LOS ANGELES — Wherever and whenever there’s contact on the basketball court, Steven Adams is somehow in the middle of it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s massive, scraggly-haired center ranks third in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game, often muscling through two or three defenders to claim a second-chance opportunity. He ranks in the top 12 for loose balls recovered, never hesitating to throw his 7-foot frame to the hardwood. And he ranks in the top 20 for “screen assists” per game (via NBA.com), as his sturdy, broad-shouldered picks continually free up his teammates for drives and jumpers.
This willingness to deliver and receive punishment has been a lifetime endeavor. The 25-year-old Adams is a native of New Zealand, where rugby is a brutal national pastime and the powerhouse national team, known as the All Blacks, reigns supreme.
“Every kid wants to grow up to be an All Black,” Adams said. “That’s the whole country, mate.”
Before Adams filled out into his burly 265-pound frame, he was, by his own account, a “tall, scrawny and weak” child who was overpowered and out-leveraged on the rugby pitch by shorter, stouter opponents. His rugby position, as in basketball, was unglamorous: He served as a lock, the rough equivalent of offensive lineman in American football. Locks form human walls to push as a unit during scrums, the sport’s central conflicts which pit players without helmets against each other in violent struggles.
“It’s a beating,” explained Adams, an expert on the subject of scrums given that he’s drawn more fouls this year than all but six NBA centers. “You can’t see it all on TV, but guys are just going at it down in the trenches. If you watch the professionals, a dude will go in completely clean and come out with a broken nose.”
The best part of the lock’s job comes during line-outs, rugby’s version of sideline inbounds plays. Adams’s teammates would lift him multiple feet off the ground, utilizing his height to secure possession. Picture Russell Westbrook and Paul George boosting Adams into the air with their shoulders to complete an alley-oop.
But those highflying moments were too few and far between, and Adams shelved his rugby dreams in his early teens, concluding that his frame wasn’t suitable. “The Pacific Islanders are big boys,” he said. “I’m half-Poly [Polynesian], but you’ve got some full-blooded Polys out there who are built like crazy. An 8-year-old can be built like an 18-year-old with man strength. I learned very early that rugby wasn’t my sport.”
Although Adams was hesitant to draw cross-sport comparisons from a technical or strategic standpoint, he said that the All Black mentality has cleanly transferred to his new profession. After hitting an early growth spurt and securing a basketball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, he brought his country’s selfless, merciless ethos with him.
“The motto that sums up New Zealand is the ‘No D---head’ policy,” Adams explained. “Just don’t be a d---head about anything. If the coach asks you to do something, do it. If you come home with a broken nose, thank you for your services. You did your job. I grew up [knowing the importance] of how hustle plays and gritty details make a successful outcome.”
Adams, who is averaging a career-high 15.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, has become one of the league’s top big men, turning hustle plays into a $100 million contract. His bruising style and eccentric humor have made him a cult hero in New Zealand and Oklahoma City alike, and more than 261,000 fans have voted for him to make the all-star team, the third-highest tally among centers.
With “Steve-O” in the middle, Oklahoma City has transformed from a scoring juggernaut during the Kevin Durant years into a team whose defense carries its offense. At his preseason news conference, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti hailed Adams as a “game-changer” due to his “All-Black type” of focus on winning.
Despite a career-year from George and a third-straight triple-double season from Westbrook, the Thunder ranks 21st in offense and dead last in three-point percentage. Yet Oklahoma City (25-13) is among the West’s best teams because of its No. 1 defense and No. 4 rebounding rate.
“Three-point shooting has not been great for us,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ve got to find other ways to win. Being consistent with defensive rebounds and defending without fouling is a recipe for us to be the best version of ourselves.”
As bigger names such as Durant and Carmelo Anthony have come and gone, Adams has become increasingly central to Oklahoma City’s winning formula, serving as the offense’s safety net and the defense’s back line. He’s also forged a close friendship with Westbrook, who once donned a fake mustache and arm-sleeve tattoo while dressing up as Adams for Halloween.
“As a leader, I always want to know the person or the guy outside of basketball,” Westbrook said. “Everybody has a journey and a story. Where they like the ball on the court, that’s irrelevant. Friendships and the brotherhood are most important.”
To that end, Adams has introduced the Thunder to the All Blacks, inviting star T.J. Perenara to speak to his teammates in Oklahoma City in late November. The 26-year-old halfback offered a crash course in New Zealand’s culture, writing on Instagram that he was “completely blown away” by the sporting exchange.
Adams makes no secret of his fandom, wearing All Black jerseys in online photos and even kicking a rugby ball into a chair from 15 meters as part of a promotional challenge on YouTube. The “Big Kiwi” plans to watch Perenara and the All Blacks — his beloved “meatheads” — pursue their third straight Rugby World Cup title in the fall from the comfort of his local pub. Until then, he’s focused on leaving his stamp on a Thunder team that reflects its center now more than ever.
“The boys here understand all these small things have such a big impact,” Adams said. “This season is like another Christmas. The old ones are cool, but the new one is a bit dandier.”
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