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Steven Adams May Be On A Quest to Conquer the NBA

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We delve into Steven's culture and upbringing in an attempt to better understand the man himself.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Just over two years ago Kevin Durant was asked who was the funniest guy in the Thunder locker room. Without hesitation KD responded, "Steven Adams". By June of 2013, most fans came to agree with that assessment and few doubters remained after his end of season interview. Adams' comments are worth a second, third, fourth, whatever look and if you are one of the few NBA junkies that have never seen it, you are in for a real treat:

It didn't take long for the Oklahoma City advertising world to capitalize on the big New Zealander's obvious local appeal:

Adams is obviously likable and very funny, but the light-hearted banter is for off the court. When the time comes for the Funaki to play ball his smile disappears as do the smiles of his opponent's.

When you watch how aggressively Steven Funaki Adams plays, thriving on NBA's physicality like the incredible Hulk thrives on anger, it is a bit of a shock to learn his middle name means "beloved soul"  until you begin to understand more about Adam's heritage and background.

Adam's mother is Tongan, a Polynesian culture that dates back thousands of years. His name has also been linked with the Maori culture but I understand his blood ties to his mother make Adams Tongan. The traditions and language centered around spirituality and family are difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend and I feign no expertise on the subject, especially in regard to the differences between the Tongan and Maori dialects. There are similarities however and I  found some fascinating information that may begin to explain what motivates Oklahoma City's 6'11" import from down under.

For instance, in Maori culture the term mana cannot be translated in simple western terms such as "mana means xyz". Mana can and does refer to both the physical and spiritual world; past, future, and present. It is crudely translated to mean:

1. Authority, control 2. Influence, prestige, power 3. Psychic force 4. Effectual, binding, authoritative 5. Having influence or power 6. Vested with authority 7. Be effectual, take effect 8. Be avenged.

However, none of these translations tell of the source of mana or how to maintain it. Further, the meaning alters greatly depending on its usage and combination with other words but I have no doubt that mana in some or all of its forms explains, at least in part, why Funaki plays the way he does. Among Polynesians, mana is no laughing matter.

Some examples:

Mana Tangata - the power one acquires through their ability and effort to develop their skill and gain knowledge of a particular area and leadership talents.

That sounds innocent enough until you read this from the Maori Dictionary:

I haere ā tātou tamariki ki te pakanga kia mau ai te mana tangata me te mana whenua kei riro i te raupatu a te Tiamana (TTT 1/6/1924:60). / Our children went to the war in order to maintain the people's mana and authority over the land lest it be taken away by German conquest.

Mana Whakatipu - tied with mana tangata, acquired leadership, power, and status accrued through one's leadership talents, mana resulting from strength of character and force of will, and the means a leader has to enforce those wishes.

Mana Whenua - territorial rights, power from the land, authority over land or territory, jurisdiction over land or territory - power associated with possession and occupation of tribal land. The tribe's history and legends are based in the lands they have occupied over generations and the land provides the sustenance for the people and to provide hospitality for guests.

Another definition from Williams' A Dictionary of the Maori Language:

Mana whenua is the mana that the gods planted within Papa-túã-nuku (Mother Earth) to give her the power to produce the bounties of nature. A person or tribe who `possesses' land is said to hold or be the mana whenua of the area and hence has the power and authority to produce a livelihood for the family and the tribe from this land and its natural resources. One means of ensuring that mana whenua is upheld and enhanced is to return the pito or whenua (afterbirth) of a child to his/her ancestral lands at points specifically designated for the purpose. But the most powerful means, once the spiritual element has departed from a person (i.e. the person has died), is to return the human body to the úkaipõ, the place from which his or her true sustenance and being came, that is, his or her ancestral lands. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why tribes will fight to have a body returned to his or her own ancestral lands for burial. Furthermore, the greater the person's mana, the bigger the fight, especially if the person has ancestral rights in more than one tribal area

(emphasis mine)

Thus the name "Funaki" should never be thought of as soft.

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

When Andre Iguodala poked fun at the New Zealand Tall Blacks pregame haka during the 2014 World Championships, Adams was quick to defend his countrymen and his heritage.

Adams' unassuming, lighthearted demeanor off the court sometimes camouflage his pride in his heritage and resolve to be the best player he can possibly be. His stoic responses when he excels are not a sign of uncertainty or indifference. It is a conscious decision by Funaki to not seem egotistical. The Polynesian culture shuns personal displays because they diminish mana.

When Funaki takes the court he sees that 50' by 94' slab of hardwood as prime take raupatu, land obtained by conquest . As the youngest of 18 large children, Adams' childhood prepared him well for the physical challenges to do just that. Steven credits his older brothers and sisters that average 6'9" and 6'0" respectively for teaching him how to take a blow and keep going, but one sister in particular, Valerie Adams, stands out in Adams' memory.

Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

Valerie holds 2 gold medals from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and is the first woman to win four consecutive individual titles and the world track and field championships. In an interview with NewsOK, Adams said this about his sister and growing up the youngest of 18 children:

"She's strong," Steven said of Valerie. "My family is really strong. So getting hit by them is really painful. But you can't say something about it, especially being the youngest. If you're the youngest and you say something, you'll get more hits."

The kids growing up in New Zealand don't dream of playing in the NBA, they dream of one day becoming one of the All Blacks, arguably the best rugby team in the world. Like his peers, Adams spent his time on the rugby field, or "the pitch".

"Dudes in rugby in that pile, they get punched, kneed and all that," he said. "They could be bleeding and stuff, they still have to go on and play."

Always tall, at age 13 Adams switched to basketball and became a star. By age 17 he signed with the Wellington Saints of the New Zealand NBL and was drafted two years later by the Thunder. Combining his natural size, strength and athleticism with the determination instilled by his upbringing and the discipline of his heritage will make Steven Adams a force to reckon with for years to come in the NBA.

Suffice it to say, when Sam Presti went looking for a center to eventually replace Kendrick Perkins as the anchor and enforcer of the Thunder defense, he got what he paid for and more when he opted for the "Funaki" in the 2013 NBA Draft.

A final thought, when I was researching this post I tried different online tools to better understand the word mana. Interestingly enough, this online tool translated the Tongan word "mana" to  the English word "thunder". However, as it pertains to mana, I will need some help explaining Adams new look.