It is a day pupils at Wakatipu High School are unlikely to forget.

About 600 teenagers gathered in the school hall, a group primed and ready to perform the school haka for two guests - their identities kept secret until the door opened.

Gasps could be heard over the sound of the rousing Wakatipu High haka as 2.13m NBA basketballer Steven Adams stooped to walk through the door, accompanied by some of his Oklahoma City Thunder team-mates and Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata.

The men, who have been spending time in Queenstown, made a surprise visit for a short question-and-answer session, accompanied by principal Steve Hall and senior deputy principal Oded Nathan.


Both spoke about their defining moments.

For Mr Apiata it was failing his first attempt to be accepted into the military, for Adams it was the death of his father when he was 13 years old.

Adams (23) was raised by his father and after he died he felt "like I hadn't done anything with my life".

"I went through, like, a depression state for ... two months.

"Luckily, I have a very loving family who came together and made a decision for me to move to Wellington to pursue basketball. I didn't even like basketball at first - honestly, I hated it."

There he trained for four and a-half hours a day for four years and as he improved he "got addicted".

"I fell in love with the process and the progress ... which kind of just made me feel like I'm doing something with my life."

Ultimately, he was selected in the 2013 NBA draft by Oklahoma City Thunder, becoming the first New Zealander to be picked in the first round of an NBA draft.

That had allowed him to do "the most amazing things" and travel the world but New Zealand would always be home.

"I'm very proud to be a Kiwi ... when you grow up, you'll go out and see the world ... but it will never be the same as what we have here in New Zealand."

Mr Apiata had with him the Victoria Cross awarded to him in 2007. As it was passed to pupils he told them he kept it in the safest place in his house: "my undies drawer".

"Touch it. Put your own mana, aroha into it. Every New Zealander that gets to hold it in their hands, you now share the responsibility."

The former corporal in the SAS was awarded the medal for bravery in Afghanistan in 2004 when he carried a critically wounded comrade across the battlefield, under fire, to safety.

Of that, Mr Apiata said it was not "just me".

"It was a whole lot of others - I could never have stayed with my mate without them.

"We all made sure we all got home ... for us, it was just looking after your mates."

He encouraged pupils to "pursue excellence", something he learned after he failed his first attempt to be accepted into the military.

"It underlined to me what I needed to do - it took me a little while, but ... I put myself in every single environment I knew I was going to be in over the period of nine days.

"There was no way I was going to fail [because] I had prepared myself."

Asked what advice he would give pupils, Mr Apiata said "each and every one" had something extraordinary in them and encouraged them to be themselves.

"Be you, be good people and be respectful."

Adams told the pupils they needed to learn to "be comfortable with failure" but persist until they succeeded.

"Everything will be stacked against you ... you will fall over, you will fail.

"But you've just got to ... have faith in yourself, just have confidence, keep persevering, getting up and trying again."