Steven Adams and Madeleine Chapman in 2010 (Image: Madeleine Chapman)
Steven Adams and Madeleine Chapman in 2010 (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

BooksJuly 24, 2018

His life, his fight: Madeleine Chapman on co-writing Steven Adams’ autobiography

Steven Adams and Madeleine Chapman in 2010 (Image: Madeleine Chapman)
Steven Adams and Madeleine Chapman in 2010 (Image: Madeleine Chapman)

Spinoff writer Madeleine Chapman co-wrote basketball star Steven Adams’ autobiography, in shops next week. She tells how she wrote the book alongside an athlete she’s known since they were both teenagers. Warning: contains a lot of food.

I knew of Steven Adams before I met him. A common situation now but not so much in 2007 when we were both 13 years old. I’d been representing Wellington Basketball at tournaments for a few years and after a while it’s hard not to notice the tall players. Megan Craig from Whangārei was very tall and a guy with long hair from Rotorua was very tall. I didn’t know his name because only the names of the best players were known by everyone. Steven wasn’t that good back then, he was just tall.

When he moved to Wellington near the end of 2008, Steven kept to himself. And though we occasionally trained alongside each other at Newtown Show Buildings at 6am, we never spoke. At the 2010 Chinese Easter Sports Tournament in Porirua, Steven came along to watch all his Chinese-Samoan basketball friends play. Afterwards, we went to H2O Xtream and, while waiting on the stairs to go on the slide, I put my hand down next to his foot and saw that his second toe was the exact same length as my index finger. This doesn’t really mean anything but feels noteworthy.

Although we probably felt like we had very different lives, Steven and I had a lot in common. We both had brown mums (his Tongan and mine Samoan), and white dads (his British, mine American); we came from large families (he has 13 siblings, I have nine); and at the time we were both on scholarship to private schools, he at Scots College and me at Samuel Marsden Collegiate.

Despite all that, we really only interacted by eating together. After morning training on my 17th birthday, I had some time to kill before I needed to go to school. Steven also had time to kill, essentially because he didn’t plan on going to school on time. So we walked up to the Mr Bun Bakery in Newtown and he bought me a pie for my birthday. We stood outside at 8:45am and ate our pies in silence, then he went back inside for two more. For Steven, eating two pies meant giving his body some much-needed fuel for a busy day of school and training ahead. For me, eating two pies meant I’d just eaten two pies for breakfast.

A scroll back to 2011 on Messenger shows our friendship consisting almost entirely of are you going out? Come out! Did you end up going out? Followed by the classic first year uni religion debate. Never scroll back to 2011 on Messenger.

Over the next five years we kept in touch sporadically but we were both busy. He was on scholarship in America and becoming the first New Zealander to be picked in the first round of an NBA draft. And I was on scholarship at the University of Auckland, wondering if anyone would pay to read my long Facebook statuses.

In 2016 the messages really picked up again because 2016 was when I got my first and only job as a journalist at The Spinoff. And as any rookie journalist does, I looked to everyone I knew for content. After a few false starts, Steven agreed to an interview at his annual basketball camp in Auckland. My plan was to write the quintessential profile of Kiwi hero Steven Adams. Instead he cancelled without explanation.

Three months later I received a message: “How good are you at reporting?”

And so began an agonisingly slow back and forth about potentially working together on a book that finally ended with Debra Millar, then director of publishing at Penguin Random House, asking to meet. When we sat down in the first days of 2017, she told me that they’d been trying to get a Steven Adams autobiography going since 2014. “He said he had a writer in mind back then and only just told us your name last month.” I nodded sagely, knowing full well that in 2014 I wasn’t writing anything worth reading, I was cleaning rich people’s homes and getting C’s on my uni essays. Nothing on paper suggested that I should or could complete the task she was outlining. But Steven said he wanted me to write it, so by the end of the month I’d signed a contract to co-write Steven Adams’ autobiography.

Literally standing in Steven’s shoes at the 2010 Chinese Easter tournament. A sign, surely…

He made me scull a pint of Guinness at 12pm on a Monday.

I’d never drunk a Guinness nor did I have any desire to on an empty stomach, but Steven said we were downing a pint and what Steven says, goes.

It was June 2017. Steven was home for the off-season after the Oklahoma City Thunder finished a disappointing, yet somehow impressive, season with a loss to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. It was the Thunder’s first season without Kevin Durant, and Steven was suddenly the second most valuable player on the Thunder roster behind Russell Westbrook, though if you told him that he’d say something along the lines of just doing my job, mate.

