ONE COOL CAT

The chron­i­cles of su­per­star Steven Adams

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At school I got picked on quite a bit. I wasn’t a mas­sive kid, in fact I was quite scrawny, and I al­ways wore the same clothes and walked around bare­foot most of the time. My brother Sid, who is four years older than me, was al­ways big­ger and tougher than the other kids, so if any­one tried to talk crap about him or us, he’d smash them. Gabby and Lisa were just as tall and strong and so were also good to have around as pro­tec­tors. But I think most of the bul­ly­ing I ex­pe­ri­enced was done by older kids who Sid used to pick on and who wanted their re­venge on the Adams fam­ily.

One time, I was walk­ing home from school and some older kids started throw­ing rocks at me. I didn’t know what to do so I just kept walk­ing and let them hit me. Gabby saw me and ran over and we walked home to­gether, get­ting pelted by stones. When we got home, we cried to Dad, but he just looked at us like we were id­iots for not throw­ing any­thing back. I thought that was the end of it un­til a few days later when the same kid had me up against the wall by the pool and Sid ran over and beat him up. I was en­joy­ing the fight un­til he yelled at me to piss off. I re­alised Sid wasn’t do­ing it be­cause he liked me or Gabby, he was do­ing it be­cause he was our older brother and he had to.

A lot of the teas­ing di­rected at me at school ac­tu­ally came from the adults. I think they found it funny there was such a tall kid in class and thought that meant they could make jokes about all of us kids. One teacher used to crack jokes about me all the time. I hated him. He had taught a num­ber of my older sib­lings and, given we all ad­mit to be­ing bad stu­dents, he prob­a­bly just hated any­one with Adams as their last name.

Not all the teach­ers were bad, though. I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber Miss Walsh, who taught me in my early days at pri­mary school and knew I had trou­ble learn­ing at the same pace as ev­ery­one else. She was one of the only teach­ers who man­aged to be pa­tient with me and ac­tu­ally give me a chance. Even af­ter she left the school she stayed in touch. She would email mes­sages to the new teacher to pass on to me about how she saw my sis­ter Va­lerie [Val] throw­ing the shot-put on tele­vi­sion and ask­ing if I had read any good books lately. I got em­bar­rassed be­cause other kids would mock me for get­ting emails from the teacher, so I acted too cool and didn’t re­ply. But I al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated that she went out of her way to make me feel com­fort­able learn­ing, as that was a big thing, espe­cially at that time in my life.

I MUST have been 6 or 7 when Mum took me and Gabby to Tonga with her. I guess she wanted to have her kids with her but Dad wouldn’t let her take all of us, so they split us up. I loved it there. It was hot all the time and I had a pet pig that I named Si­tiveni, which is the Ton­gan ver­sion of my name. He wasn’t a cute piglet like Babe, ei­ther. He was a fully grown pig that I used to ride on around the vil­lage. Af­ter maybe a cou­ple of months, Gabby and I came back to New Zealand and moved in with Dad. We didn’t see Mum for more than five years af­ter that.

In Dad’s house, his word was the law. No el­bows on the ta­ble. No eat­ing bread un­til you’d fin­ished din­ner. Al­ways do your chores on time. What­ever Sid said went. As a fa­ther he was stern but fair. Ev­ery­one wanted to be on Dad’s good side be­cause he was the boss. At 6’11” and with a bar­rel for a body, it was hard not to be in­tim­i­dated by him, no mat­ter who you were. By the time I was a teenager, his hair was white and he walked with a limp and a hunch. But that didn’t make him any less im­pos­ing. He would be the first one to ad­mit that he wasn’t a great hus­band.

For Dad, be­ing a wife meant stay­ing home, cook­ing and look­ing af­ter the kids. He was al­ways the boss in the re­la­tion­ship and he was pos­ses­sive of his wife. He didn’t like her go­ing out so­cial­is­ing with­out him or some­one else in his fam­ily to keep an eye on her. In his view it was the hus­band’s job to earn money and put food on the ta­ble, which he did very well. And it was the wife’s job to cook that food. These ideas sound pretty old-fash­ioned now, be­cause they are. Re­mem­ber, the dude was born in 1931.

Back at home with Dad, Gabby and I set­tled back into the rou­tine. Be­cause the house had only three bed­rooms, the boys shared a room and the girls did too. Sid and I of­ten turned our room into a wrestling ring by push­ing our foam mat­tresses to­gether and us­ing the girls’ mat­tresses to line the walls. We would use Gabby as our prac­tice dummy for moves un­til she would get hurt and not want to play any­more. Sid was the best at it be­cause he was the old­est, but he also seemed more nat­u­rally gifted than the rest of us. I was unco for my whole child­hood. Be­ing taller than other kids meant ev­ery­one as­sumed I was also go­ing to be the tough­est. That stopped the bul­lies from pick­ing on me af­ter a while, even though I wasn’t any tougher, just longer.

