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My Life, My Fight
Rising Up from New Zealand to the OKC Thunder
By Steven Adams
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- ebook $13.99 $17.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Steven Adams overcame extreme odds to become a first-round prospect in the 2013 NBA draft. From there he signed a major contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder — making him New Zealand’s highest-paid athlete ever — and went on to forge a reputation for his intense, physical style of basketball.
Adams takes you inside the draft process from the fascinating whirlwind tour of pre-draft workouts with dozens of teams to the draft itself where dreams are made or dashed and the Gatorade bottles on every table are glued shut. He reveals what it’s like to be a rookie in the league, getting pushed around and elbowed — or worse. He takes the court alongside superstars like Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant; and matches up against legendary big men like Tim Duncan, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Draymond Green. Adams recounts the Thunder’s rise through the victories and the heartbreaks and how the resilient team has a bright future ahead.
In this intimate account of his life story so far, the seven-foot center also reflects on his humble upbringing as one of fourteen children, the impact of his father’s death when he was just thirteen, the multiple challenges and setbacks he has faced, and what basketball means to him.
Told with warmth, humor, and humility, My Life, My Fight is a gripping account from an emerging superstar.
Whatever you do, don’t trip up the stairs.
I didn’t care which organization drafted me. I didn’t care who my future teammates would be. All I cared about was not falling over in front of the world. I repeated this to myself as the NBA commissioner, David Stern, walked on stage to loud boos from a Brooklyn crowd.
My brothers Mohi and Sid had flown over from New Zealand to be with me for the 2013 draft, and I looked across to see if they knew what was going on. They shrugged their shoulders and seemed as confused as I was. What did we know? We were just three farming brothers from Rotorua, and yet here we were on one of the biggest nights of the American sporting calendar, waiting to see which NBA team I’d be playing for next season and acting like we wore fancy suits all the time.
David Stern kept talking and the crowd kept booing. When he congratulated the Miami Heat on winning another championship, the booing got louder. What I didn’t realize was this was Stern’s last draft and the crowd was using the occasion to make its feelings known about the polarizing commissioner. I scanned the crowd at the Barclays Center, which was packed with diehard NBA fans who probably cared about basketball more than I did. I’d never been an NBA fan, I didn’t even have a favorite player, and I had certainly never watched the draft before.
Above the boos, Stern could be heard announcing the first draft pick. “The first pick of the 2013 NBA draft will be made by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have five minutes to make their selection.”
Then silence. When you watch the draft at home you get to hear the ESPN analysts predicting who they think will be picked, and although they’re almost always wrong at least it’s something. In the arena it was completely silent while we waited for the Cavaliers to make their decision.
My brothers and I spent those five minutes staring at one of the other draft hopefuls, who was sitting with his entourage just a few tables away from us. This guy was a big star in the lead-up to the draft and was one of the favorites to be picked first. I didn’t really know him. All I knew was that we were complete opposites. He seemed to have been a superstar all his life. He was a standout in high school and then played for one of the top college teams. Even though I had no real interest in college basketball outside of my own team, I knew his college was a sporting powerhouse.
Meanwhile I was a player who, as the analysts would later say, was an unknown until I declared for the draft and went to the NBA Draft Combine testing in Chicago, where draftees are put through a series of physical tests, interviews, and scrimmages. This guy only appeared at the combine for the physical measurements, and he was still a solid bet at the number-one pick. He wasn’t at any of the 12 workouts I did for 11 different teams either. He was already famous, while I was desperately working to impress anyone who had the power to hire me. But on that night, I knew exactly what was stitched on the inside of his suit jacket.
Basketball players are tall. Even the shortest are above average height. So when a bunch of basketball players are preparing for one of the biggest nights of their lives, they need a custom-tailored suit. I was sent to an agency that tailored for tall guys like me and asked what I wanted in a suit. To be honest, I just wanted it to fit. They asked what colors represented New Zealand. Damn, how should I know? They suggested green lining to represent the farmland. Sure, why not? For the tie they suggested white stripes to represent milk and dairy farming. It all seemed a bit bougie to me, but I knew nothing about fashion so I just nodded and said that sounded great. The one request I did have was for the New Zealand flag to be stitched into the lining. It wasn’t an unusual request. Some players get their college logo, but I wanted to represent New Zealand through and through.
I was told to collect my suit from the agency the day before the draft. When I walked into the room, the first thing I noticed was a Cleveland Cavaliers singlet laid out with the logo cut out. One of the women told me a player had asked for the Cavaliers’ logo to be sewn into the lining of his jacket. I thought that was bloody brave. No player knows for sure where they’re going to end up and no organization knows for sure which player they’ll pick until they do it on the night. I had an inkling that I was going to go to Oklahoma City because of the way my visits there had gone, but I would never have dared tell anyone, let alone stitch the Oklahoma City Thunder logo into the lining of my suit.
