The Adams family: born to run

JOHN SAKER
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014
steven adams
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ

TALL TALENT: Steven Adams hasn't taken the NBA by storm yet, but his back story is a winner.

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The loincloth-clad figure who stood on the deck of the frigate HMS Tagus clearly impressed its skipper. "[He was] about twenty-five years of age, a tall fine young man about six feet high, with dark black hair, and a countenance extremely open and interesting," Captain Philip Pipon RN wrote.

Pipon was the second caller to Pitcairn Island after it had been outed as the Bounty mutineers' bolthole in 1807, nearly 20 years after the mutiny. Following the early years of murder and mishap on the isolated molehill of volcanic rock, by the time of Pipon's arrival most of its small population was made up of a second, blended generation, the offspring of the naval miscreants and their Tahitian sweethearts. The youth described by Pipon was Thursday October Christian, son of mutineer-in-chief Fletcher Christian and his wife Mauatua. Pipon's admiring tone was echoed by many of the island's other fascinated early tourists. The young Pitcairn Islanders' size – at 6 feet, Thursday October Christian would have towered over the 19th century Jack Tars – and physical dexterity were a source of wonder. These earliest Euronesians took to "Davey" (their name for the sea) from their canoes, swimming like eels around visiting ships, and hared up and down riggings when they came on board. For sport, they had invented their own hazardous form of surfing, which they called "sliding".

Just one mutineer remained at the time of Pipon's visit – John Adams. A wily old survivor, by then Adams was on to his fifth Tahitian partner. I mention this only because of the coincidence provided by the name and the marital record.

Sailors and other Old World escapees washing up on antipodean shores, falling in with local females, spawning handsome children, settling into simple lifestyles on beautiful unpopulated islands, largely free of the constraints of their former lives ... it was to become an often-reprised theme in the historical score of the South Pacific. It gave us New Zealand's first European settlers, the assorted salts who became the so-called "Pakeha Maori".

A ringing contemporary riff in New Zealand comes through in a story with many remarkable scenes, one of the most recent taking place in Brooklyn, New York in June 2013.

National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern is onstage at the Barclays Centre, presiding over the final draft of his long career heading the world's premier professional basketball league. The draft, where the league's teams take turns to pluck their chosen blooms from the current crop of available college talent and other eligible players, is an annual event watched by millions worldwide.

The 2013 draft has the pundits guessing. There are no Magics or Shaqs out there to be pounced on immediately; it's a year characterised by a perceived paucity of blue-chip talent. No-one is taken aback when surprises start being hatched. Teams are taking punts all over the place, especially with players of international origin. A Canadian is picked number one for the first time; an Iranian (yes, Iranian) behemoth gets taken in the second round, another first. New Zealand does its bit to widen this circle when 20-year-old Steven Adams is the twelfth name called out by Stern.

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Up to the stage strides "a tall fine young man ... with dark black hair, and a countenance extremely open and interesting". All that's missing from Pipon's appraisal is the height reference. Being 7 feet "high", Steven Adams has a good 12 inches on Thursday October Christian.

Steven Adams is not an unknown, but nor is he any kind of name. He has only been playing the game for six years and has completed just one year at the University of Pittsburgh. There he posted stats that did not evoke visions of NBA greatness. But his height, mobility and general athleticism has given teams pause when assessing him. Beyond his abilities, his bio has also piqued interest. Everyone loves a good back story – America especially – and Steve Adams' backstory is up there with the best.

It began when his father Sid Adams fetched up in New Zealand as a young man around 1960. Adams was born and raised in Bristol, England, and prior to making landfall in the Bay of Plenty his working life had been spent in the Merchant Navy. Powerfully built, forearms clouded by the mandatory tattoos, he was your typical able seaman but for the fact he was so tall, somewhere between 6 feet 8 and 7 feet. It has been reported that back in the old country he was mocked about his height. From what I have come to learn, taking the mickey out of Sid Adams would have been foolhardy at best. Even so, those early barbs apparently contributed to his decision to start a new life on the far side of the world.

According to family lore, he jumped ship, for which he did jail time soon after arriving in New Zealand. Like many before and since, he solved the problem of his irregular immigration status by marrying a local. There followed a life mostly spent in the Bay of Plenty town of Rotorua.

The 19th century, when the pink and white terraces caught the world's imagination. These glorious oversized staircases of silica, one of each hue and dubbed by some the eighth wonder of the world, vanished under the fallout of volcanic eruption in 1886. The visitor traffic did not die with them. Rotorua still had enough geysers, belching mud pools and Maori cultural attractions to continue reeling in a steady conga line of tourists. Tourism remains one of the town's major earners.

Under the daily turnover of dazed happy snappers lies another, darker Rotorua. The district as a whole is ranked in the bottom third on New Zealand's deprivation scale and its crime rates are well above national totals. It is a place of rough neighbourhoods and hard lives. Maori author Alan Duff was born and raised in Rotorua, witnessing the brutality and sadness of its booze barns and public housing ghettos firsthand. His best-known work, Once Were Warriors, is sheeted to that experience.