The prob­lem with be­ing a head taller than ev­ery­one else is that peo­ple think you must be good at sports just be­cause you’re tall. I played a lot of sports as a kid, but I def­i­nitely wasn’t good. My po­si­tion in rugby was lock be­cause that’s where all the tall kids play, but the other teams soon found out that I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life. I re­mem­ber one game it felt like all the other team did was kick the ball to me, then I’d drop it and they’d score. We lost that game and I gave up hope of be­ing an All Black.

I played bas­ket­ball, of course, be­cause you can’t be a 6ft-tall 10-year-old and not play bas­ket­ball. But I wasn’t even in the top team at

Be­ing taller than other kids meant ev­ery­one as­sumed I was also go­ing to be the tough­est. That stopped the bul­lies from pick­ing on me af­ter a while.

pri­mary school. I was put in the B team with the other useless kids. My sis­ter Gabby was the bas­ket­ball player in the fam­ily. She got a schol­ar­ship to go and play bas­ket­ball at a high school across town in Ro­torua, which was rare in those days. I knew that three of my older broth­ers, War­ren, Ralph and Rob, had all been good bas­ket­ball play­ers, but I re­ally only played be­cause it was some­thing to do af­ter school. No one went to train­ing or prac­tised — we just showed up at games in our muddy clothes and tried not to get hurt.

At some point Dad put up a bas­ket­ball hoop and we started play­ing bas­ket­ball. Two-on-two or one-on-one. Be­ing the youngest and scrawni­est I lost ev­ery time, even against my sis­ters. Espe­cially against my sis­ters. NBA fans like to say I’m tough, but none of my fam­ily would agree with them. In my fam­ily, I’m the weak, youngest one who just hap­pened to grow to be the tallest. Post­ing up against Lisa and Gabby when I was younger was way rougher than any player I mark in the NBA now. The only come­back I had against them was that if they ever got so pissed off that they wanted to smash me, I could usu­ally run to Dad and then they couldn’t do any­thing.

Even though most Adams kids were raised by a sin­gle par­ent, some by Dad, some by their mums, they saw me, Sid, Gabby and Lisa as be­ing dif­fer­ent some­how, be­cause of how old and in­creas­ingly un­well Dad was. As we got older we started to see more and more of our older sib­lings, some of whom we didn’t even know were re­lated to us. Most of them stepped up to help in their own way and in­flu­enced me in ways I didn’t even re­alise un­til re­cently.

While Dad was our rock and our hero, some of the older sib­lings made sure we were be­hav­ing and go­ing to school. It’s a part of my story that the me­dia over­looked when I first started get­ting their at­ten­tion. Even though we lived a bit rugged, we were never alone. We al­ways had peo­ple look­ing out for us. And one of those peo­ple was my brother Mohi.

Most of the Adams fam­ily met Mohi at my sis­ter Gabby’s 7th birth­day party, which means I was 6. We never had big birth­day par­ties where we in­vited all our friends over; we just got the fam­ily to­gether and had a feed. Mohi, who was 18 at the time, turned up and was ca­su­ally in­tro­duced to us as our brother. Dad was clearly in charge of all his re­la­tion­ships right from the be­gin­ning — you can tell just from the names of his chil­dren. Four­teen big, brown kids and we’ve all got the whitest names you’ve ever heard. Mohi’s got a Maori name only be­cause Dad didn’t even know he was his kid un­til Mohi was older.

I was about 10 and I found out that Mohi worked on a farm. There was some­thing about farms that ap­pealed to me even then. The thought of be­ing out in the field put­ting in hard, phys­i­cal work with­out hav­ing to write down any an­swers in a class­room sounded like a dream job. I was start­ing to re­ally shoot up by then and I wanted to put my size to good use too, espe­cially since I couldn’t seem to play bas­ket­ball as well as ev­ery­one had hoped.

YOU COULD say my NBA ca­reer plan started at a Christ­mas fam­ily bar­be­cue in Ro­torua when I was 13 years old. We had gone to Viv’s place for a feed and War­ren was up from Welling­ton. He asked how ev­ery­one was do­ing and we all mum­bled that we were do­ing fine. He asked if I was still play­ing bas­ket­ball and I said, “Yeah, kinda.”

