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.
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.
After a couple weeks living with Warren, Steven moved in with Blossom Cameron. Warren had played basketball in the same club as her, and they got along well. He thought Steven might take to her, too.
He was right.
“She’s just amazing,” Steven said of Cameron, who eventually became his legal guardian. “She’s the best human being on earth.”
Moving in with Cameron was the first major living-changing event in the months after Steven moved to Wellington. The second was being introduced to basketball. Warren had played professionally in New Zealand, and he introduced Steven to Kenny McFadden, who opened a basketball academy in Wellington after playing professionally there.
Steven soon became one of the best-known young players in New Zealand, but outside the country, he was a virtual unknown. Most of the best young players join the country’s national program, but it is a pay-for-play setup and the cost is significant. It can be $10,000 a year or more.
Neither Steven nor anyone else in his family had that kind of money. So, Steven’s play was limited to the Wellington area. Ditto for his exposure.
But that changed when he was 15 years old.
McFadden happened to be longtime friends with Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. They’d played together in the New Zealand National Basketball League, and when Dixon returned to the country for the U-19 FIBA World Championships as the coach of Team USA, he had lunch with McFadden. Dixon asked about a big-man prospect in the country who’d caught his eye, and McFadden told him that as good as that player was, the best prospect was down in Wellington.
Dixon made a side trip to Wellington to see Steven, and as soon as he saw the 15-year-old, Dixon knew he had to recruit him.
Steven was already 6-foot-10.
Adams would eventually sign with Pitt, and now less than two years after playing his first game for the Panthers and less than a year after being drafted, he has become a force in these NBA Playoffs. He went from spot duty in the first four games of the Memphis series to significant minutes in the last three, not to mention taking the punch that sideline Zach Randolph in Game 7. He played better and better as the Clippers series went on, culminating with a double-double and 40 big minutes in the Thunder’s series-clinching victory.
Now, Adams might start Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Adams said he doesn’t really marvel at where life has taken him. From the farm to the finals. From the land to the hardwood. From basketball obscurity to the NBA spotlight. He admits that it’s just not the way he thinks about things.
“I understood that it was a process,” he said. “I just played it by ear, played it day to day. Cliché, but it really was.”
“Maybe I’ll look back on it when all of this is over.”
If he does, he’s sure to see something amazing, a career taking root during hard times in New Zealand and blooming only a few years later in Oklahoma City.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.