Pitt big man Steven Adams' backstory is as interesting as his future is intriguing


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Do a Google search on Steven Adams, Pitt's 7-foot freshman center, and dozens of stories on New Zealand's greatest basketball export appear. Many of them describe him in the same manner. One stated he is a "freak athlete." Another professed he was "a freak of nature."

Adams' father, Sid, heard the same variations of that word when he was growing up in World War II-era England. Only the term "freak" back then had a much different meaning. It was a derogatory term meant to ridicule a person for being different.

"He went through a pretty rough time," Adams said of his father. "That was when they were discriminating against freaks. That's what he called himself. He was really, really tall and they'd tease him. He had it pretty hard."

Sid Adams wasn't long for England. After a career in the navy, he settled in New Zealand, where he had 18 children with five women. Many of Sid's children blended their impressive size and athleticism into sporting success.

Males in the Adams clan average 6 feet 9 and females 6 feet. The tallest of Steven Adams' sisters is Valerie Vili-Adams, a 6-4, 246-pound two-time Olympic gold medalist in the shot put. Valerie, who has the same father as Steven Adams but a different mother, won her second gold medal at the London Olympics this summer.

Two of Adams' brothers -- Warren and Ralph -- played with and against Pitt coach Jamie Dixon when Dixon played professional basketball in New Zealand in the late 1980s. Dixon and others who played with Warren and Ralph said they should have been in the NBA.

Steven Adams, the last of Sid's children, has the potential to become the most famous athlete in the family. He is Dixon's highest-rated recruit and has the potential to be the first player from Pitt in 25 years to go in the top 10 of the NBA draft. One 2013 NBA mock draft has him as the No. 10 prospect. Another has him as the No. 7 prospect.

• • • • •

But Steven Funaki Adams -- his mother is Tongan -- is not your typical fast-tracked super recruit with one foot out the college door to the NBA. He doesn't have any handlers planning his future. He isn't obsessed with the draft websites and what they have to say about him. He is unpretentious and a bit oblivious to the hype that surrounds him.

Simply put, Adams is not your average NCAA basketball player.

It's not an uncommon sight to walk past the rows of coaches offices at the Petersen Events Center and see Adams strumming a country tune on his guitar for Dixon and the assistant coaches. Teammate Talib Zanna described him as a "cool guy who sometimes doesn't even know what's going on."

So just how did this son of a military man, with the height and athletic gifts all aspiring basketball players covet, become a free spirit who, in his words, "doesn't care much"?

It's a complicated story that began the day his father died.

Overcoming loss

Steven Adams was 13 when Sid, who was in his mid-70s, died in 2006. Adams' older siblings had the opportunity to know their father for much longer. Many of them had families of their own when Sid died.

Adams' mother had little control over him. The young man became lost without his father.

"When I lost my dad, that was a big hit for me," Adams said. "I didn't have that parental guidance, and I kind of took advantage of it because I was a stupid idiot. I decided not to go to school a couple of times, go when I felt like it. I always lied to my brothers and sisters. They'd ask: 'Are you going to school?' I'd say 'yeah.' They eventually found out."

Warren, who played with Dixon in the New Zealand National Basketball League, took his brother under his wing and invited him to live with him in Wellington, where there were better schools and fewer bad influences. That was the first step in getting Steven Adams' life back on track. Warren introduced him to Blossom Cameron, a caregiver who is now his legal guardian.

Warren also introduced Adams to Kenny McFadden, a former player at Washington State who had settled in New Zealand after his playing career there. McFadden runs a basketball academy in Wellington.

"After his father died, he was running around, not focused on school and had no direction," McFadden said by telephone from New Zealand last week. "At that age, he was getting into a lot of mischief, nothing that was very positive."

McFadden accepted Adams into his basketball academy, and Warren enrolled him in Scots College, a secondary school with high academic standards. The only rule McFadden had for Adams was that he had to attend school every day if he wanted to play basketball.

"He was just missing discipline and an education," McFadden said.

McFadden used to get upset when people in New Zealand said Adams was unintelligent. The school system in Rotorua, where Adams grew up, was rudimentary. The teachers at Scots College informed McFadden that Adams was behind his peers in basic reading and writing skills when he enrolled.

"Steven had to learn how to learn" McFadden said. "We had to establish good habits with him. At first, it was culture shock for him. The school is focused on education. We wanted to get him in an environment where it was school-first. He had to wear a suit and tie every day. He had to shine his shoes. The biggest challenge for us early on was finding size-18 dress shoes for him. But all of that stuff taught him discipline."

Outside influences told Adams that he should turn professional out of high school because they believed he would never be able to qualify for an NCAA school in the United States. But Adams did so well at Scots College that he qualified for Pitt and passed through the NCAA Clearinghouse after graduating in December.

Adams attended Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., for one semester, but that was arranged only so he could acclimate himself to American basketball before enrolling at Pitt in June.

"The kid is one of the brightest kids you'd ever want to meet," McFadden said. "Once he got into a good school and had the opportunity to learn, he ran with it."

McFadden provided discipline on the basketball court. He picked up Adams every day for 6 a.m. practice and then dropped him off at school. Adams returned to the basketball academy after school for more tutelage. It turned out he was craving discipline all along.

