Sports

In the locker room with Steven Adams, the NBA’s most normal star

Steven Adams was considered a risky choice when the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him with the 12th pick of the 2013 NBA draft. Now he’s a pivotal player in their ongoing Western Conference finals series against the Golden State Warriors. Ben Stanley drove seven hours for five minutes with New Zealand’s rising basketball superstar.

“Raindrop!” Steven Adams yells out, sinking another free throw.

The ball is thrown back to him. The seven-foot Kiwi steadies himself, bounces it a couple of times, brings up his hands, and focuses. The long black hair and droopy moustache are still. He shoots again.

“Closing time!”

He does it all again: “pretty swish!” And then again, but now it bounces off the rim.

“Oh, fuu … uudge monkey.”

Standing beside him at the free-throw line, Enes Kanter – the other half of the ‘Stache Brothers’ pairing – laughs. Nazr Mohammed, a serious 38-year-old NBA veteran, doesn’t.

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Big Men are in the midst of a free throw competition at their training facility in the city’s North Highland suburb. Adams is beating Kanter, easily.

“Money!”

A couple dozen reporters watch on blankly, and check their smartphones. Strangely, one of them is holding up an iPad to record the action. At the other end of the practice court, Russell Westbrook is running drills with a coach.

It’s the morning of Game 4 of the Thunder’s Western Conference semi-final series against the Spurs. They’d win 111-97, and Adams would deliver, up until that point, the best post-season performance of his career (16 points, and 11 rebounds).

Adams would out-do that in the first game of the following series against the Golden State Warriors (16 points and 12 rebounds – that’s six double-doubles this post-season, if you’re counting), sending Kiwi sports media into overdrive about his every touch of the ball, US media mentions and quirky interview moments.

Adams sets to shoot again, and Kanter leans toward him and blows in his ear. He misses.

“That’s bullshit, bro!”

He gives the smirking Turk a shove. Even Mohammed cracks a smile this time.

Who can’t love Adams? Who can’t love a 22-year-old on top of the NBA world who acts like he’s just having a shoot around with his mates back in Roto-Vegas?

I travelled to Oklahoma City a fortnight ago to write a feature on Adams for the New Zealand Herald. It was an odd weekend, with odd outcomes.

I stood next to Shaquille O’Neal in the food line at the Chesapeake Energy Arena’s media centre, and asked him if the wedges were any good.

I had a Thunder cheerleader – a beautiful brunette named Jenny – flash me a big smile in the concrete tunnels below the arena, and ask me if I was Ben (disclaimer: she was my AirBnB host’s girlfriend and I had met her that afternoon).

I did a video interview with Adams that compelled one ‘Veitchy on Sport’ Facebook commentator to suggest “this reporter should be shot.”

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Getting to OKC is a big job. It took me seven hours driving, from Memphis. Travelling seven hours on the I-40 West across country as flat and boring as the Canterbury Plains with only radio preachers to keep you company does unusual things to a man.

In terms of metropolitan population, Oklahoma City is almost exactly the same size of Auckland. No word on house prices, but to a visitor, I’ve got to say, it’s boring as hell.

Flat as the country around it, Oklahoma City revolves around two things: oil industry cash, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder – the city’s only pro sports team – are the only show in town, and, more than that, its throbbing heart. While Oklahoma itself is a football state, OKC residents identify with the Thunder almost completely. The Thunder’s style is their style. The Thunder’s victories – and defeats – are theirs.

Memphis – a Southern city beset by deeply Southern problems – has the same connection to the Grizz. The ‘Grit and Grind’ style of Mike Conley, Z-Bo and Marc Gasol embodies what it is to be Memphian, in the same way that KD, Westbrook and Adams are part of what it means to be an Oklahoman.

The Thunder aren’t gritty like the Grizz; outside Westbrook – a real gunslinger – they are far cleaner and more polished. But that’s Oklahoma City too. What’s more, they bloody love Adams, arguably more than Kiwis do. For us, Adams is a source of pride and wonderment more than anything. To them, he feeds their collective beast – the fortunes of this team that makes them tick.

Everyone in OKC seems to have an Adams story. My AirBnB host Karl met him in Croatia last year. Karl was partying his way through the Balkans, and bumped into the big Kiwi in Hvar.

Karl admitted that Adams looked uncomfortable at meeting Thunder fans so far from the hype – but yarned with them for a half hour or so.

Later, he said, Adams hit the dance floor and danced for “one hour straight, cutting epic shapes.”

