Steven Adams, the Thunder’s Paladin of the Paint


After he was done fielding questions, Adams returned to the training room for roughly another half-hour of treatment. While he was having his body worked on, the retired center Dikembe Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, stopped by the locker room to visit with a fellow Congolese, the forward Serge Ibaka. Mutombo stayed to talk about Adams, spreading praise like salve.

“I’m so proud of him,’ Mutombo said. “I’m so proud of his effort. He’s unbelievable.”

Mutombo shook his head in wonderment as he recalled one of Adams’s second-quarter baskets, a dunk off a rebound of a missed 12-footer by Westbrook. “I was like ‘Whoa!’” Mutombo said, adding, “He’s one of the most surprising big men today.”

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The two-time Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams is one of Steven Adams’s 17 sisters and brothers.

Credit
Abdelhak Senna/European Pressphoto Agency

Adams perked up when Mutombo’s words were relayed to him. Alluding to Mutombo’s deep, soothing voice, which calls to mind the singer Barry White on stilts, Adams said, “He can read me a story and I’ll go straight to sleep.”

For Adams, and his teammates, there is no resting. After coasting to 55 victories in the regular season to trail the Warriors (73) and the Spurs (67) in the West, the Thunder have circled their playoff prey with a hunger that is almost primal. Adams epitomizes the team’s commitment to getting better and to playing with and for one another.

“He’s really, really focused and concentrated on trying to do the job to the best of his ability,” said the Thunder’s first-year coach, Billy Donovan, “and I think he does the job out of great care for the guys in the locker room.”

From their center, the Thunder’s cohesiveness spreads outward. Its ripple effects were seen late in Thursday’s game when Durant, between whistles, hurried over to the bench and patted the players as if they were pillows in need of plumping. Which in a manner of speaking, they were: The Warriors’ reserves outscored their Oklahoma City counterparts by 30 to 13.

But before his teammates can feed off Adams’s energy and effort, he has to accommodate his voracious appetite. “His metabolism is crazy,” said Collison, who has watched Adams attack two or three entrees at one sitting with the same zeal he does loose rebounds.

“I think one of the best things about playing in the N.B.A. for him is he’s able to afford really good food,” Collison said.

Any meal that doesn’t have to be divided among siblings qualifies as a feast for Adams. His father, Sid, an Englishman who settled in New Zealand after serving in the navy, sired 18 children with five women. Adams is the youngest. He said mealtimes growing up were as competitive as any sport. “You kind of did fight for food so I filled up my plate,” he said. “My dad would make us finish it and I’d sit there crying because I’d have to finish all that food.” He laughed. “I think that forced my stomach to stretch,” Adams said.

Adams’s father seeded a redwood forest. His brothers average 6 feet 9 inches, and two, Warren and Ralph, played professional basketball in New Zealand in the 1980s. His sisters average 6 feet and include 31-year-old Valerie, a two-time Olympic champion in the shot-put who stands a shade under 6 feet 4. Their family resemblance is obvious; Adams has the same nimbleness around the basket that Valerie does in the shot-put circle.

As a child, Adams lived with his father and three siblings in Rotorua, a rural town on New Zealand’s North Island known for its geysers and thermal pools. In 2006, when Adams was 13, his father died of cancer, and Adams’s life unraveled. He started ditching school and fell in with a bad crowd. He was not close to his mother, so his brother Warren intervened, collecting Adams and bringing him to Wellington, where he lived.

Through his brother, Adams met two people who would form the core of the second family he has created. Kenny McFadden, a former Washington State standout who played professionally in New Zealand, oversaw his basketball development, and the strength trainer Blossom Cameron directed Adams’s education and became his legal guardian.

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Adams has six double-doubles in the playoffs, where the Thunder have dispatched the Mavericks and the Spurs.

Credit
Soobum Im/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Through McFadden and his brother, a teenage Adams popped onto the radar of Jamie Dixon, then coaching at Pittsburgh, who had befriended both men while playing in the New Zealand professional league. Dixon recruited Adams to Pittsburgh, where he played one season, 2012-13, before making himself eligible for the pros.

The player drafted 12th over all by the Thunder in 2013 bears little resemblance to the one who was kryptonite to the Spurs’ Tim Duncan and has driven the Warriors’ Draymond Green to distraction in the Western Conference finals. His game has evolved, becoming more streamlined and efficient. The same cannot be said about his hair. As a rookie, Adams wore a modified crew cut and was clean shaven. At some point, he and his teammate Enes Kanter, a 6-foot-11 forward, decided to grow mustaches.

That was the start. Early on, someone told Adams that he looked like Tom Selleck, recently named 2016’s Sexiest Actor Alive by Glamour magazine. Adams needed no further encouragement to continue on his hirsute path, which raises the question: How would he have reacted if someone had said he resembled the actor and comedian Russell Brand?

In lock step with his mustache, Adams started growing out his hair, which he collects in a ponytail during games. He recently began pitching his own signature mustache-styling wax, made by Handmade La Conner, with a scent of oakmoss and whiskey with a hint of roseweed essential oil.

Thunder fans, both young and old, have begun showing up at home games with handlebar mustaches and fake tattoos down their right arms. But the real tribute to Adams can be seen in his homeland. The N.B.A. playoffs, because of his role, are competing with cricket and rugby for top billing in the evening sports news, which is a first.

“I hope that basketball gains momentum and kids understand that you can actually make a living from it,” Adams said. “Not just the N.B.A. You can get a scholarship, a free degree, like no student loan you have to pay off. That’s huge in life. Once they realize that in New Zealand, I hope they get inspired.”

Correction: May 27, 2016

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a teammate of Steven Adams. He is Enes Kanter, not Kantor.

An earlier version of this article erroneously said the retired center Dikembe Mutombo and the Thunder forward Serge Obaka were countrymen. Mutombo was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ibaka was born in the Republic of Congo, a smaller country.

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