I needed to know who the man was with the biggest balls in the draft. So while I was looking through the rack for my suit, I had a peek at all the other players’ outfits. All of them were pretty standard until I saw one that had a college team’s singlet number on one side of the lining and on the other was the logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I couldn’t believe this guy was that confident, and somehow I knew right then that the Cavaliers wouldn’t pick him first. The universe wouldn’t let anything work out that smoothly. I regretted not putting the logo of the Manawatu Jets basketball team on the other side of my jacket just for shits and giggles. It seemed as appropriate as a Cavaliers logo. When I told my brothers, we all agreed it was a bots move, then went back to worrying about my own future.
David Stern came back on stage to announce the first pick.
“With the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select Anthony Bennett.”
The whole room gasped. The ESPN guys yelled in surprise. This guy’s table stared at the floor like someone had just died. I’ve never seen a group of people look so disappointed at such a joyous occasion. If the camera had cut to our table, it would have shown all of us with our mouths wide open, trying not to laugh. It was an amazing moment.
People seemed to feel sorry for him, but not me. We were all about to be recruited by an NBA team and live our dream. Not one of us deserved anyone’s sympathy. We were the luckiest guys in the world that night.
When this guy was finally selected, I watched as he flashed one side of his jacket and then held the other side shut while he shook David Stern’s hand on stage. There was an audible sigh of relief throughout the room when his name was read out, as if being selected in an NBA draft was some kind of torture.
The Phoenix Suns were on the clock for the fifth pick of the draft. I’d been to Phoenix for a workout and really liked it there. It was bloody hot, but I didn’t mind it because it reminded me of Tonga. The Suns had seemed quite interested in me, and it was a thrill when my agent, Darren “Mats” Matsubara, got a call from them on the night.
When you watch the draft on TV, it looks like the floor of the arena is filled with the players and their support teams. But what you don’t see is that the other half is packed with media and agents frantically calling organizations and sorting deals for their players. It’s one of the busiest nights for them. I was glad all I had to do was sit there and not pick my nose on camera.
All players go into the draft not knowing where they’ll end up, but the announcement of their name isn’t a complete surprise because the managers of each team will call the player’s agent five minutes before they announce their pick. Not every call to an agent ends in a contract, though. The Suns called Mats and they talked for a bit, and then they picked Alex Len, a 7 1 center from Ukraine. I have no idea what was said in that phone call and I’ve never asked. For all I know, they dialed the wrong number.
It was slowly dawning on me that my life was about to change. I was predicted to go somewhere between 10 and 20 in the draft, and it was getting close. But I was starving. It was a huge event and we got all dressed up and sat at tables, so I assumed they would at least feed us. But there was no food. Like, at all. The only thing on the table was a bottle of Gatorade because it’s a major sponsor of the NBA. By the eighth pick I was thirsty and clammy and wanted a drink, so I grabbed the bottle and went to open it, but it was glued shut. They actually put Gatorade bottles in front of a bunch of nervous athletes and then glued them shut so we couldn’t drink it.
I was starting to expect free stuff from any NBA-related events. I mean, who doesn’t love free stuff? The day before I’d gone room to room at the hotel and picked up free swag bags from a bunch of big companies. They all wanted their stuff worn and used by the next batch of NBA players, but they weren’t too keen on me, probably because I was dressed scruffy as. I didn’t look like I was about to be recruited by anyone.
As the picks kept going—Detroit, Utah, Portland, Philadelphia—I started to lean heavily in my mind on Oklahoma City. They were my best shot with the twelfth pick. I was supposed to go in the top 15 because I was in the green room, the floor of the arena, where players get their own tables and the NBA pays for their families to be there. I wasn’t exactly getting nervous, but I thought it would be mean to go to the Thunder at 12. As Michael Carter-Williams walked off stage after being selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, Mats got a phone call from the Thunder management. He talked for a minute and I fidgeted, hoping it wasn’t a prank call. David Stern walked back out to announce the twelfth pick. For the first time that night I wished the crowd would stop booing so I could hear his voice crystal clear. All I could think was—if he calls your name, don’t trip or stumble when you go up the stairs.
“With the twelfth pick in the 2013 NBA draft…”
Don’t fall over.
