16 May 2017

Will Steven Adams ever play for the Tall Blacks?

3:11 pm on 16 May 2017

We are waiting.


Steven Adams.

Steven Adams. Photo: AFP

Steven Adams is a proud Kiwi. He owns All Blacks gear, he's run basketball camps in New Zealand and has Māori and Polynesian ink on his arm.

Yet Adams, the country’s highest-paid sportsman and easily its finest ever basketball talent, has never represented the Tall Blacks.

The national team’s schedule for 2017 is set. In August, it will compete in the Asia Cup - perfect timing for Adams to finally pull on a black singlet.

Yet nothing that’s happened over the past six years suggests he will.

He is something of an anomaly in that respect. The NBA’s best foreign players all make time for national representation.

Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova are all regular fixtures for Australia. Tony Parker has represented France since he was 16. The Gasol brothers play for Spain. The “Greek Freak”, Giannis Antetokounmpo, often does freakish things for Greece.

Last year, Basketball New Zealand chief executive Iain Potter said he was hopeful Adams would one day play for the Tall Blacks, but admitted it may never happen.

Today, Potter told The Wireless he’s more optimistic.

“Steve has always told us he will one day play for New Zealand, it just needs to be the right time for him. We believe it will happen.”

Adams is still young - the 7ft centre turns 24 in a couple of months - but has been firmly on the radar since starring as a rookie for the NBL-winning Wellington Saints in 2011. That year he travelled to Los Angeles for a rising stars tournament after declining making his Tall Blacks debut.

In 2012/13 he played college hoops in Pittsburgh and was subsequently drafted 12th by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

From October until at least April each year, the Thunder own Adams. “There’s no chance he plays for us during the season,” says Potter.

Adams was averaging a modest eight points and seven rebounds per game when he signed his big money contract in November. Yet the extraordinary $140 million, four-year deal is also about potential. It’s clear the Thunder expects him to be its number one “big man” for years.

“Long-term investment” is a phrase often used by NBA execs. Adams’ basketball mentor and former Junior Tall Blacks head coach, Kenny McFadden, uses the same phrase.

“The club wants to protect Steven, which you can understand. He's around good coaches and trainers and is highly valued there.”

But Adams has had plenty of opportunities to represent his country during the offseason.

In 2013, soon after being drafted, the Thunder refused to release Adams for a series against Australia a good two months before the start of the season.

He could have played in the World Cup in 2014, but his offseason development proved the priority. He told the media his decision before speaking to Basketball New Zealand.

Most recently, last July the Tall Blacks competed in a ‘last chance’ repechage tournament to make the Rio Olympics. New Zealand made the call. Adams said ‘no’.

“This was a very difficult decision as I take tremendous pride in being a New Zealander,” he said in a statement.

The organisation is hopeful 2017 will be the year the Thunder’s demands subside.

“We haven't spoken to Steve since last August - but that's not unusual, his team is the sole focus during the NBA season. The schedule has just come out so we will sit down and discuss it with him soon,” says Potter.

“Steve's availability is always going to be subject to his NBA needs. He does need time to recover from a long season, so there are always going to be difficulties.”

There is also the fear Adams picks up a serious injury while on international duty. One of Australia’s top young talents, Dante Exum, tore a ligament in his knee while playing for the Boomers and missed the entirety of last season.

The former New Zealand Breakers coach and current coach of the NBL’s Super City Rangers, Jeff Green, says it’s widely known the relationship between Basketball New Zealand and the Thunder has been terse.

“I think those problems are fixed now and there's a good line of communication.”

He believes the bigger issue is insurance.

“Basketball New Zealand has to be responsible for insuring that massive contract if he plays for the Tall Blacks,” he says.

“It's definitely not going to be cheap to insure Steve, despite the fact getting him to play for New Zealand is a high priority.”

Iain Potter says his organisation would indeed have to pay a high insurance bill, with the exception of World Cup games, which the international federation covers.

“Look, if Steven wanted to play in the Asia Cup in August, paying for it would be a challenge, but I think it’s one we could meet.”

Kenny McFadden has his own theory about his former protege’s reluctance to represent his country.

“Unfortunately, Steven had opportunities to play at the junior level and for the Junior Tall Blacks, but he couldn't afford to travel and the money just wasn’t there for him,” he says.

“Maybe he’s not pulling on that black singlet because he doesn't think they really wanted him in the beginning.”

Now, McFadden says, “he can afford to buy New Zealand”.

Nevertheless, he believes Adams will one day play for the Tall Blacks. “But he's not in a big hurry to play for them right now.”

Jeff Green’s optimism is equally reserved.

“I know Basketball New Zealand is quietly hopeful, but I don’t think it will happen this year.”

Now Adams is earning the big bucks, Green says the chances of him playing for New Zealand are greater.

“People don't realise, but when Steven was turning us down he was playing for a contract. Now he's got that contract - and a pretty good one - the pressure is off a little.”

Adams’ star in the US has stalled a little. His numbers were up only slightly this season, even if he did plenty of the grunt work that allowed the Thunder’s star player Russell Westbrook to have a stellar campaign.

Steven Adams.

Photo: Oklahoma City Thunder Photo: Unknown

One of the most respected sports writers in the US, Bill Simmons, wrote in March that Adams is “exactly the same or getting worse”.

“I left last year’s playoffs expecting Adams to become basketball’s best young centre. This season, he’s been a glorified sidekick.”

It’s difficult to say whether his success in the NBA increases or diminishes his chances of playing for Tall Blacks.

The pressure of trying to earn a big contract may be gone, but there is still the pressure of living up to one.

In November, RNZ Sport editor Stephen Hewson wrote, “the sight of more New Zealand kids running around in Oklahoma City Thunder singlets with Steven Adams' name on them must surely grate with Basketball New Zealand … the prospect of him ever playing for the Tall Blacks remains slimmer than a peeled onion”.

But Adams’ achievements are relative.

“At the end of the day, we want Steven to have success overseas because it only helps grow the sport of basketball in New Zealand, especially with Maori and Polynesian kids,” says Jeff Green.

And it is growing - fast.

Of the ten most popular secondary school sports, basketball has had the biggest growth in the past five years of 27 percent. Only four sports are played by at least 20,000 kids - netball, rugby, football and basketball.

Green says the chances of more shining lights like Adams emerging, whether male or female, are growing. The catch is they’ll have to go overseas.

Right now there are Kiwi youngsters at some of the biggest American colleges. Tai Wynyard (6’10) is at Kentucky, Jack Salt (6’11) is at Virginia and Matt Freeman (6’10) is at Oklahoma.

If their dreams come true and they make the NBA, the chances of them helping New Zealand to the next World Cup or Olympics go down.

That’s just basketball’s definition of success.