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.”
Not too bad for a kid who, just six years earlier, was struggling to cope with the loss of his father and, because of spotty attendance at school, was sent from his hometown Rotorua down the island to Wellington Academy.
“When I lost my dad, that was a big hit for me,” Adams told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette last season. “I didn't have that parental guidance, and I kind of took advantage of it because I was a stupid idiot. I decided not to go to school a couple of times, go when I felt like it.”
At Wellington, Adams was introduced to the game of basketball, a move that turned his life around. And in return, he's hoping his newfound fame can do the same for others.
Because of poor performances in recent international competition, funding has been drastically cut for basketball programs in New Zealand.
But Adams hopes the interest, and eventually finances, will return, in part because of his popularity.
“People will go down there, hopefully, and know that there are good basketball players down there and get recruited to America or whatever it is,” Adams said at his introductory news conference in OKC last Saturday. “That's really what the main focus is because there's a lot of talent down there. It's just that there's not many programs and funding for them to nurture those talents. … Hopefully you'll see more Kiwis in the draft.”
For now, they'll just have to settle for the latest one, an athletic big man with plenty of pressure on his broad shoulders, carrying the future hopes of his new organization (which hopes he can turn into a franchise center) and his home country.
“We haven't seen a lot of him in a game situation yet,” Larmer said of Adams. “But promise-wise and talent-wise, he should go down, hopefully, as the greatest player we've ever produced.”