“the Oklahoma City Thunder select…”
That was it. I didn’t hear the rest. I barely noticed Stern absolutely butchering the pronunciation of my hometown, Rotorua. I stood up on cue, hugged Sid, hugged Mohi, hugged my mentor and coach Kenny McFadden, hugged Mats, and high-fived his daughter. That was my team. The only other person I wish could have been there was my sister Viv, but that’s another story.
Before I could move, a woman hurried over with an OKC Thunder hat and I suddenly had a whole new problem—my massive head. My dome had been measured before the event, but I still had a feeling the hat wouldn’t fit, because my head is huge. When I put it on I could tell it was going to be a tight fit, so I just sat it on top of my head and left it there. I think I pulled off the look quite nicely.
Thanks to the mantra I’d been chanting in my head all night, I made it up the stairs smoothly and shook Stern’s hand. Some of the earlier players had gone for a brother handshake with a hug as well, but I wasn’t ready to take that risk so we shook hands like two businessmen meeting for the first time. In my mind at that point the only thing worse than tripping up the stairs would have been doing a weird, crumbly handshake-hug combo with Stern that people would mock forever.
Still not entirely sure that everything was real, I left the stage and was told I would be interviewed by Shane Battier, who had just won a championship with the Miami Heat. Everyone had said Shane was a cool guy so I tried to chat with him before our broadcast interview, but he just ignored me. I was thinking, “Man, what a dick,” but then I saw he was wearing an earpiece and was probably being told all my bio information at the same time. Our interview was sweet. I got to show off the New Zealand flag in my suit and give a shout-out to everyone at home watching and cheering me on. And then it was over, and I was ushered through to the back where there was a massive press room and I had to do interviews for two hours. I remember barely any of it except that one channel had sent a little kid along to interview us. He was cute and pretty funny, but it’s quite hard to hold a conversation about basketball with a five-year-old.
Some reporters wanted me to read random shout-outs, which I happily did. My dopamine levels were through the roof, and I probably would have said and done anything that anyone asked. I’m too scared to watch any interviews from that night because I swear my voice went up a full octave I was so happy. I made a video for Facebook saying thank you to everyone in New Zealand who had supported me, and for some reason I was sweating all through it, even though I hadn’t done anything strenuous all day.
By the time all the interviews had wrapped up I was still on a massive high and had forgotten I hadn’t eaten in hours. My agency put on a dinner for me and a couple of the other drafted players they represented. By the time we ate it was 2 a.m. and I was knocked out. I heard that some other agencies had thrown parties for their players, and I was secretly glad mine hadn’t because I just wanted to eat and then pass out for 12 hours.
The next morning I woke up and didn’t know what to do. After years of working towards one goal—to get to the NBA—I’d made it. Now what? I obviously knew that I’d have to move to Oklahoma and work hard in the off-season to make the roster, but what was I supposed to do the day after being drafted into the NBA?
Turns out, nothing. Everything started being done for me. The owner of the Thunder sent his private plane to New York to fly me, my family, Andre Roberson (who OKC also drafted), and his family out to Oklahoma City immediately. I posted a photo on Facebook of us in front of the plane and some people thought I’d splashed out and bought a plane already. I hadn’t even been paid yet. Besides, NBA rookies get paid SUV money, not private plane money.
My brothers and I were buzzing out, trying to imagine having so much money you could afford your own plane. Once we got up in the air, it was a relief to be away from all the hype and media that had surrounded us the whole week. Some of the guys dozed off or ordered food, but all I could do was sit and try to make sense of everything. I was just a scruffy kid from Rotorua, known around town as “one of those Adams kids.”
Being an NBA player hadn’t been a lifelong dream of mine, it had been a six-year goal. Up to that point I was just Sid Adams’s youngest boy, destined for the farm life. But here I was, being flown in a private plane to begin a dream I’d barely had time to register as being possible.
As Oklahoma City came into view and we began our descent into my new life, I wondered what my dad would have thought of all this.
My hometown stinks. Literally. It stinks of rotten eggs, caused by the sulfur dioxide that rises out of the geysers, mud pools, and hot pools in the geothermally active city. When you live there you don’t even notice it, but it’s one of the things it’s famous for. Tourists love the hot pools and the Māori culture and attractions.
Even though Rotorua is a tourist town, there’s not much to do there if you are poor, which we were, especially since Dad’s pension was the only income. The kindergarten that all of the Adams kids went to was just around the corner from where we lived. The primary school was just around the opposite corner. The intermediate school was next door to the primary school. And the college was one street over. Basically, I spent my childhood within walking distance of my house at all times.
