Tramel: Losing OKC Thunder fan favorite Steven Adams in trade to Pelicans is a cruel part of rebuild
I woke up Saturday morning, about 7 a.m., stumbled to the opposite side of the house so Trish the Dish could get her beauty sleep, and turned on my phone. At the bathroom vanity, I saw the news.
Steven Adams was traded overnight. Same exact place, same day of the week, same exact method of communication, that I learned of the Paul George trade.
Most times, this NBA business is exhilarating. Some days, it can be cruel. Day 5 of the NBA’s wildest off-season week ever — trade moratorium lifted, draft, free-agency launch — was a cruel day.
So long, Stone Cold.
Steven Adams jogged up the court, in a tense playoff game against the Grizzlies, and gave Memphis strongman Zach Randolph a little shoulder, payback for a shove in the back seconds earlier during rebounding jostling.
The world was young back then. Adams was 20 years old. Hair shoot, face smooth, game raw.
Randolph, apparently weary of six playoff games worth of Adams wrestling in April 2014, lost his cool and hit Adams with an open hand. Randolph might as well have slapped an oak tree.
That Game 6 already was well in hand for the Thunder, and the next day the NBA suspended Randolph for Game 7, virtually sealing OKC’s series advancement.
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The Thunder found a center that spring. And through all the makeovers, from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, from Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, from Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson, from Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, from Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, from Dennis Schröder and Danilo Gallinari, there stood Adams in the middle.
Until the midnight hours of Friday night/Saturday morning, when the Thunder continued its deconstruction by trading Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans.
I called him Stone Cold, because of his on-court demeanor. The guy could clear out a biker bar while looking like he was taking a Sunday stroll. Others called him Aquaman, because when Adams grew out his hair and beard, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Aquaman actor Jason Momoa, though Adams had more superpowers than Aquaman, able to run and leap with the likes of much smaller phenoms.
Adams was not a superstar. We had plenty of those. What Adams provided was what every great team needs. Hard hat. Blue collar. Selfless attitude. All rolled up into a 7-foot package of winning.
Adams rebounded and defended and screened and, finally, when everyone from Rumble to Kristin Chenoweth insisted, Adams would shoot. And usually make. Adams leaves Oklahoma City with the fourth-best field-goal percentage in NBA history, .5887. Higher than Shaq, higher than Kareem, higher than most of the giants who have lived in NBA paint.
Adams became a fan favorite, for many reasons. He became my favorite, for this reason. He was the ultimate team player. Adams would have made a fine military man, because he did precisely as ordered.
Adams never thought he had figured out basketball. Did you ever watch Adams and Billy Donovan converse during a game? Donovan would talk to all the players, of course, and some would listen. Some would feign listening, nodding their heads while looking at girls in the expensive seats. Some would listen and then go do whatever the heck they wanted to do.
Adams would listen like one of those college nerds, the smartest kid in the class, trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Adams would ask questions of Donovan, sometimes using his fingers on the opposite palm to make sure he understood, then go back to the court and do EXACTLY what Donovan asked. You could almost see Adams counting in his head, making sure he took the right number of steps, to fulfill Donovan’s wishes.
The NBA is a player’s league, which in some ways is good and in some ways is bad, but Adams always reminded us that some players remain coachable.
Adams was a media favorite, too. He listened to questions. Sometimes even would ask for clarification. Adams rarely revealed state secrets, because that’s not the Thunder Way, but he was willing to explain basketball, from his perspective, and that’s been quite rare in OKC. Jog your memory and try to remember one time that Westbrook said something interesting about basketball, the game itself. It never happened. Happened every night with Adams.
And Adams, with that wondrous New Zealand accent that called many a person “‘’mate,” charmed the state, with his whimsical nature. Adams had his moments where he tired of the daily interview grind, but he could have fun, too.
Fred Katz, then of the Norman Transcript, once was asking Adams about his ability to catch the ball in traffic and referred to Adams’ “soft hands.”
Adams got a puzzled look on his face, turned to a Thunder PR rep and said, “I swear I never touched him.”
Seven years Adams was here. He became an institution, helping the Thunder win games. He went after loose balls with ferocity — we all cringed every time the mammoth man hit the hardwood, because it was excruciating watching him get back up and get those tree-trunk legs working again — and he got in the way on defense and out of the way on offense, and he never cared about padding his stats.
The image will live forever in OKC of Adams frantically running all over the court in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the 2016 Western Conference semifinals, guarding three Spurs as the Thunder held on for a 98-97 victory. If everyone did their job like Adams did his, what a wonderful world it would be.
And now he’s gone. It was necessary. The Thunder is trying to lose, and Adams would only keep the Thunder from not losing so much. He would aggravate a Zach Randolph and chase Spurs into the corner and commit the apostasy of listening to his coach.
I speak for every Oklahoman in wishing Adams well. Good luck, ’mate’.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.