Thunderous Adams thrives in rookie season
Within a year, Steven Adams has gone from raw talent to an NBA cult hero. Ben Stanley travelled to Oklahoma City last week, and found a young man thriving in the playoffs - and missing the good old Kiwi pie.
Kevin Durant adjusts his tie, and reaches into Russell Westbrook's locker to borrow some aftershave. Westbrook swings up his hoodie, and thumbs his iPhone. Kendrick Perkins folds a towel, then turns around to face the herd of reporters and photographers only inches behind him.
Before the first reporter speaks, the home locker room of Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Centre is silent. It shouldn't be - and it certainly wasn't 20 minutes before.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had just pulled off one of the great escapes in the NBA playoff history, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 105-104 in a thrilling western conference game five semifinal that came down to three Westbrook free throws with seconds remaining on the clock.
The Thunder went on to win game six and advance to the Western Conference Finals. If the Thunder win the NBA title this season, people will point to this game as a key victory in the journey.
Perkins plays a straight bat to the media: "We played as a team. We knew we could win." Out of the showers wanders Steven Adams - the second last, behind Derek Fisher - to get dressed.
He bends his seven-foot frame into his locker - which is wedged between those of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison - and grabs a T-shirt. Finished with Perkins, the throng of reporters surround the Kiwi. There's no sleek black suit for Adams like the one Durant wears, nor a hoodie like Westbrook: he rocks the T-shirt and track pants combo.
Adams turns around - and the first reporter pipes up: "Steven, what are your emotions right now?" Adams grins.
"Man, the dopamine levels were pumping," he says. "Me and Grant [Jerrett] - we had a weird feeling that we were going to come back.
"And then it happens. I was like, ‘yeahhh'." Adams pumps his fist. The locker room silence disappears, and a ripple of laughter spreads through the reporters. "Oops, sorry," he says.
Given Adams' path to the NBA, it's astonishing to think what the Kiwi has achieved this year. His childhood and teenage years in Rotorua and Wellington, coupled with the death of his father when he was young, all provided reasons why achieving sporting stardom would be unlikely.
Though his popularity in New Zealand has never wavered, there were plenty of critics when the Thunder took Adams, who had just one year of college ball under his belt at the University of Pittsburgh.
You'll do well to find those critics now, with several big name reporters in the press pool at Chesapeake Energy Arena last week describing Adams as a centre with the potential to be one of the best "big men" in the NBA.
In the game five thriller, Adams was the Thunder's standout off the bench. Tallying 23 minutes and 13 seconds of game time, the Kiwi scored nine points, made four rebounds, two blocks and an assist. Adams nailed a two-handed dunk after a shimmy worthy of an All Black sent him into open territory, before making a massive block of Matt Barnes' shot just 13 seconds later; a phase that bought the arena - nicknamed "Loud City" - to its feet.
But despite his growth as a player, his reported income of around US$2.3 million a year and the fact he's playing against, and alongside, the biggest names in basketball, you'll not find a shred of ego when you speak with Adams. An interview with him is cramped with plenty of subtle jokes, questions of his own - and nostalgia about home, especially the pies.
"Man, I miss them. I swear to God, bro," he says. "There's actually a pie place in LA. I met this Aussie guy - he was a media dude - and he said there was a place that sold pies and stuff. But it's Australian. I feel like I'm betraying New Zealand if I go there. I've got a really big craving for them."
On court, Adams seems to ooze time when he plays, moving without rush or concern, but with an eagerness to be involved in everything he can.
Plenty is made of Adams' physical style and ability to get under opponents' skin by not backing down , with five players tossed from games this year for lashing out at the Kiwi.
He laughs when asked why he seems to grind opponents so much. "I just go out there and try to play as hard as I can. I do exactly what the coaches say. If they say ‘go and make sure you hit dudes', then I'm like ‘OK, I'll hit dudes'. People get mad and they hit me. It's kind of like a routine, really. It's pretty weird."
It's only in the last fortnight that Adams has really started capturing the headlines in the US.
During his league MVP acceptance speech, Durant gave Adams an emotional tribute - talking about his admiration for the Kiwi's affable character, and journey from Rotorua to OKC. "You mean a lot to me, and you inspire me too," Durant said.
Last week, The New York Times ran a big article on Adams, saluting the "unvarnished naivete" of the Kiwi's physical approach to the game.
Featuring in the United States' biggest newspaper didn't interest Adams. "I'm not disrespecting The New York Times or anything, but I don't care [about being in there]. But the MVP speech - that meant a lot more just because he's a team-mate and the fact that I never talk about my background, at all.
"Obviously with the New Zealand stuff, I always brag about New Zealand. But my own story - I never talk about it at all. He [Durant] said that he looked it up - and I was like ‘wow, here's someone who cares'. So, yeah, I felt differently towards him."
Adams hopes to head back to New Zealand after the playoffs finish, but isn't sure for how long.
Despite his success this year, he acknowledges he still has plenty to learn as a basketballer - and plans to spend the majority of his off-season in Oklahoma City working on his game. That drive to improve means Adams will probably miss the Tall Blacks' World Cup campaign in Spain later this year.
Next season provides an even bigger opportunity. With fellow centre Perkins off-contract, Adams could find himself alongside superstars Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka as a regular in the team's starting five.
Learning from the team's big names - and veterans - has provided Adams with his biggest lessons as a basketballer this season.
"All of them repeat the same thing. You've got to get into a routine, and stick through it. That's all I've been doing. Depending on what your routine is, that's how far you'll go." Amongst all the older heads, Adams identifies with Fisher the most.
"I literally try to do everything Fish does," Adams says of the veteran point guard, who won five NBA titles with the Lakers.
"If Fish eats egg whites, I'll eat egg whites. I'd never eat egg whites - but he just ate egg whites, so I did it too. Whatever he does, I'll do. I always mimic him - and it seems to be working for me, as far as the routine goes."
How about lessons learnt as a man? One who has gone from raw potential to NBA first-class in one season. A bloke who has gone from college player to one of New Zealand's biggest name athletes, while still retaining an open sense of humour about the journey - and his own future.
"Shit, that's a hard one. bro," he says.
"I guess, just learn to be myself."
Adams laughs, and slaps the door of his locker. "That's way cheesy, bro. It's super cheesy. Make the headline ‘cheesy Adams'."
Anything you say, mate.
Sunday Star Times