By now even the casual basketball fans among us know the names of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder (nee Seattle Supersonics), combatants in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, which will see Game 2 tonight, from the San Francisco Bay area.
The Thunder surprisingly to some observers and to Warriors Nation, won Game 1, so the series doesn’t look to be the walkover which might have been expected given how the Warriors ran roughshod over the NBA during the regular season. There’s a terrific back story to this matchup, and it comes from the teams’ big men, Steven Adams of the Thunder (looking a little like, but playing much better than, Adam Morrison) and Andrew Bogut of the Warriors. Neither man came from a traditional basketball background, as Adams is from New Zealand and Bogut is Australian. Yes, that does mean they speak the same language, if with slightly different lilts.
Adams is one of 18 children and has a sister, Valerie, who is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the shot put, competing for New Zealand. He was a first-round pick in the NBA Draft by the Thunder, becoming the first New Zealander in that position, being drafted #12 after completing just one year of college at the University of Pittsburgh. He made it from Scots College, a prep school in Wellington, New Zealand, the capital to being named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team, in just 3 years, a truly amazing leap. His toughness on the court likely comes from his growing up in New Zealand, as a self-described ‘bushman’, which means, I guess, someone who lives off the land, makes no excuses, and is familiar with needing to be tough and resourceful at times. (Witness his performance in Game 6 against the powerful Spurs, in the previous round, where he played with a migraine and lower GI, ahem, difficulties, and contributed a double-double while playing 40 minutes.) No whining, just shut up and play.
Status and star power mean nothing to him, all he needs, as many of us do, is a place with a system and a group of supporters that make him feel comfortable. In coach Billy Donovan, coach of champions at the University of Florida and Rockville Centre Long Island schoolboy star, he has a father figure that he hadn’t had since his father passed when he was 13. His brother Warren helped a bit in that regard, stepped in and got him out of the boonies and into Wellington, where his career opportunities became a great deal more apparent.
Bogut, his opposite number, also checks in at 7’0”, but is 9 years older. He started his career in Milwaukee, after just 2 years at the University of Utah, during which he was named an All-American and also was awarded the Naismith (named after the supposed founder of basketball) College Player of the Year and John Wooden awards. He was eventually part of a 5-player trade with the Warriors. He was also drafted in the first round, actually first overall, the first Australian to whom that happened, in 2005.
Bogut grew up in Melbourne, a very cosmopolitan city in the southern Australian state of Victoria, the son of Croatian emigres, likely a major reason why he followed Chicago Bulls star Toni Kukoc so closely. His early success came mostly at the International level, representing Australian teams competing in the US and Europe, and also in a regional Australian league. He’s enjoyed a great deal of success in the NBA, although the last few years has seen him suffer a number of injuries.
We’re not talking a couple of playground kids here, no gym rats. Just 2 big bodies who enjoy hanging and banging. Adams is credited by Bogut as having inspired greater interest by Australian athletes in the game of basketball, possibly because of his rise from the bush, a concept to which Aussies can definitely relate. In game 1 of the Thunder-Warriors series, Adams, however, decisively outplayed Bogut, both in shooting and rebounding, a major reason why the Thunder ended up victorious.
Why is this a story worth telling? There just aren’t too many big man-on-big man battles in the NBA anymore, nothing like Wilt versus Bill. The sport simply doesn’t place as much emphasis on the play of a center. Adams and Bogut compete hard against each other, not for national pride but because that’s just what they do. If Adams continues to outplay Bogut, that will go a long way to derailing the Warriors’ Cinderella ride, no matter what the luminaries on both teams get accomplished. It’ll be a joy to watch the story unfold, whether you are a casual fan or someone who is buried in the intricacies of the sport.