The breakout star of the NBA Playoffs is a seven-foot Kiwi who hails from a town that smells like farts and has a sister who’s twice won Olympic gold in the shot put.
His imposing stature and flowing mane make him resemble a Dothraki warlord. His handlebar mustache makes him look like an oversized extra from Boogie Nights. His team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is thisclose to achieving what once seemed impossible: Eliminating the defending champion Golden State Warriors from the Western Conference Finals.
His name is Steven Adams. He’s from New Zealand, but he has all the irresistible makings of an American folk hero. Better yet for Oklahoma City fans, he’s walking proof that what was once considered the biggest mistake in franchise history might turn out pretty great after all.
Now, before we go on, we must first stop to look at an adorable little fan dressed up like Adams last game. She’s got the ‘stache. She’s got the hair. She’s got the tattoos (which are fake, unlike Adams’ ink). She’s got the swagger.
It takes a special player — moreover, a special character — to inspire such reverie. Adams is both in equal measure.
Golden State broke the NBA record by ringing up 73 regular-season wins this year, but Oklahoma City now holds a 3-1 stranglehold on their best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series. Much of this is thanks to 22-year-old Adams, who’s put together a better 2016 playoffs resume than any other center in the NBA.
Against Golden State, he’s averaging 11 points and 8.5 rebounds per game — five points and two rebounds better than his career averages. More importantly, perhaps, his combination of size (he’s seven-feet, 255 pounds) and nimbleness has allowed the Thunder to smother a Warriors squad that typically rides quickness and movement to victory.
Make no mistake: While Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still the Thunder superstars, Adams has emerged a stellar supporting actor. Along the way, he’s rewriting a painful chapter in Thunder history — but more on that in a minute.
On-court feats only explain half of Adams’ appeal — that little girl’s parents didn’t slap a fake mustache and temporary tattoos on her just because Adams sets solid screens and cleans up the glass. At the beginning of this month, ESPN.com ran a great profile of Adams. It included these three endearing nuggets.
Adams throws one down against Dallas in the playoff’s first round.
Image: Alonzo Adams/AP
1. Straight outta Fart-town
Adams is from Rotura, New Zealand, which is located near many sulphur-producing hot springs and geysers.
“It smells like someone farted in your face all the time,” he told ESPN. “But you get used to it.”
2. ‘I was a bushman’
When Adams was 14, a family friend helped kickstart his basketball career by enrolling him in a private boarding school. Let’s just say it was an adjustment. From ESPN:
Steven showed up in Wellington, a six-hour drive south, in rough shape; unkempt hair halfway down his back and wispy fuzz across his face. His clothes were ragged, his reading and writing skills were poor and his attitude was worse.
“I’d never worn a tie before. I was a bushman,” he says. “My friends now were like, ‘Who’s this murderer?’ It was really uncomfortable at first.”
Dress code was a tie and gaudy red jacket with a crest, in the English tradition. On Adams’ first day, he reported to class without a pen or paper, which had to be borrowed.
3. He’s giving back, too
Adams is in just his third NBA season, but as the rare Kiwi to break through in American pro basketball, he hasn’t forgotten his New Zealand roots. According to ESPN, camps sponsored by Adams back home served more than 1,000 kids last year, and he’s started providing scholarships for young hoopers to attend the same boarding school where he once had to borrow that pen.
But here’s the real rub with Adams’ emergence
James Harden as a Thunder rookie in 2009.
Image: APDavid Zalubowski/AP
Not five years ago, Oklahoma City boasted the NBA’s most exciting young core. Durant, Westbrook and James Harden appeared poised to run the West for years to come. Then, just before the 2012-13 season, Oklahoma City traded Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, to the Houston Rockets.
Harden has blossomed into an MVP candidate in Houston. Oklahoma City trading him when it did initially struck some as one of the biggest blunders in NBA history. Even if that’s a bit hyperbolic, there’s no denying the trade has loomed like a storm cloud over everything the Thunder have done since.
“It’s the blockbuster deal that will never die.”
“We just can’t take our eyes off of James Harden, and every season since he was traded by the Thunder to Houston he’s supplied a new reason to keep us watching,” Thunder beat reporter Darnell Mayberry wrote last year. “With each passing element we’re reminded of the fateful trade that altered the course of two franchises, maybe forever. It’s the blockbuster deal that will never die. It will stand as one of the rare trades in sports that always will be with us, for better or worse.”
The Harden trade was an easy target for criticism partly because of the underwhelming haul Oklahoma City got in return: Two marginal players, two first-round draft picks and one second-round pick.
But six months after trading Harden, the Thunder used one of those picks to select Adams 12th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. This meant little during Adams’ rookie year, when he played less than 15 minutes per game. The following year, Adams upped his minutes to 25 per game, notching about seven points and seven rebounds per outing. But still, he wasn’t performing at a level that had fans and media looking up old articles about the Harden trade.
Adams deep in thought while twirling his mustache on the bench.
Image: Tony Gutierrez/AP
That all changed this season — and especially this post-season, with Adams ascending to his current status as the league’s breakout player. Even better for Thunder fans is that Adams has evolved into a better complementary piece than Harden likely every would have been.
Three burgeoning superstars finding their way together was always an exciting proposition with the Durant, Westbrook and Harden triumvirate. But all three are ball-dominant scorers; spreading the wealth would have been increasingly difficult with each successive season.
Adams, however, is just the type of supporting piece Oklahoma City needs — egoless, hungry, and focused on defense and rebounding. He’s the youngest of 18 siblings (with brothers an average of 6-foot-9 and sisters an average of 6-feet-even), says “mate” every third word and didn’t grow up dreaming of NBA stardom.
Now the Thunder are one game away from booking a trip to the NBA Finals. Adams took a few years to develop into the monster who’s captivating basketball fans today, but it’s looking more and more like the Thunder traded Harden for just the player they needed.