Rotorua-born basketballer Steven Adams, an emerging NBA star and already New Zealand’s highest-paid sportsperson ever, is the youngest of 16 children — including Olympic champion shot-putter Valerie Adams. In this extract from his autobiography My Life, My Fight, he talks about losing his dad, Sid, at 13.
No one knows for sure how many kids my dad had. If you ask anyone in the media they’ll say he had 18, or maybe even 20, but they won’t know where that number came from. If you ask my sister Viv, she’ll say it’s 16. I always thought there were 14 of us.
Whatever the number, there will only ever be one Sid Adams.
Dad joined the merchant navy straight out of school in Bristol, England and a few years later, when the boat he was working on docked in the Bay of Plenty, he jumped ship. He ended up in Rotorua and never left.
Almost as soon as he arrived in New Zealand he shacked up with a local woman and had two daughters. The relationship clearly wasn’t a great one because those two daughters chose to have nothing to do with him for the rest of his life. Unfazed, he hung around, driving logging trucks for a forestry company and apparently meeting plenty of women.
In 2005, when I was 12 years old, Viv and Valerie organised an Adams family reunion. It was going to be the first complete Adams reunion ever. It would also be the last.
Maybe they waited until they were sure Dad wasn’t going to have any more kids before trying to round us all up. Or maybe they wanted to make sure none of us were accidentally dating our cousin seeing as quite a few of us kids hadn’t properly met. It was held at our house and almost everyone showed up: 13 kids with some getting to know each other properly for the first time.
Even though some of the brothers, like Mohi and Rob, only found out they were Dad’s kids later on in life, as soon as they were introduced to us it was like they’d been there the whole time. Looking around, it wasn’t hard to tell we all came from the same guy. You couldn’t turn anywhere without bumping into a giant Adams forehead. I think Mohi might be the only one who escaped the famous Adams brow.
It was cool seeing Val again. She’d been competing all around the world in shot put and had just come third at the world champs. She was definitely the star of the family, but because she had grown up and lived in Auckland, I didn’t feel that connected to her. She was more of a distant sister who we sometimes would see on TV. Yet Val’s upbringing wasn’t all that different from ours and it seemed like the two of us actually had a lot in common.
She’s the tallest girl of the family at 6′ 4″, and although at that age I didn’t look tall standing next to her, I was on my way to becoming the tallest boy. At that reunion though, Ralph and Warren, both nearly 7 feet tall, were the big brothers in every way.
I looked at Val and all she was achieving on her own and couldn’t help but be impressed. Even though at that point I wasn’t taking anything seriously, and definitely not basketball, she showed me that the Adams family definitely had the talent and the genes; we just had to put in a bit of hard work and we’d go far. Ralph and Warren also had the genes and talent. Quite a few people over the years have said they could have been in the NBA if that was even an option for New Zealanders in the 1980s.
Viv has always been the photographer of the family and even now her house is packed with photo albums and framed photos of us all. She went around that day and got all of Dad’s ‘lots’ in photos with him. First it was the older lot with Viv. Then Rob on his own and Mohi on his own, followed by Val’s team. Then finally Sid, Lisa, Gabby and me.
The photos aren’t fancy at all, just taken on Viv’s cheap digital camera, but they’re the only proper family photos we have with Dad. Then it was decided we had to all appear in a photo together. Having 14 people in a photo is a bit of a mission if they’re a normal size. But Adams kids aren’t a normal size.
Viv thought it would be cool to have us all in height order so we all argued for a bit over who was shorter than who then formed a line. Dad was right in the middle. He would’ve been closer to the tall end if he could still stand up straight, but it worked out perfectly for the photo. Because I was only 12, I was still the shortest, or at least pretty close to the shortest next to Viv, so I was right down one end.
We got one of the partners to take the photo and we should have known then it was a mistake because she was a foot shorter than most of us, so the angles were all wrong from the beginning. After a lot of pushing and shoving we all stood still for the one second it took to take a single photo and that was it. No one bothered to check if the photo was all right; we just wanted to stop having to pose like idiots.
When the photo was processed, we all saw that I’d been cut off along with our sister Marg. Not even a little bit cut off or half cut off, just completely removed. We still laugh about it when we get together, but it kinda sucks that it is the only photo that exists of all of us with Dad. And I’m not even in it.
Not long after that reunion, Dad found out he was dying. Of course, he didn’t tell me at first.
