams drawls when an Oklahoman realtor points out the double stainless steel ovens in a house he is pondering renting. The promotional video clip is a classic, and Adams plays the charming Kiwi bumpkin card to a tee when he asks where the clothesline is.

The joke is that Americans don't have clotheslines. Neither did Adams, not all that long ago.

"We lived in apartments for so long," says Adams' guardian, Blossom Cameron. "When we finally moved to a house, he came home and he was like, 'What are you doing, Mum?' I'm like, 'I'm watching the clothes on the clothesline. I'm scared someone is going to steal them'."

Steven Adams hanging off the clothesline as a 12-year-old, with father Sid. Photo / Stephen Parker
Steven Adams hanging off the clothesline as a 12-year-old, with father Sid. Photo / Stephen Parker


Adams' back story is well known. The youngest of the 18 children English sailor Sid Adams sired with five different women, he grew up in Rotorua. When Sid died, the 13-year-old Adams drifted towards the wrong side of the tracks. His brother Warren took him to Wellington, where Blossom took him under her wing. Even at that age, Adams was huge, far too big for Blossom's central-city apartment.

"He was so big he couldn't even sit on the toilet and shut the door, that was the worst thing," says Blossom. So they moved to Kilbirnie, to a house with a clothesline.

Laying eyes on Adams for the first time was just plain freaky for former Tall Blacks captain Pero Cameron. It wasn't Adams' size - after a life in basketball Cameron is no stranger to genetic extremes - but rather the family resemblance between younger brothers Steven and Sid and older siblings Warren and Ralph, Cameron's former teammates.

"It was like seeing those guys 20 years younger again," says Cameron. "I was freaking."

It was Adams' personality as much as his size that struck Cameron. There was no sign of the painful shyness that afflicts many kids who exist outside a normal size range.

"Definitely not shy," says Cameron. "Painful, yes. But painfully unshy, I'd say. When you looked at his behaviour, his character, it was different. Very different."

Most notably, Adams would always be himself, no matter what. "He could meet the Prime Minister, the President, it doesn't matter who it is."

The combination of self-assuredness, lack of hubris and a wry sense of humour has gone down a treat with fans, the media and Adams' teammates in the NBA.

"Being from New Zealand, he is unique, a bright light in the locker room," says Kenny McFadden, the man who has mentored Adams since he pitched up at his Wellington basketball academy around eight years ago. "He gets by just being himself."

He's been there less than a year, but Adams is already greatly admired inside the Thunder locker room. A rookie who wasn't expected to play much, if at all, this season, Adams has outstripped all expectations by commanding a regular place in a team that is challenging for the NBA title.

"You're a hell of a person," superstar teammate Kevin Durant said while singling out Adams during an emotional acceptance speech when crowned the NBA's best player recently. "You're just such a fun, spirited person. Never change who you are, man. You mean a lot to me. You inspire me, too."

Adams' opponents don't feel the same way. On court, the brick-like Kiwi's ultra-physical approach and unflappable exterior drives the game's biggest stars to distraction. No fewer than five players have been ejected from games or banned for attacking Adams this season, with major US sports website Grantland recently pondering who would be the next player to punch "Kid Kiwi" in the face.

"And one, bitch", a 17-year-old Adams whispered under his breath to grizzled veteran Casey Frank during an intense practice session for Wellington Saints three years ago. The rookie Adams had just gone up for a dunk. Frank attempted to foul him. Hard. Adams barely even blinked. The "and one" call was a reference to the fact that, had it been a proper game, Adams would have been shooting a free throw to go with the two points for the bucket. It was the basketball equivalent of "in your face". Frank was enraged.

"I just got so freakin' mad," recalls Frank. "I started yelling at him and I kicked him in the leg. He just kept running like nothing had happened. He still does that every day. That's the kind of temperament he has. The way he plays, you'd expect some aggression or emotion with it, but he is just deadpan. He comes out there and does his work and is just grinding on you play after play."

A typical rough and tumble Kiwi upbringing prepared Adams to thrive in one of the world's most demanding sports leagues, says veteran Tall Black Dillon Boucher.

"I love the fact that he is not phased by anything," says Boucher. "Guys have punched him in the face and he doesn't react to it. He is used to playing rugby, playing bullrush and things like that, where getting hit is no big deal."

When he's not out-muscling basketball's biggest men for a living, Adams can usually be found at the house he shares with McFadden and a live-in chef.

"It's a beautiful home in a north suburb of Oklahoma City," McFadden says. "Plenty of high rooms so you don't have to worry about ducking through doorways or anything like that. His number one hobby is eating, so the first thing he had to do was get a chef who does a great job of making sure his belly is full so he can continue to do what he do."

That task used to fall to Blossom, a personal trainer and basketball enthusiast who taught Adams by example, both on the court and in life. She was hard on him, but no harder than she pushed herself, even if she sometimes wondered whether she had crossed the line between parent and trainer, or if such a line even existed. She knew, she says, from day one that Adams was going to be a star. There was simply no doubt.

Fame hasn't changed her boy, insists Blossom. But the world has changed around him. "He really noticed it the last time he came home. Before that it wasn't a big thing. He could catch the bus. He always caught the bus. But now he can't. He used to go into town with his sisters, do what most teenagers do, party, go to clubs. He can't do that any more.

"If anything it surprises him that the world has changed around him. It gives him a little bit of a fright every now and then. He's like 'what is all that about?' And he's not little. You can't hide him."

Adams' bus catching days are most certainly over. In Oklahoma he drives a Dodge Ram truck, having finally got around to sitting his driver's licence test after flatly refusing to do so in New Zealand.

Adams has never shied away from the fact he is motivated by money.

"I want to make the NBA, hard-out," he said ahead of what would be his lone US college season at Pittsburgh before he threw his hat into the high stakes lottery that is the NBA draft. "If I don't, then the Euro League or something - one of the big money-making ones. I want to give back to the people that helped me along, Kenny and Blossom and my family in Rotorua, because they supported me a lot through all the years."

With a guaranteed salary of just over US$2 million, Adams certainly hit the jackpot when the Thunder took a punt on the physically impressive but horribly raw Kiwi. It may already be double that of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, but Adams' rookie salary is just the tip of a massive cash-berg. The total value of his five-year NBA contract is US$14 million.

Already signed to adidas after being selected by OKC as the 12th overall pick in the 2013 draft, more endorsement offers are pouring in. So we'll be seeing plenty of Adams in advertising action very soon, says McFadden. "Right now the focus has got to be on the playoffs, but there are a lot of people knocking on the door. He will be hitting the airwaves on a regular basis."

A naturalised American who carved out a life playing and coaching in Wellington, McFadden has guided a generation of aspiring players through his academy. It's no coincidence that Adams, who was the hardest worker of them all, has gone the furthest.

"A lot of people, parents, say it's too much - 'they need down time, you might burn them out'. But Steve done everything that was asked plus more. At the end of the day this is what you get - a guy drafted in the lottery, a guy who is just as good as anyone else in the world, a guy who was born and raised in New Zealand standing up on his own two feet."

- NZ Herald

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