Adams is getting serious attention out of OKC, too. Along with complimentary critiques by the top American NBA writers, GQ did a piece about his moustache last year, while the Wall Street Journal recently did a huge feature on how much he and Kanter love Turkish food, and how they’ve created ‘halal rankings’ for American cities.

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high-fives Enes Kanter #11 after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Steven Adams and Enes Kanter: ‘Stache Brothers. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Everyday basketball fans are talking about him, as well. I went to a party in Memphis the Friday before boosting it to OKC, and asked a couple of the lads there what they thought about him.

The responses were unanimous. All of them thought Adams was “a beast” and wanted him at the Grizz. All thought he could become one of the best centres in the NBA, if he wasn’t already.

None of them knew he was a New Zealander.

This is what I find interesting about Adams: the strange juxtaposition of his Chur-Bro Kiwiness and the fact that he plays – and is, arguably, now a star – in the NBA.

His style – on court and off it – is a complete about-face from everything else you see in the NBA; a league that values spotlight and swagger ahead of nuance and chill.

It’s a place where you will regularly see the top players sit down for big broadcast interviews and – with a straight face and without a hint of irony – talk about “the pursuit of greatness” and “what it means to be great”.

Regardless of how entertaining or athletic they are, that’s not only laughable – it’s arrogant.

Then you’ve got this rugged-as dude from NZ who goes in the complete opposite direction. A bloke who told ESPN his hometown of Rotorua “smells like someone farted in your face all the time, but you get used to it”. A dude that, when asked at a media all-in yesterday about a bandage on his hand, said: “it’s just for looks, mate. Trying to give me some street cred.”

It’s classic, but, for me, it’s hard to reconcile the two personas: ‘Adams the Kiwi’ and ‘Adams the NBA star’.

I’ll admit, I still see the Kiwi in him more than the NBA player. He’s a super chill dude – a true rarity in sport. He knows when to take things seriously, and when to recognise them for the circus they are. His response to the recent ‘little monkeys’ situation is a good example of this.

Adams’ style is no act. It’s genuine. Yeah, he drops in the unusual soundbites to the media but he never takes it into piss-take territory. And once the microphones and cameras are away, the dude just works his butt off. His development, since he joined the Thunder, is undeniable evidence of that.

When asked, in his post-game all-in in the dressing room, about Durant’s incredible fourth-quarter performance in Game 4 against the Spurs, Adams just shrugged. “Didn’t even notice, bro. Honestly” was his response.

At the time, I thought ‘bro, that’s bullshit. Of course you felt something.’ But now, I get it. The response showed me why he’s likely to go a long way in the NBA.

It’s not like he wasn’t impressed or anything – he was just doing his own thing. Letting everything else melt away. Sure, he’s doing what he’s doing in the NBA, but that’s just a coalface, like any other.

Then the whistle blows. You grab a shower. You give the media a couple of lines, and you go home. You don’t buy or read anything else into it. That’s his approach. End of story.

He’s a real dude, Steven Adams. In an age of over media-managed, over-exposed athletes, he’s something we’ve never seen before. He gives us the lightning – just the right amount – but carries the thunder, too. Quite something.

My favourite moment of the weekend came back at the training facility. Adams – known for his below-average free throw ability – had finished his game with his fellow Big Men, and was practicing shots with a coach.

The only Thunder player left on the practice courts, the big Kiwi made an impatient media scrum wait a good 15 minutes before strolling up for the all-in.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder attempts a shot against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. The Thunder defeated the Warriors 108-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Steven Adams and Draymond Green: mortal basketball enemies. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Afterwards, I was introduced to him by the team’s media manager to set up the post-game interview (time with any player during the playoffs come with massive limits – I’d only get five minutes with him, in total). I told him that, since we last met, in 2014, he’d got more tats and now had hair like Uncle Bully.

“Bro, don’t even say that,” Adams said, of the Once Were Warriors villain. “They don’t know who Uncle Bully is here, aye. No one does.”

“I still think you look like Tom Selleck,” the media man said.

“I think you look like Uncle Bully,” I said, again.

Adams craned his head, and pointed at the media dude. “Americans are more honest too, bro.”

“Maybe, but Kiwis are more straight-up, aye.”

That got a hearty laugh, and, I thought to myself, “how classic”. KD, Westbrook and the crew don’t know that he looks like Uncle Bully. Hardcase.

Then Adams walked off giving me the tumeke sign with his fingers.

“Chur, bro. Laters!”

Tumeke, bro.

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