As I learned over the next year, Steven has always liked routine. Growing up, his least productive years were those spent without someone guiding him or giving him something to do. In Wellington as a teen, he had his weeks planned out in half hour increments, with time split between school, training, gym, and games. Routine works for Steven, and in the 2017 offseason, his routine included sculling a pint of Guinness before lunch.

I had flown to Wellington to spend a week shadowing Steven and learning about his early years growing up in Rotorua. The day I arrived we had dinner at his favourite Wellington joint, R & S Satay Noodle House, with a few of his school friends. I barely ate all day, having learned over the years that eating with Steven would require preparation. He ordered for the whole table, joking with the owner like old friends, and returned with giant bowls of chicken noodle soup. I assessed the size and figured I could manage the whole thing. I wasn’t about to bring shame upon my family name by not finishing a meal. We sat and talked about the book and what he wanted from it. “I don’t want any of that Disney inspirational shit,” he said. “I just think maybe my story could be useful for some other kids out there.” I nodded. No inspirational shit. Got it.

We finished our noodle soup and I felt my stomach expand beyond what’s healthy. “Alright,” he said, scraping his chair back, “let’s go get dinner.”

I trudged after him up Cuba St to Cin Cin. He wore a camo jacket, camo hat, sweatpants, socks, and slides. It was pouring with rain. Everyone stared and a few men stopped Steven to say hello before he politely but deliberately moved them along. Once in Cin Cin, he ordered a bottle of red wine and scanned the menu. “What are you getting?” he asked. I hesitated, wondering if it would be rude to order nothing and just watch him eat. “What are you getting?” he asked again. I ordered a barrel of pasta.

As we ate, I imagined my stomach as a bottomless pit, able to hold vast quantities of food despite never having done it before that night. Steven inhaled his second dinner and jokingly assessed his glass of wine. He talked about how Spurs coach Gregg Popovich loves his wine and how one day they were going to bond over a full-bodied red. I listened and wondered why my pile of pasta didn’t seem to be getting any smaller.

An hour later, the bottle of red was empty and my soul was full of the pasta that had nowhere else to go after my stomach said no more. Steven went up to pay and I didn’t dare suggest we go dutch because it was the night before payday and who knows what that bottle of wine cost. On our way out, a family of diners asked Steven for a photo. While he obliged, I stood in the rain, taking deep breaths and wondering if my stomach muscles would ever be the same.

“Let’s go to Floridita’s.”

I turned to meet my maker.

“They do good desserts.”

Floridita’s was packed out and Steven decided against waiting for a table. I offered up a prayer of thanks to whoever was listening as we walked to the car. On the way home I asked him about his voice, how much of his humour he wanted included. “After all,” I concluded, “it’s your name on the cover.”

“What about your name?”

“It’ll be inside somewhere.”

“That’s bullshit.”

I argued that it wasn’t and he relented. That was Sunday night. On Monday morning we went to the gym.

2011 Under 19 National Champions (Image: supplied)

Steven went to the gym every day at 10am because 10am on a weekday is a gym’s quietest period. His trainer, Gavin Cross, looked up from a massage he was giving a client to greet us affectionately. They chatted for a while, seemingly in their own language, before heading out to the gym floor for a workout. I took a notebook with me intending to take notes and quickly remembered how boring it is to watch someone train. But I hadn’t worn workout gear, much to Steven’s disapproval, and so spent 45 minutes watching other gym goers watch Steven. One fairly prominent wellness influencer took a sneaky Snapchat video of Steven, thinking nobody would notice. But I noticed, and I remembered.

At the end of his session, Steven asked Gav if he was ready for his Guinness. Guinness? I asked. “Oh yeah, it’s a great source of iron,” Gav explained. “You having one?” Iron shmiron, sitting down for a Guinness would be perfect for asking about Steven’s childhood, I figured. “Maybe,” I said, wanting to be on my A game for the drunken interview. When we parked up outside Four Kings at 12pm, I opened the car door. “You having a Guinness?” Steven asked again. I said it was probably too early for me. “Well you can’t come in unless you’re having a Guinness.” I went in.

