It is with a heavy heart and a conflicted mind that I say to you now something that you pretty much already knew: Steven Adams will not be playing for the Tall Blacks at the 2019 World Cup. He was named in the 25-man longlist last week but that was just to cover all bases, it’s since been confirmed via a statement released by his agency that the dream is on hold until some other time in the hypothetical future.
Wasserman Media Group: “Steven’s support of the Tall Blacks and his interest in playing for the program at some point down the line is unwavering. While he won’t be participating this year with the National Team, his plan is to evaluate the opportunity to play in the 2020 Olympics following the upcoming NBA season.”
That is… unfortunate. The Tall Blacks are in a pretty strong state at the moment but a player like Steven Adams could have really taken us over the top. Having his leadership and ability in the team, mate he’s a game-changer. A reliable post scorer. A dependable defender. A guy who’ll do the hard yards and hold the rest of the fellas to the same standards. Somebody a coach can lean on in those crucial moments late in games. You just don’t find players of this level chilling in the NBL and not having Steven Adams for this tournament is a huge blow for our chances, to be completely honest.
But there’s a lot to unpack here so I s’pose I’ve gotta start by saying that I also don’t hold this against him. The takes will come in hard and fast now that Kiwi Steve has skipped out on another international opportunity and most of them will be from people with only a fringe interest in the sport. You know the types, the ones with loud sports media voices in Aotearoa who we know not to listen to, not you and I as intelligent sports fans. But that avalanche of opinion is already flowing on down the hill and engulfing everything else. This guy doesn’t care about his country. This guy’s a fake kiwi. This guy’s just selfish and all about the money. This guy’s a liar and a fraud. All that insanity.
Look, Steven Adams doesn’t have to play at the World Cup and while there are plenty others on his level in the NBA who will be there, there are plenty more who won’t too. I’m of the opinion that we’re good enough to qualify for World Cups without him (which has been proven correct, chur to me) so all the previous hype about him not playing has been irrelevant. The only time we need him is for these major tournaments. The World Cup and the Olympics. And that statement leaves the door open for the Olympics which is another step forward in this whole thing however we do sorta have to do quite well at the World Cup in order to qualify for that one. Doubt we’re good enough to win a qualifying tournament separately, we weren’t last time at least, so we either need to make a deep run at the World Cup or to finish ahead of Australia to make that one manifest itself… and neither of those things are likely without Steven Adams in the team. This is the first time where it’s been genuinely disappointing that he’s not played.
The toughest thing about all this is simply that Adams hasn’t fronted up in his own words at any point. There was some chat in his autobiography about a fallout with Basketball New Zealand due to the lack of support he was offered in his early days within the sport and the many mirror situations he saw amongst his peers. That was then alluded to with a rumour that he’d told BBNZ that he’d play at this World Cup as long as they assured him that all the profits they make from his appearance would go directly into the grassroots of the sport. Which was swiftly denied by BBNZ but it’s still part of this narrative. Now we get his unavailability confirmed through his American player agency.
Steven Adams is a genuine bloke who has always given genuine and considered answers to the media over in the States. TNC does a yearly Quotable Steven Adams thing of his best quotes after every season (this year’s one is almost done but maybe needs a couple days to simmer thanks to this untimely development). But we don’t get a lot of that accessibility with him back in Aotearoa, which is weird. Like he seems so available over there and so hidden over here, which could be a shyness thing and it could be a privacy thing and it could be an NBA procedural thing and it could be a timing thing and it’s probably a bit of all of those things. But if he’d at least drop a couple tweets or an IG message acknowledging his stance on international basketball in his own words then it sure as hell would help clear a few things up.
Even this statement now only came via his agent. There’s no direct link to kiwi basketball fans there at all and it smells a little stinky. Which is why I don’t think that this is purely to do with his beef with BBNZ. Without doubt that plays into it, but we can’t ignore that this guy spends like ten months of the year embedded in the NBA scene. Over there, player power is immense… if you’re good enough to have any (otherwise you’re just one more disposable veteran on the minimum). It’s in the culture to have players deciding their own fates, like LeBron James and his notorious player options. It’s also the absolute peak of basketball and the World Cup cannot compete with that. Best of the best going head to head at the World Cup? Not really. The best of the best would be ten teams of Americans and two teams of Euroballers. Maybe Australia if they’re up to it. We’re looking at this decision from the perspective of wanting our national team to succeed. He’s coming at it from a very different angle and you can’t even begin to judge his decision without walking in those (large) shoes a few steps.
Also factor in that these NBA teams can be right old bastards sometimes. Adams is coming off a disappointing last few months of the season where injuries caught up with him and inconsistencies crept into his game as the shooters around him failed to fire. The Thunder in general are at a decisive point in their franchise after three straight first round playoff exits. When the USA team longlist was named, guess how many OKC players were involved? Zero. Russell Westbrook and Paul George had both been on the initial 35-man candidate list but didn’t make the list for training camp - that’s because both of them have undergone offseason surgeries, though Russ’ was elective (doesn’t it feel like that dude has a knee surgery every year?).
Clearly it would be the OKC Thunder’s preference that he rest up towards full health and not take part in the World Cup and, oh look, see what just happened. However they can’t actually stop him from participating. Dennis Schröder is out there talking about trying to lead Germany to a medal so the fact remains that Steven Adams could have played if he really wanted to. But for whatever reason(s) he didn’t and that’s disappointing. Can’t really deny that at this point. It’s disappointing.
But we’re also only talking about a single tournament here. He’s now on the record as being interested in playing the Olympics. We might not even qualify for that one but, after he’s started expressing desire to represent Aotearoa in the next twelve months, we’re getting closer and closer. And this bloke is only 25 years old so don’t start making snap judgements on his legacy when he’s only a third of the way through his pro career. Come on. This was the first time when it was really feasible for him to play and he won’t be. That sucks but it doesn’t mean he’ll never play. Read the tea leaves, the gap between him and playing for the Tall Blacks is shrinking.
Also remember he’s never played for the Tall Blacks before, wasn’t massively involved in the BBNZ set up in the old days (although he did have some rep stuff in high school), didn’t go to Westlake Boys, only played one season (15 games) for the Wellington Saints as a young fella back in the day, and has been in the American system since going over for prep school in 2011 as a 17 year old. He’s actually extremely isolated from the Tall Blacks set up in a lot of ways. Other NBA stars are playing at the World Cup, sure. But not for their first time – they’ve all been a part of that system before and have a level of camaraderie with the other lads that helps call them back. Very different circumstances between him and Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example.
Then the other thing is this trash idea that he doesn’t care about his country or that he’s ignoring the growth of basketball in this country. Mate, who’s out there with the basketball camps spreading the game amongst thousands of kiwi kids each year? Pumping cash into the sport at the very base. His efforts for the OKC Thunder are the single most impactful thing that’s ever happened to the sport in this country and I include the 2002 Tall Blacks in that convo. When all is said and done, playing for the Tall Blacks is a sub-chapter in his legacy. Whatever he could achieve with the Tall Blacks at this World Cup to benefit the sport in this country, he’s done it double in the NBA already.
Now, that doesn’t mean he can’t do both… but I’m just saying that you don’t have to like this decision but you do still have colour within the lines with your criticism of it. He could have played at this World Cup and it’s a bloody shame he isn’t. He also owes kiwi fans a more personally accountable explanation of why not rather than all this hearsay and an agency statement. But if you’re one of those dickheads who think this affects his wider status in this country then you can take that one up with the other St*ff commentators because The Niche Cache ain’t having it.
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