I knew Dad was going to the doctor because he had fairly regular check-ups for his legs and his asthma. When he got home I asked if there was anything wrong. He told me the doctor had found “some white stuff in my stomach”. I thought they must have just seen the ice cream we’d eaten earlier swirling around in his tummy. I told him that and he nodded, which to me meant he was fine.
That night, Viv came by the house as she always did, and she and Dad sat in the lounge talking. When Dad had gone to bed, Viv called me, Sid, Gabby and Lisa out to the living room. “Dad’s sick,” she said. “He’s really sick. He’s got cancer.” I knew what cancer was and I knew it wasn’t just ice cream swirling around in his tummy.
Viv explained how the doctors didn’t think there was much they could do and Dad, being Dad, didn’t want to go through all the chemotherapy and radiation, so he was just going to wait it out.
I started to think of it as just another health problem that Dad would have to live with. He’d had asthma and his gammy legs for as long as I could remember, and now he’d have cancer. It would just be another part of the daily routine. But when I saw how upset Lisa and Gabby were, I started to realise that it was serious. Viv didn’t know how long he had left, but we all thought it would be, at worst, just a few years.
After our little meeting we ran to Dad and hugged him. By that point we were all crying, which he didn’t like. “Stop the bloody crying,” he said, the first of many times he would say that. “I’m the one who should be crying, not you guys.” It was typical Dad, telling his kids off for crying over something even if it was the news that he was dying.
Viv told us later that when he told her he was sick he laughed as if it was the world’s funniest joke. That was just Dad; he always had a bit of a dark sense of humour.
Everything moved so quickly after that and no one, even now, can remember exactly how long he was sick. At one point, Viv took him to the hospital for a procedure which they stuffed up. I guess it was a colonoscopy because they burst something up there. They sent him home anyway because he didn’t complain about the pain.
But a few days later he was in agony, so he called Viv and asked her to leave work to drive him to the hospital. When she asked him why he didn’t just call the ambulance, he said he didn’t want to pay the fee for getting an ambulance pick-up. If you ever hear me being a tight arse and complaining about paying for parking, that’s where I get it from.
Once Dad was back in hospital, he stayed there. Viv came by every morning and night to make sure we were going to school and had something to eat for dinner. She also called Mum in Tonga and told her to come back because Dad was sick.
She did come back, but it didn’t feel right. She got a job working at night and we barely saw her, which suited us kids just fine since that’s what we were used to. It felt weird to have my own mum living in the same house as me and feeling like a stranger. During that time, Viv felt like more of a mother simply because she’d been helping out for so long and wasn’t about to stop just because Mum was back on the scene.
Life continued on as normal, or as normal as it could be. Sid was 17 by then, working and doing his own thing. He became the full-time driver and also a fill-in dad for us while Dad was in hospital. He’d drive us all to basketball trainings and to school if it was raining, then help get dinner sorted when he got home from work. It all seemed natural and normal at the time, but Sid had to grow up real fast once Dad got sick.
All the siblings from around the country came to visit Dad while he was sick. Val came down from Auckland every weekend that she could, and Warren and Ralph flew in to see Dad, but then had to go back to work.
Eventually, we got word from the nurses at the hospital that Dad could come home. He couldn’t even walk at that point and he had lost a lot of weight, but they thought he would be more comfortable at home. We all agreed, and it was arranged for a hospital bed to be delivered so we could set it up in the lounge for him.
We all knew it would be his final move, but we were so happy at the thought of him being back in the lounge where we had been used to seeing him our whole lives. If you’re from a big family, or an island family (usually those two go together), you’ll know what it’s like to “visit” a sick relative in hospital. It’s not really about sitting down and talking to them, most of the time you’re just hanging out with your cousins and mucking around near the sick person. That’s exactly what we were doing when Dad got worse.
I still don’t know what exactly happened, but suddenly he wasn’t allowed to come home. Viv sent one of her daughters to go get Gabby from basketball practice and then called Ralph and Warren, who had both just flown home, and told them to hurry back because Dad was on his way out. It was a Monday.
By Tuesday everyone except Val was back in Rotorua. She had been at an athletics meet and was in Sydney on her way home when Viv told her the news. Everyone was freaking out and wondering what had gone wrong with Dad. One minute he was supposed to be going home with us and the next he was barely able to talk or move. As kids we thought the nurses or doctors must have done something wrong for him to get worse. It took a few hours before we stopped blaming the hospital staff and started thinking maybe Dad had just had enough. Perhaps he had given up or just decided it was his time to go.
