New Zealand excursion
In a busy trip to New Zealand, Thunder center Steven Adams and Billy Donovan took time away to fish.
The basketball talk would have to wait.
Somewhere off the coast of Wellington, New Zealand on Saturday – it still was Friday back in Oklahoma City – Thunder center Steven Adams and his coach, Billy Donovan, had other priorities.
As part of a party on a fishing boat, they watched as lines were cast and divers dove, producing lobster and blue cod and sea urchin that the passengers ate fresh out of the water.
“I got skunked” as a fisherman, Donovan said in a Saturday phone interview with The Oklahoman from Wellington. “I sat there and watched. But I ate a lot of what was on the boat, I’ll tell you that.”
It was rare spare time in a busy trip for Donovan, who’s part of a Thunder group that traveled this week to Adams’ native New Zealand, where the center has been hosting basketball camps.
For Donovan, there have been coaching clinics and speaking opportunities in Christchurch and Auckland and Wellington. It’s a business trip, supporting Adams and representing the Thunder abroad.
But it’s also about building a closer bond with Adams, the kind of interpersonal relationship that’s a core tenet of Donovan’s coaching philosophy. He’s interacted with Adams’ family, seen some of Adams’ favorite places in his homeland.
In their quiet moments, basketball has taken a backseat.
“The conversation could drift that way if. It could, if (Adams) wants it to,” Donovan said. “But my intention – as much as I love basketball and as much as I’d love to be on a boat talking about it – is not to have Steven say, ‘Oh my God. We’re talking about pick-and-roll coverage right now?’”
There’s plenty of time for hoops elsewhere.
Adams the icon
The return to New Zealand is an annual affair for Adams, and though this is Donovan’s first visit, the Thunder long has supported its center’s efforts in his native country.
General manager Sam Presti didn’t make the trip this year, but has been multiple times. Guard Andre Roberson is back for a second straight year, and forward Nick Collison joined last summer. Assistant coach Mark Bryant and director of basketball communications Matt Tumbleson are repeat visitors this week.
It’s part of the team’s philosophy of supporting players in Oklahoma City and beyond. When Russell Westbrook opened reading rooms in Los Angeles, Thunder staff was there. When forward Josh Huestis got married last week, Donovan and Presti were among the guests.
It just happens that Adams’ support comes across the Pacific Ocean, at a series of popular camps in New Zealand. Sunday morning in Wellington –Saturday evening in OKC – there were 600 kids in attendance, Tumbleson said. Adams expected 500 to 600 more a day later in Auckland.
In Christchurch, still recovering from an earthquake that ravaged the city in 2011, there were 400 campers in a town where Tumbleson said “you couldn’t have a five-minute conversation without somebody saying how appreciative they are of Stevie.”
Adams is “an icon” in New Zeland, Donovan said.
And understanding that is important to the Thunder coach.
Face to face
There are times when Adams could be more selfish, moments when a more aggressive on-court approach might better serve the Thunder.
But in New Zealand, Donovan said, he’s come to a better understanding of Adams’ eagerness to please, of the importance to Adams that “everybody feels good about what they’re doing.”
“When you come to New Zealand, you understand that a lot more, because that’s how the people are,” Donovan said. “The people are very unselfish. They’re extremely humble, they’re appreciative, they’re thankful, they’re helpful.”
Learning that, Donovan said, deepens the coachplayer relationship with Adams.
So does getting to know Adams’ family and watching the way they interact, the way they “truly care about one another” and how Adams’ brothers give him grief despite his largerthan-life status in New Zealand.
Though the primary objective of the visit is to support Adams’ camps and to conduct coaching clinics, that time to interact is crucial to Donovan, a firm believer in face-to-face connections.
This summer, he visited Victor Oladipo in Miami before the guard was traded to Indiana. When Paul George came to the Thunder in that deal, Donovan flew to California to spend a day with George and his family. He’s visited with Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder during voluntary workouts in Los Angeles.
Ultimately, Donovan’s goal is to win games.
But he’s about connections, too, a believer that the process of making a team its best can begin on a boat in New Zealand, scarfing down seafood and talking about anything but basketball.
“For me, there’s an incredible power with a group of people that are connected in what they’re doing,” Donovan said. “I feel like my job, my role, my responsibility – whether it be during the season or in the offseason – is to try and 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.”
Thunder center Steven Adams, left, and coach Billy Donovan have had time to bond on a trip to New Zealand that included a deep-sea fishing on a boat Saturday.