In 2012 Oklahoma City got their first taste of how devastating pro sports can be when the front office of the Thunder and James “The Bearded One” Harden’s manager couldn’t come to an agreement to extend the shooting guard’s contract in the heartland. Instead, he was shipped off to the Houston Rockets along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward in exchange for prolific shooter Kevin Martin and a virtually unknown Jeremy Lamb, as well as two first round picks and a second round pick. The transaction left the city reeling and wondering what to do with the giant beards they had made to affix to their buildings. There were more questions than answers going into the 2012 – 2013 season, but after winning the Western Conference without any notable facial hair on the team’s roaster, it was clear that while Harden was an asset, he wasn’t necessary to achieve success. That was until Patrick Beverly sent Russell Westbrook under the knife to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in April, effectively ending a promising playoff run for the Thunder.
Getting eliminated from the playoffs so early left Thunder fans and critics with too much time on their hands to consider what could’ve been had things gone differently in the negotiation room. Still, with the organization reaching out to talents like Mike Miller after losing K-Mart, there was hope. Then nothing happened. Rumor after rumor circulated about who the Thunder were targeting, but they were simply unable to find a bench scoring option that fit in the budget.
Cue the 2013 NBA draft: with the #12 pick acquired in the Harden trade, the Thunder selected Steven Adams – a center from the University of Pittsburgh that showed raw potential, but appeared to be at least a year away from becoming a viable threat. The general consensus was that Adams was a solid, logical, long-term potential pick, but the team needed help now. The fans pushed the Adams pick to the back of their minds and focused their concern on the production of shooting guard/small forward, Jeremy Lamb.
Now rewind to 2006 when a 13-year-old Steven Adams lost his father, Sid, leaving him a virtual orphan in Rotorua, New Zealand. Like his son Steven and his other 18 children (one of which who is Valerie Adams, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in shot putting), Sid was an exceptionally tall individual. His uncommon stature resulted in being labeled a “freak” growing up in World War II-era England. “He went through a pretty rough time,” Adams said of his father. “That was when they were discriminating against freaks. That’s what he called himself. He was really, really tall and they’d tease him. He had it pretty hard.” The ridicule and a career in the Navy led Sid to settle in New Zealand where he began his family.
Being the youngest of the brood, by the time Sid passed, most of Steven’s siblings had begun families of their own. And without a close relationship with his mother, Steven found himself getting into trouble. “When I lost my dad, that was a big hit for me,” Adams said. “I didn’t have that parental guidance, and I kind of took advantage of it because I was a stupid idiot. I decided not to go to school a couple of times, go when I felt like it.” It’s not hard for Adams to now see where that path was leading him. “I don’t like thinking about it,” he says. “Pretty much everything I had in Rotorua was crap. I got jealous of everyone with family. I’d see them and just hate them. They’d take it for granted…. I was just like ‘what’s the point?’ You could say depressed. I didn’t want to go on in life. I didn’t go to school. I hated everything.”
Fortunately, Steven’s older brother and former NZ Tall Blacks baller, Warren, caught wind his behavior and acted. “My brother came along, and since he’s my brother, he kicked my arse and told me to come to Wellington. I thought ‘what the hell, I might as well’.” Steven landed in the capital city in 2008, just shy of his 15th birthday.
Warren’s love and concern for his brother changed the course of his life. His first step was to take Steven to Blossom Cameron – a personal trainer and Scots College basketball coach described as “energetic” and “ebullient” that took the kid under her wing much like she had Warren nearly 20 years before. The work that lay ahead of her was substantial, but she saw something special in the 6’10” 15-year-old.
“He thought I was his fairy godmother,” said Blossom. “He didn’t have any clothes, so I went and bought him clothes. He didn’t have any food, and we had food every week. But it was almost like he’d been sheltered from all the ugliness in life. He just saw it as it was – ‘I sleep on the floor, big deal’. He was just a simple kid, fresh in all ways. He’s just an absolute gentle giant.”
The second person Warren sought out was former Washington State University player Kenny McFadden who moved to New Zealand in 1982 and helped the Wellington Saints win four championship titles. Since his playing retirement in 1996, McFadden has been very involved with junior player development. Familiar with the family’s genetic gifts (height and athleticism) after playing alongside Warren, McFadden agreed to train Steven on the condition that he was ready each morning at 6:00 AM to be picked up and hit the gym, then go to class every day. “He was the hardest worker I had ever seen,” McFadden said. “It got to the point that he was texting me the night before to make sure I was going pick him up the next day.”
“After about a year I knew he had the potential to go all the way,” recalls McFadden. After showing special interest in Adams in 2009, McFadden confidently told Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, “He will be by far the best big man that ever came out of this country.” He continued about the then 17-year-old, “Steve has natural aggression, big hands, big feet, and that desire to want to train every day. I’m adamant if New Zealand players train like they do in the United States, we will produce that product. He’s the first I’ve seen where you would say there’s not another kid as good as him anywhere in the world as of right now.”
While Steven seemed at home on the court, he struggled with his academics. Blossom recalled that when she first met him, he could barely communicate – “he spoke street.” McFadden would get upset when people in New Zealand would say that he was unintelligent. “Steven had to learn how to learn” McFadden said. “We had to establish good habits with him. At first, it was culture shock for him. The school is focused on education. We wanted to get him in an environment where it was school-first. He had to wear a suit and tie every day. He had to shine his shoes. The biggest challenge for us early on was finding size-18 dress shoes for him. But all of that stuff taught him discipline.”
