In the NBA, the hierarchy has always been pretty clearly delineated: there are superstars, stars, role players, benchwarmers, ring-chasers, and flameouts. Every so often, there comes a player who bucks the order and becomes a cultural icon, a star in their own right who transcends their own limited ability. Guys like Brian Scalabrine, Bobby Jackson, and even Golden State Head Coach Steve Kerr have all became NBA cult heroes, which had little (or nothing) to do with their on-court abilities. For example: although Kerr hit a game-winning shot to seal the ’97 Finals, that moment is overshadowed by the time Micheal Jordan socked him in a chippy practice scrimmage. That’s a cult hero.
Steven Adams is one such hero. Unlike Scalabrine and Kerr, though, his game has the potential to elevate him to pantheon status. That’s not to say Scalabrine and (especially) Kerr were bad players, it’s just that Adams has the chance to be a great one. He’s not there yet, but he’s well ahead of schedule. To borrow Adams’ own pet phrase: he’s been brilliant.
A player becomes a cult hero through a combination of myths and stories, fan favoritism, media savvy, and a sort-of je ne sais quoi that they exude. It’s how a guy like Scalabrine can earn the nickname ‘The White Mamba’ despite paltry career averages of three points, two rebounds, and just shy of one assist a game.
Brian Scalabrine received love from Boston fans in a semi-sarcastic way; Celtics fans loved him despite his limited ability. The love Adams receives from fans runs in tandem with his play, elevated every year just as his skills are.
You’ve heard it all already: he’s young and handsome with a quick wit. His signature Kiwi charm (is it the accent?) has made him a media favorite and a veritable quote machine. His top-knotted hair (which immediately becomes a frizzy mess after a few short minutes on the court) and his Tom Selleck-inspired mustache make him look like, in wrestling terms, a Heel: the villain, the antagonist, the bad guy.
The Heel comparison extends past his looks and into his play, but the act runs out when the clock does. He’s a brutish enforcer in the Kendrick Perkins mold. Like Perk, Adams is always looking for a competitive edge, always trying to get under the opponents’ skin: he’s drawn the ire of some of the baddest dudes in the league, including Zach Randolph, Draymond Green, and DeMarcus Cousins. Unlike Perkins, Adams can jump over a piece of paper, move his feet, and catch an entry pass without dropping it (Sorry, Perk).
Without his sister Valerie’s two Olympic gold medals, it’s likely that Adams is still in New Zealand, his rare athletic talents completely wasted. Without the James Harden trade, Steven Adams is likely either playing in Dallas, Utah, Milwaukee, or Boston. If Adams hadn’t landed in the perfect spot—on a perennial contender, playing behind two of the top five players in the league and learning how to play enforcer under the tutelage of Perkins—he certainly doesn’t enjoy the status he holds today.
Adams’ meteoric rise as a basketball player surprised everyone, save perhaps himself. His coming out party in the 2016 playoffs, especially in his play against the Spurs, sets up lofty expectations for the next year. Even more surprising, though, is his rise as a cultural icon. The sport of basketball has absolutely exploded in New Zealand since: players at the high school level have increased almost 20 percent since 2012. New Zealand has also become somewhat of a recruiting pipeline, at least compared to what it was before, with schools like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Indiana all boasting Kiwis on their rosters.
Prepare for Adams to be everywhere. With his spectacular play on the biggest stage, he is sure to rake in endorsements with his marketability. He’s probably looking at a $90 million plus payday after the end of next season. More important than the economic factors–which Adams hasn’t seemed all that interested to discuss thus far–is the fact that he has become a cultural icon for New Zealand and Oklahoma. His on-court fury, reminiscent of the great Dave Cowens, is completely flipped on its head when given a microphone, able to joke about even the worst injury known to men (I’m still a man, and that’s all that matters…). Steven Adams is, at the age of 22, a cult hero, and I hope that he can stick around for a while. In a contract year, we may see Adams’ best on and off the court. Brilliant, Steve.