“You want to play bas­ket­ball se­ri­ously?” he asked. I have never even thought about it. My plan was to be­come a farmer.

War­ren called Viv around March 2008 to fol­low up on his ques­tion about my bas­ket­ball fu­ture. Was I re­ally in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing it? Viv hon­estly didn’t know, but in her mind me play­ing bas­ket­ball was still bet­ter than me play­ing Xbox. She told War­ren if he was will­ing to look af­ter me in Welling­ton, he should come and fetch me.

I WOULDN’T be where I am to­day if two of my sib­lings hadn’t de­cided, over one phone call, that I should move to a dif­fer­ent city, away from most of my fam­ily, and start a new life there.

When we ar­rived, War­ren took me straight to the Win­ter Show Build­ings in New­town.

War­ren walked me over and the coach looked me up and down. I could tell he was try­ing to fig­ure out at first glance if I was worth coach­ing. “Kenny, this is my brother Steven,” said War­ren. “Steven, this is Kenny McFad­den.”

An old friend of War­ren’s named Blos­som told him I could train with her Scots Col­lege team un­til my sit­u­a­tion with Kenny was sorted out.

The boys re­spected Blos­som. She was about to be­come a cru­cial per­son in help­ing me to go from a boy who was happy wast­ing his days in front of an Xbox to a pro­fes­sional sports­man.

Kenny lived close by so he started pick­ing me up at 5.45am ev­ery day for train­ing. Train­ing with the Scots Col­lege boys was good be­cause I got to be around play­ers who were mostly at the same level as me. That meant we all im­proved to­gether. But train­ing with Kenny in the morn­ings was a whole dif­fer­ent thing. He’d open up the build­ing at 6am ev­ery day and who­ever was there would train with him.

You could have been lit­er­ally any­one in Welling­ton and if you turned up 6am you’d get a free train­ing ses­sion with one of the best coaches in the coun­try. That’s what Kenny had been of­fer­ing for years be­fore I showed up. No one ever paid for those sessions, which seems in­cred­i­ble to me now.

We started off right back at the be­gin­ning. Drib­bling on the spot, drib­bling left-handed, walk­ing and drib­bling, lay-ups. Maybe if I was a more self-con­scious per­son I wouldn’t have wanted to train with Kenny and have peo­ple see me — a mas­sive, lanky guy who looked like he should be amaz­ing at bas­ket­ball — strug­gling

with a drib­bling drill that kids learn when they are 7. But the one thing that kept me go­ing back was the progress I was mak­ing. Start­ing from scratch meant the only way for me to go was up. And I gotta say, I moved pretty quickly. But even as I was pro­gress­ing and mov­ing on to more com­plex drills and work­outs, Kenny kept me do­ing the fun­da­men­tals all the way through. I could dunk, but it was months be­fore Kenny let me dunk dur­ing a drill. First, I had to be able to get the ball in the hoop ev­ery other way.

Just weeks af­ter I moved in to Blos­som’s place, she told me that she had man­aged to get me a spot at Scots Col­lege. Mov­ing to Welling­ton hadn’t scared me. Wak­ing up at 5.30am ev­ery morn­ing to train was all good. But be­ing told that I’d be go­ing to Scots freaked me out.

Scots is a fancy, pri­vate, all-boys Pres­by­te­rian school in Welling­ton. I’d seen the bas­ket­ball guys come out of the chang­ing room af­ter train­ings in their hard-out school uni­forms with ma­roon blaz­ers and ties. They looked like lit­tle busi­ness­men on their way to the of­fice to file some re­ports. The school build­ings were even more in­tim­i­dat­ing. Al­though I hadn’t seen much of Scots, I’d seen enough to know that I def­i­nitely didn’t be­long there. And that was con­firmed when I turned up for my first day of school in al­most two years.

Ev­ery­one stared at me. Ev­ery­one has al­ways stared at me be­cause of my height but this time I knew it wasn’t just about that. All the stu­dents were star­ing at me be­cause they were scared. I looked like a mur­derer. I’d only just got into the habit of show­er­ing reg­u­larly, thanks to Blos­som get­ting on my back about it but we hadn’t pro­gressed to groom­ing yet. So what the stu­dents — some as young as 11 — were see­ing was a gi­ant brown per­son with long, greasy hair and a dirty, wispy mous­tache. I didn’t have a uni­form yet be­cause they were still try­ing to find one big enough for me. In­stead I was wear­ing what I wore ev­ery day: bas­ket­ball shorts, a prob­a­bly un­washed T-shirt and my orange bas­ket­ball shoes that had nearly fallen apart. At least they were bet­ter than

NBA fans like to say I’m tough, but none of my fam­ily would agree with them. In my fam­ily, I’m the weak, youngest one who just hap­pened to grow to be the tallest.

what I was walk­ing around in when I first got to Welling­ton — old bas­ket­ball shoes with the front half of the sole com­pletely worn off so that I was pretty much walk­ing in socks. When it rained I’d put my feet into plas­tic bread bags to try to stop my socks from get­ting wet. I could see why the other stu­dents didn’t want to come near me. But luck­ily for ev­ery­one, I wanted to be there even less than they wanted me to be there.