"He was the hardest worker I had ever seen," McFadden said. "It got to the point that he was texting me the night before to make sure I was going pick him up the next day."

McFadden knew after a couple of weeks that Adams could earn a Division I scholarship and possibly play in the NBA. His skill set and athleticism were that unique.

Jamie Dixon's network

It happens all the time in college basketball recruiting. Coaches go to see one player and discover another by accident.

It's hard to fathom how an elite talent such as Adams was virtually unknown to NCAA coaches in 2009, but he was.

Dixon had known McFadden for more than 20 years. They competed against one another in the New Zealand National Basketball League. When Dixon was in Auckland, New Zealand, to coach the Team USA U-19 team in the FIBA world championships in the summer of 2009, he and McFadden had lunch one day. Dixon inquired about Rob Loe, a center on the New Zealand national team McFadden was coaching in the same tournament. Loe eventually would sign with Saint Louis University.

"I told him that Rob Loe is a good player, but I have a kid down in Wellington who is going to be the best player in the country," McFadden said.

Adams was not in the New Zealand national program because his family could not afford it. In New Zealand, only players from wealthy families play for the national teams because it is a pay-for-play system. Players on the national teams have to pay upward of $10,000 to compete.

Quite literally no one outside McFadden and a few others in the Wellington basketball circle knew about Adams and his basketball talents. So Dixon, on a business trip for his country, had a chance to sneak a peek.

"When Jamie saw him for the first time, his eyes were wide open, that's how surprised he was," McFadden said. "You know how colleges will say a kid is 6-10 and he's really 6-8? Well, Steven was a legit 6-10 at 15. Jamie said, 'Put your hands up.' And then he saw his reach. Then he saw him play, saw his ability and how athletic he was."

Dixon took five more trips to Wellington to recruit Adams before he verbally committed to Pitt. One of the trips was in the spring of 2010 after the Final Four. After a 16-hour flight, Dixon suffered a pulmonary embolism, the result of sitting for too long on the flight, and spent a few days in the hospital.

The morning after returning to Pittsburgh, Dixon was having difficulty breathing. Once he arrived at the hospital and told doctors of his itinerary, they made a quick diagnosis and averted a potentially dangerous situation. About 10 percent of pulmonary embolism cases are fatal.

"I kind of kept that quiet," Dixon said. "Luckily, it was only in my lungs. The really dangerous ones are when they go to the brain."

All the hard work paid off. Adams and Dixon developed a special relationship, and Dixon received a verbal commitment from Adams shortly after the health scare.

"He's just fun and outgoing," Dixon said. "I've known him for almost four years now. We have a unique relationship. We both have a fondness for New Zealand and the people there. That's a bond we have. And we both have great respect for Kenny and the things he's done down there for kids."

Adams can attest to that. He said the discipline at Scots College and at McFadden's academy played a part in shifting his outlook on life. He started to see basketball as a way to turn his life around, and the resentment and anger he had about losing his father slowly began to fade.

The rebellious Adams soon disappeared. The re-born young man found direction and developed a new attitude.

"I kind of let go of a lot of stuff," he said. "It's not good being angry. At that time when dad passed away, I had a whole bunch of anger. Now it's just like, let it go. I try to feel happier. Don't give a [darn] about a lot of stuff. I kind of don't care much. I know what to stay focused on. All the other stuff to get angry about, I don't give a [darn]."

Where the heart is

What Adams is focused on now is school and his first season in college basketball. He understands professional opportunities await, but he chooses not to think about them. As a newcomer to American basketball, Adams said he is still very much in the learning stages.

"I don't want to really miss stuff all the coaches have to teach me," he said. "The way I see it, I could be gone like that. I could injure myself and be out forever. If I'm too focused on the NBA or too excited for that, I'm afraid I'll miss something."

Dixon does not start freshmen often. During his nine-year tenure as Pitt's head coach, only two have earned starting roles. DeJuan Blair was a full-time starter from the time he set foot on campus, and Chris Taft earned a starting job midway through his freshman year.

Both were centers and both were drafted by the NBA. Adams, barring injury, will follow them into the league, but it might not happen as soon as some expect.

Centers take time to develop and the NBA is a man's game. Plus, Adams might not be in a hurry to leave Pittsburgh.

Kayla Kiriau is a native of New Zealand making her way in basketball in the United States, too. She is in her second season at Sheridan Junior College in Wyoming. She is the team captain and a Division I prospect.

She also is Adams' girlfriend.

Adams, who turned 19 in July, is doing whatever he can to ensure Kiriau lands a scholarship at or near Pitt. She is being recruited by Pitt women's coach Agnus Berenato. Duquesne and Robert Morris are interested, too.

"She's probably going to move out here next year," Adams said.

That's about the only long-term planning Adams is doing these days.

The rest of the time he is soaking in the coaching and hanging out with his new teammates in a country that is still very new to him. Midnight Madness is Friday, signaling the beginning of a new season. Pitt's first game is a little more than a month away.

Much is expected from Adams. He is a Big East rookie of the year and freshman All-America candidate.

But the young man known as the "Kiwi Phenom" back home is taking it all in stride.

"I just like to worry about now," he said. "I want to win a championship at Pitt. There's no point in dreaming about the future. I'm just taking it as it comes."

pittsports

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 7, 2012 4:15 AM


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