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Steve Adams' heart-warming journey from Rotorua to Oklahoma

Telling his story: Steven Adams goes up for a dunk. Photo/Getty Images

Steven Adams’ rags-to-riches story My Life, My Fight celebrates the role of good genetics, family, mentors and personal ambition in creating a sporting star.

They say – or at least they used to – that you know you’re getting old when police officers start to look young. As someone who has collaborated on a few sporting autobiographies in my time, a personal variation on this theme is that you know you’re getting old when the ghostwriter of basketballer Steven Adams’ recently published and much-talked-about book went to school with your stepdaughter.

More to the point, Madeleine Chapman has done a terrific job with My Life, My Fight (Penguin).

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Obviously, a ghostwriter should add value. Asked why he didn’t write the book himself, one of my subjects replied that he would’ve liked to but didn’t have the time. Indeed, it would have taken him at least a decade. But a ghostwriter can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: if the subject doesn’t have much of a story to tell and/or embarks on the project with the mindset of maximum return for minimum investment of time and effort, the book probably won’t have much to recommend it. In that sense, the ghostwriter is only as good as their subject.

Chapman was fortunate in both regards. Early on, Adams admits he was drawn to a career in professional basketball by the rewards on offer, but that has to be seen in the context of his family’s circumstances: “If there was one thing that was going to motivate me to pursue a career in something it would be the money, because not having enough was the cause of all the arguments I’d heard between my dad and siblings.”

Adams has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His contract with the US Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team is worth $140 million over four years, making him our highest-paid sportsperson. In all likelihood, his next contract will be even more lucrative. It seems safe to assume, therefore, that Adams didn’t do this book for the money; he did it because he wanted to tell his story.

And what a story. It begins with the remarkable figure of his father, Sid, a 2.10m English merchant seaman who jumped ship in the Bay of Plenty, settled in Rotorua and set about making himself a footnote in our demographic history.

Sibling stars: Valerie Adams. Photo/Getty Images

“As we got older,” says Adams, “we started to see more and more of our older siblings, some of whom we didn’t even know were related to us … Fourteen big, brown kids and we’ve all got the whitest names you’ve ever heard. Mohi’s got a Māori name only because Dad didn’t even know he was his kid until Mohi was older.”

If you’re wondering how this hardscrabble, raucous setting produced two of our greatest athletes, Steven and sister Valerie, a double Olympic gold medal-winning shot-putter, this may explain it: “At some point Dad put up a basketball hoop and we started playing basketball. Being the youngest and scrawniest, I lost every time, even against my sisters. Especially against my sisters. NBA fans like to say I’m tough, but none of my family would agree with them. Posting up against Lisa and Gabby when I was younger was way rougher than any player I mark in the NBA.”

(There’s an echo here of an exchange between two of Tana Umaga’s sisters in the former All Blacks captain’s autobiography. Janice: “I’ve said to [Tana] that if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t have a penis, I would’ve been the first All Black in the family.” Rachel: “Nah, I would’ve been the first All Black. I reckon I would’ve done an effing good job of it.”)

Aged 14, able to get his worldly possessions into a single sports bag and wearing shoes so dilapidated that he’d put plastic bags over his feet when it rained, Adams set off down the yellow brick road that led to Oklahoma via Wellington and Pittsburgh. The story of that journey is heart-warming, both because of the roles played by the siblings, coaches, teachers and supporters, without whose selflessness and generosity Adams wouldn’t have made it, and the sincerity of his appreciation for what was done for him. All concerned can be proud of themselves: the high-earning hero living the NBA dream; the folk back home who helped make it possible; and the precocious ghost.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.