Dad had lived in our house for 30 years. One day, while his two eldest were still young, Dad walked by a house that he liked the look of. It wasn’t a big house or a flash one, but it was built from bricks and looked like it could handle a storm or two. The perfect house for Sid Adams. Instead of offering to buy it, he bought some land and drew up a plan to build one exactly like it for himself. I’m told that Dad was at the construction site constantly, helping the builders and making sure nobody was doing a crappy job. If Dad had one motto he lived by, it was “Whatever you do, do it well.”
When the house was completed and his then small family moved in, he was living the Kiwi dream: three bedrooms on a quarter acre of land. I guess he only planned to have enough children for three bedrooms, but as his family grew and grew, so did his home. Two self-contained units were added out back behind the garage, this time with Dad doing all the work himself. Over time, when the main house got a bit crowded or one of the kids was old enough, they’d move out to one of “the baches,” as they were nicknamed. It was still technically living at home but with the advantage of there being some distance from the rules of the main house.
Sid’s family of kids kept growing until the morning of 23 July 1993. That’s when my mum, Heilala, was taken into Rotorua Hospital for an emergency cesarean section after doctors became worried about how big her unborn baby was getting. Later that day I was born—Sid’s last child.
People always ask me what it was like to grow up with so many siblings, but I spent most of my childhood with just Sid (junior), Lisa, and Gabby. Together we were the fantastic four. We were Dad’s last batch of kids and by the time we were going to school most of our older siblings lived in different cities or were starting their own families. My eldest sister, Viv, who was in her thirties when I was born, lived just down the road, and as her kids are about the same age as us four, we grew up together. Technically, her kids are our nieces and nephews, but it felt weird to call them that. Unless we were fighting and trying to get the upper hand by making them call us aunty and uncle, they were just our cousins.
When I started at Owhata primary school, I joined in the morning routine with my siblings. Every morning, Dad would wake up before us, make a massive pile of toast, brew a big jug of Milo, and then sit down in his chair to watch TV and read the newspaper, which we took turns to fetch from a petrol station just across the road from our house. The petrol station workers knew Dad and us kids and sometimes gave us the paper free. Dad was so tight with his money that he gladly took the freebie even though the paper only cost a dollar. I remember he would sit at the table and drink a lot of black coffee that tasted like tar, and because I wanted to do everything that Dad did, I would drink it too. No wonder my teachers had trouble getting me to stop bouncing off the walls all day.
At school I got picked on quite a bit. I wasn’t a massive kid, in fact I was quite scrawny, and I always wore the same clothes and walked around barefoot most of the time. My brother Sid, who is four years older than me, was always bigger and tougher than the other kids so if anyone tried to talk crap about him or us, he’d smash them. Gabby and Lisa were just as tall and strong and so were also good to have around as protectors. But I think most of the bullying I experienced was done by older kids who Sid used to pick on and who wanted their revenge on the Adams family.
One time, I was walking home from school and some older kids started throwing rocks at me. I didn’t know what to do so I just kept walking and let them hit me. Gabby saw me and ran over and we walked home together, getting pelted by stones. When we got home, we cried to Dad, but he just looked at us like we were idiots for not throwing anything back. I thought that was the end of it until a few days later when the same kid had me up against the wall by the pool and Sid ran over and beat him up. I was enjoying the fight until he yelled at me to piss off. I realized Sid wasn’t doing it because he liked me or Gabby, he was doing it because he was our older brother and he had to.
A lot of the teasing directed at me at school actually came from the adults. I think they found it funny there was such a tall kid in class and thought that meant they could make jokes about all of us kids. One teacher used to crack jokes about me all the time. I hated him. He had taught a number of my older siblings and, given we all admit to being bad students, he probably just hated anyone with Adams as their last name.
Not all the teachers were bad, though. I’ll always remember Miss Walsh, who taught me in my early days at primary school and knew I had trouble learning at the same pace as everyone else. She was one of the only teachers who managed to be patient with me and actually give me a chance. I don’t know if she was a good teacher for anyone else, but she showed me that it’s okay to ask questions and to admit that you don’t understand something. Even after she left the school she stayed in touch. She would email messages to the new teacher to pass on to me about how she saw my sister Valerie (Val) throwing the shot put on TV and asking if I had read any good books lately. I got embarrassed because other kids would mock me for getting emails from the teacher, so I acted too cool and didn’t reply. But I always appreciated that she went out of her way to make me feel comfortable learning, as that was a big thing, especially at that time in my life.