I was taken to the full school assem­bly that day and in­tro­duced to ev­ery­one. I could see the teach­ers were even more put off than the kids.

I found out later that some of them didn’t think I’d last at the school be­yond the end of the year. I would like to say that I never would have con­sid­ered it, but, hon­estly, if they had said that

Ev­ery­one stared at me. Ev­ery­one has al­ways stared at me be­cause of my height but this time I knew it wasn’t just about that. All the stu­dents were star­ing at me be­cause they were scared.

to my face on that first day I prob­a­bly would have agreed and left then and there.

My first taste of dis­ci­pline and struc­ture at a school like Scots was when they said I couldn’t wear the uni­form and at­tend classes un­til I had “sorted out” my hair and the bum fluff on my up­per lip. So Blos­som took me to get my first ever pro­fes­sional hair­cut and I took a ra­zor to my face, and sud­denly I didn’t look so bor­der­line home­less any­more. They man­aged to find me a school uni­form by the end of the first week and I went back for my first day of classes, more scared and re­sent­ful than I’d ever been.

To put it bluntly, I was dumb. I could read, but that was about it. At 14 I had man­aged to avoid hav­ing to read and write my en­tire life and sud­denly there I was, at­tend­ing one of the top aca­demic schools in the coun­try with a read­ing age of 8. On my sec­ond day I was taken to the school li­brary to get a li­brary card is­sued. I’d never had one be­fore and al­ready knew that I’d never use it but it was com­pul­sory, so I signed up.

At the start, I did vir­tu­ally noth­ing be­sides eat a lot of food in the school cafe­te­ria and try to avoid do­ing school­work. I fig­ured that I didn’t have to try that hard in the class­room as long as I was im­prov­ing on the bas­ket­ball court. I knew that at other schools rugby play­ers got away with do­ing hardly any work be­cause their rugby ca­reer didn’t de­pend on it. I was still try­ing to get up to the na­tional stan­dard for read­ing and writ­ing, but I dis­missed it as un­im­por­tant be­cause my im­prove­ments on the court were com­ing faster and faster.

From the be­gin­ning, Ms Glenda Parks, who was in charge of learn­ing de­vel­op­ment and helped any­one who had fallen be­hind, be­came my men­tor. A few months into that first year at Scots, I was sit­ting out­side on a bench, wag­ging class and gen­er­ally feel­ing sorry for my­self. School was hard and I couldn’t fix it by go­ing for a run and do­ing some push-ups. Bas­ket­ball was at least dis­tract­ing me from the fact that I was alone in a new city and with­out my dad, but at Scots I felt alien­ated.

I didn’t no­tice Ms Parks un­til she sat down right be­side me and asked what was wrong. I mum­bled the usual moan­ings of teenagers un­til she cut me off. “Steven,” she said, mak­ing me look right at her. “How badly do you want this?” The only other per­son to ask me that was Kenny, and an­swer­ing him was easy be­cause I was more than ready to com­mit to bas­ket­ball ev­ery day. But when Ms Parks asked me, I re­alised that com­mit­ting to bas­ket­ball also meant com­mit­ting to school, a place I tried to avoid at all costs. “I want it bad,” I said. She nod­ded and replied, “Well, then this is some­thing we’re just go­ing to have to do.”

It took three and a half years at a very ex­pen­sive pri­vate school for me to re­alise the im­por­tance of an ed­u­ca­tion. When I walked into Scots Col­lege I hated ev­ery­thing about it and I only wanted to be play­ing bas­ket­ball. When I walked out of Scots Col­lege for the last time as a stu­dent, I knew that play­ing bas­ket­ball wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with­out an ed­u­ca­tion, and learn­ing would still be there long af­ter bas­ket­ball was gone.

The evo­lu­tion of Ok­la­homa City Thun­der player Steven Adams: 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Steven, left, with his dad and sib­lings.

Steven Adams in ac­tion in 2014.

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