29 Aug 2015

Steven Adams, mercenary or messiah?

5:06 am on 29 August 2015

OPINION: Is it better that Steven Adams concentrates on his NBA career rather than the Tall Blacks?

The New Zealand NBA basketballer Steven Adams has copped plenty of criticism over the last week or so, but that castigation couldn't have been more misplaced.

The 22-year-old had earlier confirmed he wouldn't be available for the Tall Blacks Oceania Olympic qualifying campaign.

The Tall Blacks missed out on direct entry to next year's Rio Games after losing to Australia in the recent series.

They will now enter one of three Olympic repechage tournaments next year with just one place for Rio available from each of those tournaments.

Adams' unavailability wasn't a surprise, but his decision was met with some derision when it was revealed he'd be in New Zealand around the same time as the second game against Australia.

He then clarified his unavailability, saying it was ultimately his choice, not the Oklahoma City Thunder's, as he recovered from injuries and attempted to lock down his place in one of the pre-season's NBA title front-runners.

The Tall Blacks will be hoping they have Oklahoma City's Steven Adams on board for the Rio Olympics.

Steven Adams heads to the hoop for OKC Photo: Photosport

"I talked to my team, Kenny McFadden, the Thunder, the doctors, it was a long, well thought-out decision."

"The timing is just not ideal, I'm coming off an injury, got a new coach, there were heaps of different factors and it wasn't a choice I made lightly."

Cue the "mercenary" cries from those baying for blood at Adams' perceived "individual over country" attitude.

Even if this was the case, who could blame him?

Adams is early into a career that could last 10-15 years maximum, but could all end tomorrow.

He's entering the last year of his rookie contract with one of the NBA's top teams, and is desperate to cement his place on the roster.

You have to make hay while the sun shines in the fickle contest that is professional sport, and get paid when you can.

One bad injury and you're done and dusted, and then what?

Cementing a place in the Thunder and creating a lasting Kiwi legacy in the NBA would boost basketball in New Zealand a truckload more than pulling on the Tall Blacks jersey for a game or two early into his stardom.

No disrespect to the other New Zealanders who have played in the sport's greatest league (Sean Marks could not have been a better ambassador) but Adams has the first genuine chance to be a genuine star.

He could be the player to make Kiwi kids truly believe that their dream of playing in the NBA could become a reality.

Hell, Adams's success might even make them dream of being a Tall Black rather than an All Black.

But what about enhancing the sport of basketball here? Surely Adams's decision not to play for the Tall Blacks suggests he doesn't care about the game in little ol' NZ?

No, that couldn't be more unfounded or more short-sighted.

Adams is here holding three New Zealand Basketball Academy camps (separate to governing body Basketball New Zealand), run by Kenny McFadden alongside the Oklahoma City Thunder, Adams's NBA team.

He rubbed shoulders with hundreds of star struck children across the country at the three New Zealand Basketball Academy camps inside a week, relentlessly signing jerseys, giving game tips and just being available for the kids to talk to.

It's these kinds of camps that will affect the flow of talent into Basketball New Zealand's systems and provides young stars with the chance to obtain scholarships to college ball in the USA.

Adams himself even spends his own coin to aid in the process.

He puts up more than $120,000 a year from his own personal coffers into the academy in scholarships and support.

High Performance Sport New Zealand gives Basketball New Zealand $200,000 per year to fund its entire high performance programme.

Still think he's not doing enough for basketball in New Zealand?

When I spoke to him at the Wellington camp on Sunday that's all Adams could talk about, helping to encourage and support the new wave of NZ basketball prodigies.

These camps would exist without him, but they wouldn't have the lure they now do.

And the Oklahoma City Thunder's involvement lifts the camps to another level.

The NBA team's big man coach Mike Bryant is here, giving his talents to the youth of New Zealand. So is the Thunder's general manager Sam Presti.

Presti concedes they wouldn't be in Aotearoa without Adams's influence, period.

Sure, OKC get a great piece of promotion out of it, the chance to spread the Thunder franchise name Down Under and sell some Adams jerseys. But they're not here for money, they're here for love.

Steven Adams

Steven Adams in action for OKC Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Adams' passion for his country is clear to all at the Thunder - it's that passion that has inspired OKC's desire to head to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

So please stop the hate.

It's clear that Adams is engaging and has a wicked sense of humour.

He's smart and already versed in media diplomacy; when I asked him who should be picked as the All Blacks second-five for the World Cup - Ma'a Nonu or Sonny Bill Williams? - he drolly replied with that deadpan stare, "Sitiveni Sivivatu," before breaking into laughter.

However, he is already media wary, and who can blame him after the last few weeks, though it's a shame for a Kiwi kid who is not only a great talent, but appears to be on his way to being a great man.

Adams will play for the Tall Blacks one day and in the not too distant future.

If New Zealand manages to qualify for next year's Rio Games, Adams says there's nowhere he'd rather be than lining up for his country alongside his sister, the Olympic shot put champion Valerie.

"It would definitely be once in a lifetime really, I'm looking forward to it, I've just got to tick all the boxes, it would be amazing."

Onwards and upwards Mr Adams, and good luck.

Keep proving you can fly, and other Kiwis will soon follow.