That school was Scots College (which is actually what Americans would consider a high school), and like most of Steven’s story, his ability to attend an academic focused school took nothing short of a miracle. In 2008, no school in Wellington would accept him given his low scores. When he arrived at Scots, Steven was only semi-literate but headmaster Graeme Yule took a shot and offered him a partial scholarship. “The biggest challenge was just getting him going back to school every day,” recalls headmaster Yule. “He was a rough diamond, to put it mildly.” But progress was made, more on the social front his first year, and then academically in his second. “It became apparent he was actually quite bright, and very savvy.”* As to why he made the decision to take a risk on Adams, Yule said, “For us it’s not about the sport. It’s about the person, and I saw in him a person with a lot of potential.”
The education that Scots offered meant meeting the requirements for Steven to be accepted to the University of Pittsburgh and the ability to join Jamie Dixon‘s Pitt Panthers. Outside influences urged Adams to go pro straight out of high school under the impression that he would never be able to qualify for an NCAA school in the US. However, Steven’s hard work was rewarded and he passed through the NCAA Clearinghouse after graduating in December of 2011.
After attending Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., for one semester to acclimate himself to American basketball, Steven made his new home in Pennsylvania in June of 2012.
But why Pitt? In short, because of Kenny McFadden. Coach Dixon had come to New Zealand years earlier to inquire about Rob Loe before McFadden directed him to Adams. Steven had stayed off the radar due to the fact that he was not in the New Zealand national program because his family could not afford it. In New Zealand, only players from wealthy families play for the national teams because it is a pay-for-play system. Players on the national teams have to pay upward of $10,000 to compete.** After one meeting, Dixon was sold. He even took five more trips to Wellington to recruit Adams before he verbally committed to Pitt.
In six years, Steven’s life had completely changed course. “I kind of let go of a lot of stuff,” he said. “It’s not good being angry. At that time when dad passed away, I had a whole bunch of anger. Now it’s just like, let it go. I try to feel happier. Don’t give a damn about a lot of stuff. I kind of don’t care much. I know what to stay focused on. All the other stuff to get angry about, I don’t give a damn.”
After one year at Pitt, Steven averaged 7.2 PPG and 6.2 RPG in just 32 games and was one of only three freshman to ever break into the starting rotation under Dixon. (The others we’re DeJuan Blair and Chris Taft.) Initially Steven intended to stay in college for a second year saying, “I don’t want to really miss stuff all the coaches have to teach me. The way I see it, I could be gone like that. I could injure myself and be out forever. If I’m too focused on the NBA or too excited for that, I’m afraid I’ll miss something.” However, Adams shortly after announced that he would make himself eligible for the ’13 NBA draft. Media members questioned why he suddenly changed his mind and asked if he was feeling pressure from his family, but Steven denied that any of his siblings were pushing him into the NBA.
While no one twisted his arm to pursue the NBA early, Steven’s family has been a consistent motivation for him to work toward getting there. In an interview in 2010, Adams said that his goal was to be able to take care of his impressively large family and accomplish what his father dreamed of being able to do himself. “It’s doable,” he said. “I know it’s going to be hard, but what is easy in life? All I think about is having all the family in their own place, secure and safe. I’d love that.” That goal never changed – he decided to enter the draft after a trip home to Rotorua. “I don’t like seeing them struggle. It’s quite sad to see your family struggle,” he said.
In the summer of 2013, Steven began his journey toward the NBA by working out for various teams individually as well as attending the NBA Combine in Chicago. Early scouting reports indicated that his shooting ability could be a cause for concern, but Adams appeared to be better than predicted in almost every aspect, leading some experts to predict he could be taken as high as #7. Regardless of where his pick landed, it was clear that Steven would go in the first round – a first time accomplishment for a New Zealand native.
Of course, if you would’ve asked Steven about any of the pre-draft hype surrounding him or predictions about what pick he would be, he’d very honestly tell you that he had no idea about any of it. He never read a scouting report, never went to a mock draft site. He’d just barely started watching NBA games. The man described by former teammates as a “cool guy who sometimes doesn’t even know what’s going on” was (and is) content to take one day at a time and work hard to get better. (What seems to be the Thunder mantra.)
The rest is history, or in Steven’s case, the beginning of a very promising future. Just nine games into his NBA career and onlookers are beginning to take notice of his impressive ahead-of-schedule development. Some have called him the steal of the draft. Thunder fans sparked an instant love affair with the kiwi for taking a nasty elbow from Dallas’ Vince Carter without even flinching. Most nights thus far, he has played more minutes than starting Thunder center, Kendrick Perkins. In a game against Detroit in which Kevin Durant scored 37 points, Adams emerged as the hot topic in game recaps. His middle name is even being thrown around among some Thunder fans as a expression of excitement (“FUNAKI!!!”) or occasionally as a euphemism (“Steven Adams is a Funaking boss!”).
As an NBA rookie center, Steven has all the natural abilities to be a top player in the league – height, speed, strength, teachability and athleticism.
As a person, he seems to be remarkably down-to-earth, smart, funny, charming, inspiring and genuinely a good dude.
And as a member of the Thunder roster, he may be the most exciting addition since moving the franchise to Oklahoma. He perfectly fits what the organization has always been about – hard work and humility. His potential is limitless playing in a position that may be the hardest to fill on the court and has always been a sore spot for the team. And, maybe most importantly in the minds of many, could be a key piece in affirming that the Harden trade actually made the team better in the long run.
Welcome to the family, Steven! We’re proud to have you here!