Within 24 hours every one of the Adams kids was back except Val, but Dad was deteriorating quickly. He couldn’t move or talk or even make noises. His hands, those enormous hands, lay motionless at his sides. When I put my hand in his and squeezed, he didn’t squeeze back. There was a rumour around town that Dad had once broken a guy’s hand by squeezing it too hard in a handshake. I started wishing he would break my hand in his grip because at least that meant he could still move. But instead his hands just lay there, huge and calloused from a long life of labour.
By the next morning, the older siblings were starting to worry that Val wouldn’t make it back in time. Dad had gotten worse, to the point where we had to keep sponging his mouth because he couldn’t swallow. Every kid thinks their parents are invincible, especially their dad. We were the same, except our dad was 6′ 11″, huge and strong, so we had even more reason to believe that he couldn’t die. Seeing him so helpless and unable to fight off whatever was killing him was almost too much for me. I couldn’t even comprehend that my big, strong, grumpy dad was lying helpless in a bed. It didn’t make any sense. He could do anything – and now he couldn’t even breathe on his own.
Having all of our older siblings there was a good distraction. People were coming in and out of the hospital room all day. Someone would go on a food run and I’d tag along. Or we’d go outside with the cousins and run around for a bit. But any time one of us went back into the room and saw Dad, it hit us again. We’d have a cry together and then someone would crack a joke and we’d be laughing but still kind of crying.
I started spending more and more time out in the waiting area just to avoid seeing Dad so frail. Back in the room we would over-analyse every little noise or twitch he made. Was he trying to smile? Was he trying to tell us something?
Val was due to arrive in Auckland that afternoon and was going to race down to Rotorua, a three-hour drive away. We all kept telling Dad to hold on just a little longer because Val was the last one to come. If he could just hold on, he could go surrounded by all his kids.
Val arrived at 8pm. We let her have some time alone with Dad before all 14 of us joined her around his bed. The doctors had already told us that he would go that night, so even though he was in intensive care, where there are strict visiting hours, we were allowed to be there all day and into the night. Hospital rooms are tiny so having all 14 of us in there, plus my siblings’ kids, meant we were all squashed up.
Then we waited.
Every few moments someone would tell a story about Dad or crack a joke that would have us all giggling, but mostly we just watched and waited. I never thought I’d ever want my dad to die, but after seeing him struggling so much those last few days, I just wanted him to be at peace. It’s weird to stand there and wait for heartbreak. I’d never taken a second in my life to consider what I would do if Dad died and suddenly there I was, waiting for Dad to die. And, of course, being Dad, he had to make it dramatic.
All of us had our eyes glued to his massive chest as it would slowly rise and fall with each breath. After about an hour, he took a really long breath and his chest puffed out real big, and then it stopped. I heard someone sob and I thought that was it, he was gone. But then a second later he breathed out and his chest deflated. We were all coming back from that moment when we noticed his chest hadn’t risen again, and the emotions came out again. And then he breathed again! Honestly, it was like he was playing one last game with us.
He did that a few more times before some of the older brothers grumbled that he was just pissing around now, which made us all laugh. They had a point. Here we were trying to prepare for the worst moment of our lives and it was like Dad couldn’t make up his mind whether to stay or go. Then it messed with us because we started to think that maybe those long breaths meant he was fighting through it. Maybe he was the one in a million who beats the odds.
It must’ve sounded ridiculous to all the nurses and anyone else in the ward. It was 10 o’clock at night and this massive family was crying and then laughing and then crying and laughing again. I don’t know if it’s a brown thing, but if you’re not laughing at the hospital, no matter what the situation, you’re doing it wrong.
When it finally happened, it was somehow a surprise and a relief at the same time. We all broke down. Someone, or maybe more than one person, started screaming. The nurses came by with tissues and words of comfort. When someone came in to check he had really passed, everyone except for Viv had to leave the room. That’s when we knew he was really gone.
We’d been crying for weeks but Dad had always been sick, so it was easy to believe that the sickness would never beat him. We thought that we’d grow up and have to look after him, like we were supposed to. When I think back now, it’s amazing he lived so long with all the health issues he had. I like to think he fought until his youngest kids were all in their teens and could maybe look out for themselves.
He pushed us out as far as he could before resting, and I’ll always be thankful for that.
Dad took his final breath at 10.56pm on 2 May 2007. It was a Wednesday.
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