ONE COOL CAT
The chronicles of superstar Steven Adams
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.