It was about then that my parents split up. I must have been six or seven when Mum took me and Gabby to Tonga with her. I guess she wanted to have her kids with her, but Dad wouldn’t let her take all of us so they split us up. I loved it there. It was hot all the time and I had a pet pig that I named Sitiveni, which is the Tongan version of my name. He wasn’t a cute piglet like Babe, either. He was a fully grown pig that I used to ride on around the village. After maybe a couple of months, Gabby and I came back to New Zealand and moved in with Dad. We didn’t see Mum for more than five years after that.
In Dad’s house, his word was the law. And that law didn’t just apply to his children, it applied to his wife too. No elbows on the table. No eating bread until you’d finished dinner. Always do your chores on time. Whatever Sid said went. As a father he was stern but fair. Everyone wanted to be on Dad’s good side because he was the boss. At 6 11 and with a barrel for a body, it was hard not to be intimidated by him, no matter who you were. By the time I was a teenager, his hair was white and he walked with a limp and a hunch. But that didn’t make him any less imposing. He had a notorious work ethic among his co-workers and was always quick with a joke. But he would be the first one to admit that he wasn’t a great husband. For Sid Adams, being a wife meant staying home, cooking and looking after the kids. He was always the boss in the relationship and he was possessive of his wife. He didn’t like her going out socializing without him or someone else in his family to keep an eye on her. In his view it was the husband’s job to earn money and put food on the table, which he did very well. And it was the wife’s job to cook that food. These ideas sound pretty old-fashioned now, because they are. Remember, the dude was born in 1931.
Back at home with Dad, Gabby and I settled back into the routine. Because the house had only three bedrooms, the boys shared a room and the girls did too. Sid and I often turned our room into a wrestling ring by pushing our foam mattresses together and using the girls’ mattresses to line the walls. We would use Gabby as our practice dummy for moves until she would get hurt and not want to play anymore. Sid was the best at it because he was the oldest, but he also seemed more naturally gifted than the rest of us. I was unco for my whole childhood. Being taller than other kids meant everyone assumed I was also going to be the toughest. That stopped the bullies from picking on me after a while, even though I wasn’t any tougher, just longer.
The problem with being a head taller than everyone else is that people think you must be good at sports just because you’re tall. I played a lot of sports as a kid, but I definitely wasn’t good. My position in rugby was lock because that’s where all the tall kids play, but the other teams soon found out that I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life. I remember one game it felt like all the other team did was kick the ball to me, then I’d drop it and they’d score. We lost that game and I gave up hope of being an All Black.
I played basketball, of course, because you can’t be a six-foot-tall 10-year-old and not play basketball. But I wasn’t even in the top team at primary school. I was put in the B team with the other useless kids. My sister Gabby was the basketball player in the family. She got a scholarship to go and play basketball at a high school across town in Rotorua, which was rare in those days. I knew that three of my older brothers, Warren, Ralph, and Rob, had all been good basketball players, but I really only played because it was something to do after school. No one went to training or practiced—we just showed up at games in our muddy clothes and tried not to get hurt.
I never had a problem with my siblings, but they all seemed to have a problem with me. At least, that’s what it felt like being the youngest and always getting picked on. I used to hear other kids at school talking about going to see their other friends after school and I’d wonder why they didn’t just hang out with their brothers and sisters and their cousins. I thought everyone had a bunch of family members to play with every day, although I don’t know if I’d describe what we did as “play.” It always started out as playing, but because we’re all so competitive it would quickly turn into a fight. When we played backyard cricket, someone would argue that they didn’t get out when they were clearly out, or they wouldn’t give the other person a turn for ages. One time, Sid got angry and broke the bat. Then we used an old metal pole until I threw it in the air and it hit Gabby in the forehead.
At some point Dad put up a basketball hoop and we started playing basketball. Two-on-two or one-on-one. Being the youngest and scrawniest, I lost every time, even against my sisters. Especially against my sisters. NBA fans like to say I’m tough, but none of my family would agree with them. In my family, I’m the weak youngest one who just happened to grow to be the tallest. Posting up against Lisa and Gabby when I was younger was way rougher than any player I mark in the NBA now. The only comeback I had against them was that if they ever got so pissed off that they wanted to smash me, I could usually run to Dad and then they couldn’t do anything.
We all knew that Dad had a soft spot for me because I was the youngest, and I took full advantage of it. I could get away with things that no other Adams kid would dream of doing. The downside of that was that Sid, Lisa, and Gabby grew to be independent extremely young and went off to do their own things while I was still choosing to hang around with just Dad. It also meant that some of my much older brothers felt that since Dad wasn’t being as tough on me as he was with them, it was their job to pick up the slack. If I answered back to my dad or didn’t do as I was told, it wasn’t him I had to look out for, it was my brothers.
- On Sale
- Oct 9, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books