Turns out “having a Guinness” meant literally standing at the bar, ordering a pint, sculling the pint, and leaving. Gav, Steven and I clinked glasses and before I could blink, they’d plonked their empty pints on the bar. Thankfully I hadn’t eaten or drunken anything all day and was simply thirsty so was only a couple seconds behind them. Gav nodded approvingly and we walked back out to the car. I hadn’t asked a single question.

The next stop was Prefab for lunch. It was fine. Steven couldn’t believe the cost of parking on the street. After lunch, we went straight to ASB Arena for training number two. The Wellington Saints were on their way to yet another National Championship and Steven scrimmaged with them for an hour. I asked him if it was almost equivalent to scrimmaging with the Thunder and he shook his head. “Not even close.”

While the Saints worked through their set pieces, Steven moved to a different court and began his shooting workout with Kenny McFadden, longtime coach and mentor. Kenny had brought along a young kid who looked about 15, and trained the two together. An NBA star centre and a skinny 15 year old worked to outscore each other on every shooting drill, as if it were any other training. I sat on the sideline watching Steven drop deep three after deep three and wondered when I’d see him chuck one up in a game.

A three in four acts

Finally, after two trainings, lunch, and a pint, I sat down with Steven and Gav to talk about their relationship. We discussed their early training schedules and how to prevent injuries in elite athletes. Throughout the two hours, kids came up at regular intervals to ask for an autograph and Steven either complimented their manners or reminded them to use some. Only one person was turned away: a woman our age who didn’t say please.

This routine continued for the rest of the week. I learned to take workout gear and got in some free sessions of my own. I opted out of the Guinness after two days when I remembered I probably had enough iron in my diet and definitely already had too much alcohol. For Steven, a pint of Guinness was a rare treat he allowed himself in a regimen shaped by intense physical activity and an increasingly healthy diet.

When he didn’t have time to talk after training, he would call. After missing a few calls in a row from me, he finally called back that night. “I’m just on the bike,” he said, “but I can talk.” So we talked about his dad and his upbringing while he did a leg workout. We moved on to his transition from Rotorua to Wellington while he walked home, the wind making it hard to make out some of his answers. And we covered his first year at Scots College while he fixed himself a snack and got ready to go out to dinner. Our call ended almost three hours after it began, when he arrived at a restaurant, presumably for his first dinner of the night. With Steven, if he wasn’t in the gym or playing basketball, he was doing three things at once.

When speaking about his childhood, Steven would often answer with “ask Viv” or “ask Mohi”, referring to his older sister and brother. So when he flew back to Oklahoma for the new season, I drove to Rotorua to meet some of his siblings. Over the next six months I met a lot of people close to Steven, from his old rep team mates and school teachers, to his current Thunder team mates. Incredibly, all of them, from Ms Milne the English teacher to Russell Westbrook the NBA MVP, described the same Steven Adams. Fifteen year old Steven Adams with no money and no fame was the same as 24 year old Steven Adams with a $100 million contract. With consistency like that, it wasn’t hard to nail down a narrative for his story.

When people hear that I worked on this book, they often assume that Steven chose me to write it because he liked the work I’d done. I know for a fact that Steven did not spend his free time in Oklahoma reading, and he certainly wasn’t reading my articles. But he knew me, and when I answered his question “how good are you at reporting?” with “I think I’m pretty good”, he believed me.

In November 2017 I travelled to Oklahoma City to watch the Thunder play, talk to coaches and team mates, and have one last sit-down interview with Steven. I asked him why he had chosen to give back by putting on basketball camps for kids around the country every offseason instead of just giving money to a charity. “Because I don’t want to just throw money at people. When I see someone working towards their dream, I want to help them,” he said. “That’s what people did for me. They saw that I was working towards something and they helped me get there.”

In 2011, after an early morning basketball training, Steven and I ate two pies each for breakfast outside a bakery in Newtown and showed up late to prestigious schools where we were paying heavily discounted fees. In 2017, aged 24 and 23, one of us was New Zealand’s highest paid athlete in history, and the other wrote a book about it. Both of us were given opportunities at young ages and both of us made the most of them. Both of us were invested in, whether by parents, siblings, schools, universities, coaches, or editors. And though we followed different paths after that bakery visit, this book saw those paths cross again for a reason. My Life, My Fight is what happens when young Pasifika are allowed to become their best.

Steven Adams: My Life, My Fight (Penguin Random House, $40) will be at Unity Books from Monday, July 30.

Keep going!