Sid Adams was never going to lead a tour party on a gavotte through geyserland. All his life he worked in jobs where a pair of hands and a strong back were the only prerequisites, and he believed in working hard. He took a job in forestry, Rotorua's other big industry, driving logging trucks. Finding work boots big enough was a constant problem and his huge, callused hands bore witness to the fact that early on he'd abandoned all hope when it came to gloves.

In 2007, at 76 years of age, Adams breathed his last lying on a couch in his small Rotorua home. He'd refused hospice care during the later stages of his stomach cancer. Hovering medicos, drips ... that sort of carry-on had never been his style. Sid Adams died poor, and largely unnoticed outside his family and a few mates.

In many ways it was a small life, but in another it was voluminous.

Adams' fecundity was astonishing. The most often quoted tally of his offspring is 18, though you also hear 21, sometimes more. At his funeral, some of these children were discovering each other for the first time. The number of female partners who bore him children is also open to conjecture – some say five, some six. What most of these women had in common (besides their connection to Sid Adams) was Polynesian ancestry. Daughter Valerie says two of her father's partners were Tongan, another Tokelauan, another two Maori, and one Pakeha.

The year before his death, when asked by a local reporter to explain this rich conjugal diversity, Adams intimated he had trouble maintaining relationships because he was "a lousy bugger" to live with. He added: "I'm old-fashioned. I tell them it's your job to stay at home and cook and they don't seem to like that too much."

Some of these women he married; some he didn't. When his extended brood gets together, the Adams kids joke that the "small lots", where there were one or two siblings from a single mother, were "stress release" punctuation marks between the larger lots Sid Adams conceived with his married partners.

These family gatherings might also be the scene of some terrific sporting contests. Sid Adams may have scattered his seed with reckless abandon, but in doing so he made a remarkable, unwitting contribution to his adopted nation's obsession with sport. Adams himself was apparently never that interested in playing games, yet he and his partners created a cadre of super athletes.

Running through the family is a combination of size, rare athletic talent and a strong work ethic. The average height of an Adams male is 6 feet 9 and for females it is 6 feet. Before the emergence of Steven, the youngest as well as the tallest, it was his sister Valerie whom the world knew for her accomplishments with the shot-put. She has won gold at two Olympics, two Commonwealth Games and four World Championships. Six other Adams children have played basketball for New Zealand.

I was personally introduced to the Adams DNA towards the end of my own basketball career in 1990. Ralph Adams, one of the clan's eldest children, was in his early 20s and had come to Wellington to play for the national league side from which I had just retired. Three of us – Ralph, a veteran guard on that team and myself – convened at Newtown Stadium to shoot around and play an abbreviated form of the game where three players all play half court against each other. Ralph Adams calmly drilled threes over us, blew right by us, dunked on us ... pretty much owned us. "This guy's awful," I muttered as I sat with the other vet in a post-demolition daze. "Did you have to ask him along?" Height (6 feet 6), quickness, balance, shooting touch – Ralph was the embodiment of the complete basketball player. Over the next few years Ralph and another brother (Warren, who was 6 feet 11) were not just among the best players in the New Zealand national league, they were widely considered NBA material. In those days, the US was a more distant shore than it is now and there were fewer navigation aids available, especially for a couple of kids from a tough background in Rotorua.

A sense of missed opportunity hangs over some of this. The Adams offspring to have achieved the most in sport are Valerie and Steven, both of whom found themselves away from Rotorua in their early teens, living in larger cities and under the wing of excellent coaches. In Steven's case, after his father's death, a broken education and life on the street looked to be his lot were it not for swift action by an older brother.

Warren plucked him out of Rotorua when he was 14 and brought him to Wellington. There he received daily basketball tuition from a former national league great, American Kenny McFadden, who also made sure his protege was performing in the classroom.

Warren Adams would have seen the great potential in his younger brother. But he also would have viewed it through the filter of his own career, which perhaps carries the tint of a strong sense of what might have been.

It's no surprise basketball became the family's chosen sport (it was also Valerie's main game before putting the shot took over). Their vertical blessings would have made it a logical choice. But it is also a game of their colour and class. The arrival of the national league and the American imports in the 1980s saw basketball and its attendant hip-hop culture take hold in New Zealand's Polynesian communities. Along Rotorua's Te Ngae Road, where Steven Adams and many of his siblings grew up, kids dribble balls and spend weekend afternoons at the school playground hoops. Kobe Bryant and LeBron tops are prized currency; young dudes walking past those wearing them snap to mock salutes. Basketball has become part of the landscape.

Sid Adams may not have had much time for sport. But he would have approved of one thing it gave some of his children, particularly Steven, as it was something mutinous Sid himself valued: a means of escape.

■ John Saker and educated at Victoria University of Wellington and Carroll College (USA). He was was New Zealand's first professional basketball player and captain of the Tall Blacks.

■ This is an edited extract from the Review 43: Pacific Highways, co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones, Text Publishing, $35. The leading Australian literary quarterly focuses its latest issue on New Zealand.

- The Dominion Post

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