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Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams: How tragedy helped turn the New Zealander who wanted to be a farmer into a basketball star

On the eve of the opener of the Western Conference Finals, Steven Adams finds himself in the crosshairs. It’s just another crazy turn of events in Adams’ career, a journey that might not have even started if not for the biggest heartbreak in his life.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: May 18, 2014 at 12:05 am •  Published: May 17, 2014

Steven Adams had a dream when he was kid.

“I really wanted to be a farmer,” he said.

As much as the Thunder rookie jokes around, you might think this was some sort of gag. But Adams wasn’t goofing. He was being totally serious.

“I was looking forward to it,” he said Saturday afternoon as he stood inside the Thunder’s practice facility, 7,488 miles away from the New Zealand farm where he fell in love with agriculture.

“Then, it just changed.”

Did it ever.

On the eve of the opener of the Western Conference Finals, Adams finds himself in the crosshairs. Serge Ibaka is sidelined by a calf injury, and Tim Duncan is formidable as ever. Even though Thunder coach Scott Brooks refused to say Saturday who would start in Ibaka’s absence, it’s obvious that Adams is going to play a bunch of minutes in this series.

It’s just another crazy turn of events in Adams’ career, a journey that might not have even started if not for the biggest heartbreak in his life.

There are many facets of Adams’ story that are known. Born and raised in New Zealand. Youngest of 18 children who are all big and broad. But what isn’t as oft told is how hard times ultimately introduced him to basketball.

His father, Sid Adams, was an Englishman who moved to New Zealand after serving there in the Royal Navy. The elder Adams preferred his adopted home to his birth country, a place where he’d faced ridicule throughout his life.

The reason?

He was extremely tall.

What might be seen as normal today was freakish then. But in New Zealand, Sid Adams’ height didn’t matter.

He eventually settled in Rotorua, a town of about 50,000 on New Zealand’s North Island. It is hilly and known for lots of geothermal activity. There are geysers and hot springs all around, and the smell of sulfur is heavy.

Or maybe stench is the better way to say it.

“It smells so bad,” Steven said. “Straight up.”

Steven, who was never close with his mother, lived with his father and three siblings in the quiet, rural town. He spent time outside. He loved to rough house. And, of course, he played rugby. Every boy in New Zealand did. But as much as he longed to play for New Zealand’s famed All Blacks rugby team, he planned on being a farmer. One of his brothers owned a farm outside Rotorua, and there, Steven found his passion.

“I really loved the whole concept of working all day,” he said.

Every time he went to the farm, he learned something new. Tending the animals. Working the fields. Fixing the tractors. Managing the finances. Steven loved the different challenges and thought his future would be on a farm.

But when Steven was 13 years old, his father died of cancer. Suddenly, Steven had no anchor. His father, the former military man, had been strict. Step out of line, and you met the back of his hand. Without that, Steven was adrift.

He started skipping school, then lied to his siblings when they asked about it. He roamed the streets of Rotorua.

“I went off the rails,” he said. “I didn’t really want to do life.”

His siblings quickly realized that something was wrong. Steven needed to heal and recover, and Rotorua didn’t seem like the best place for that to happen. Eventually, they decided he needed a new start; older brother Warren moved Steven to Wellington, 300 miles south.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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