Steven Adams strengthens relationship with coach Billy Donovan in New Zealand
It's fair to say that Oklahoma City Thunder basketball coach Billy Donovan now has a much better appreciation for what makes Steven Adams the unique NBA player that he is.
There were plenty of familiar faces on the Thunder contingent who accompanied their 24-year-old Kiwi centre on his annual trip home to host his series of kids' coaching camps in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland on Monday to wrap up another hugely successful visit down under.
Big man coach, and Adams mentor, Mark Bryant was there again, keeping a close eye on his protege, as was Thunder communications chief Matt Tumbleson and close friend and team-mate Andre Roberson who was picked up in the same 2013 draft as the 2.15m Kiwi.
All have been frequent attendees on Adams' annual visits home to give back to his country and the game of basketball in the only way he knows how – to spread the good word of hoops to as many kids as he can squeeze into the arenas on hand (550-odd in Auckland, just under 500 in Christchurch and around 600 in his adopted home town of Wellington).
But Adams had a pretty special guest on this latest spin down under in the form of his head coach who was making his first trip to New Zealand under the stewardship of his starting centre and resident Oklahoma City Kiwi ambassador.
Adams, resplendent in his trademark camo jacket, long locks tied back, and the early stages of a fresh beard, told a media posse at Bruce Pulman Arena in south Auckland that he just hoped he left the right impression on his coach who had left for the long haul home earlier that morning.
"My main focus was just showing him what our culture is as a country, trying to teach him where I'm from and also introducing him to my family and whatnot," said Adams.
Yeah, there were some basketball workouts (the October regular season tipoff looms large, of course), around the camps, a fishing trip off the coast of Wellington, and a powhiri in Christchurch, among other activities on their busy schedule.
But for Adams it was all about a role reversal of sorts, and he educating his coach on just what makes his resident Kiwi who he is.
"With anything, bro, the person comes first, and whatever it is after that. That's how I always go," explained the Kiwi who is heading into the start of a US$100 million (NZ$138m) four-year contract extension with the Thunder. "Coach being coach, just the fact he wants to learn where I'm from and meet my family, that's huge to me in terms of the relationship."
Then someone piped up that Donovan's hasty retreat back to OKC could be a sign that his star centre is about to be traded.
"Yeah, bro, that's a sign," replied Adams, eyebrows arched before bursting into laughter.
By all accounts Adams achieved his aim. Donovan told The Oklahoman newspaper before his Auckland departure that he had come to understand the importance to Adams that "everybody feels good about what they're doing" through spending time around someone who had clearly become "an icon" in his home country.
"When you come to New Zealand, you understand that a lot more, because that's how the people are," Donovan told the paper. "The people are very unselfish. They're extremely humble, they're appreciative, they're thankful, and they're helpful."
All part, says Donovan, of a greater good. "For me, there's an incredible power with a group of people that are connected in what they're doing ... my job is to create those connections. Because if we're all unified, connected and moving in the right direction, it has a chance to be something really powerful."
Adams' camps are certainly developing a life of their own. They fill up within minutes of going live, and you can see in the eyes of every youngster who rolls along just how much of a role model the genial, towering Kiwi has become.
"It's just good to have Americans back over and showing them how much passion we have in New Zealand for basketball ... mentally it puts me at ease," he explains. "I'm helping the next one, putting it out there and helping basketball in New Zealand. It's one of those things I feel kinda emotional and passionate about. You just want to give back, especially to the kids."
Roberson, the Thunder's quietly spoken defensive specialist, says Adams has "been my boy since day one" when they rode the Thunder's private jet together back to OKC after the draft.
(Even then Adams couldn't resist pulling his mate's leg. "You caught a private jet?" he asked. "Where did that one go?")
Since then Roberson has gained a pretty keen perspective on his good friend, honed by multiple trips to New Zealand.
"I love it, man, just to come back here and for Steve to show the hospitality and show me his culture. It's always great to see where a person comes from, and build the relationship that way.
"You could say who he is over here translates to America, and they kinda see that. He's always himself, he doesn't change. In OKC they paint murals on the side of buildings for him (Adams: "That was one of my [people], they just came over and tagged up a wall.").
"He's a big deal to OKC and everywhere he goes over here there's always a big crowd around him. I think it's pretty special."