Money is tight in New Zealand youth basketball. And Steven Adams didn't have a lot of it growing up.
So the towering 7-foot “Kiwi Phenom,” as he's referred to now, was unable to play the game until he was 14 and was out of the spotlight until he was 17, making the meteoric two-year rise that followed all the more impressive.
As of 2011, he was still a relative unknown in New Zealand. But by last Friday afternoon (local time), Adams was the hottest name in his home country, becoming the first New Zealander ever selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, going 12th overall to the Thunder.
“Eyes were glued to the television,” New Zealand sports radio personality Glen Larmer said of the draft coverage. “Both major television networks led with the news that night. Not just the sports news, the lead of the entire bulletin. So that just gives you an example of the massive interest and following of this last week.”
Adams burst onto the scene as a surprisingly athletic 17-year-old center, allowed to play in the New Zealand National Basketball League and immediately able to compete with the country's best players.
He dunked on veteran Dillon Boucher, impressing one of the league's most recognizable stars, and won over University of Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, who rewarded the New Zealander with a rare American scholarship, helping build an already growing legion of fans eager to follow his career.
Sean Marks was the only native New Zealander drafted into the NBA, a longtime role player who went 44th overall to the Knicks in 1998, before a draft night trade to Toronto sent him bouncing around the league to six teams over the next 13 years.
Marks was well-followed in New Zealand and his teams, Larmer said, were well-liked.
But the nearly 4.5 million people who populate the country, which has ESPN and an active basketball fanbase (Larmer rates it just below rugby, soccer and cricket as the nation's most followed sport) seem ready to latch onto their latest and most promising basketball star.
“I remember there was a lot of pride back (when Marks played),” Larmer said. “But nothing, nothing compared to this. … Now with Steven Adams with an NBA team, once he breaks into the starting five or gets on the bench, there will be constant coverage of the Oklahoma City Thunder games. Lots of people watching in New Zealand.”