Sulfur dioxide rises from the geysers in Rotorua, New Zealand, sweeping the air with a smell of rotten eggs that instead of repelling tourists, is the siren song beckoning them towards the small tourist town.
Steeped in the native Maori culture, Rotorua was where Steven Adams was born and went to grade school. He was raised by his legendary 6-foot-11 father Sid, alongside two older sisters and one older brother, but with a network of grown up siblings there to help out when Sid’s health problems became exacerbated.
After Sid passed in 2006, the 13-year-old Steven left his hometown and moved to the cosmopolitan city of Wellington, at the southern tip of the north island of New Zealand. There, half-Tongan, sandals-wearing, long-haired Steven joined a collection of tightly dressed prep school kids at Scots College, a high-end preparatory school.
Under the tutelage of an American ex-pat basketballer named Kenny McFadden, Steven woke early in the morning to train before going off to school and playing catch up with his education. It was a transition from life in the countryside, but Steven made friends, gained confidence and began to excel on the basketball court too.
Steven graduated from Scots College in 2011 and was on the radar of one American collegiate coach – Jamie Dixon – who had played professionally in New Zealand for two seasons before working his way up the coaching ranks to the University of Pittsburgh. Before becoming a Pitt Panther, Steven spent one year at Notre Dame Prep School in Massachussets – where he played against current Thunder teammate Nerlens Noel – to get acclimated to not just American basketball but American culture. Steven played for one season in Pittsburgh before getting selected in the NBA Draft by the Thunder.
In Oklahoma City he’s become a cult hero, each year letting his hair grow longer and tattoos honoring his cultural heritage spread across his body while becoming even more embraced by Thunder faithful.
It doesn’t take Lu Dort long to get comfortable in new surroundings.
Thunder fans know about the two-way rookie’s splash onto the scene during the 2019-20 campaign, but Lu has always been the type to get adjusted quickly. His parents are Haitian but moved to snowy Montreal, Canada where they had six children – three boys and three girls. Lu is the second youngest of the six-pack, but even with a large support system had to acclimate to both his home and school environment by learning French to go along with Creole.
As a kid, his main focus was soccer and he became an avid follower of the English Premier League squad Chelsea FC and their electrifying Ivorian forward Didier Drogba. As Lu continued to grow in height and stature, friends encouraged him to play sports with his hands, not just his feet.
As a teenager, Lu ventured down to Jacksonville Florida to go to prep school to play basketball and hone his English. Through a few informal conversations and haircuts, he found some Haitian-Americans to bond with and make his transition to America smoother.
Now tri-lingual, Lu crossed the country to sunny, arid Arizona State University – on the opposite side of the continent and the cultural spectrum compared to Montreal. Yet still, after just one year with the Sun Devils, Lu felt ready for the NBA and put his name in the draft.
His gamble didn’t pay off in the short term as he slipped past the first and second rounds, but he’s made the most of his opportunity in Oklahoma City on a two-way contract – showing once again his ability to adapt on the fly.
Back in the 1980’s, long-time NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni had abandoned a playing career in the United States, opting instead to play in one of the chicest urban metros of Europe – Milan. Alongside D’Antoni at Olimpia Milano was a lockdown defender who rebounded and did the dirty work on the defensive side of the ball against players like Jelly Bean Bryant, Kobe’s father.
His name was Vittorio Gallinari. Two decades later, Vittorio’s teenage son Danilo was racking up visits from NBA scouts for his performance on the court, but with a different skill set than his father’s. With a silky-smooth jump shot, a knack for scoring and a craftiness well beyond his age, Vittorio’s son was an offensive prodigy.
Danilo, while playing for the same Olympia Milano club as his father, won the Italian League MVP in 2008 at just 19 years old. Starting back in 2004, Danilo played professionally for clubs close to his hometown of Sant’Angelo Lodgiano. After winning the EuroLeague’s Rising Star award, Danilo traded in his local landmarks like Castello Morando Bolognini and Basilica di S. Antonio Abate for the Empire State Building and Central Park.
He left Vittorio, his mother Marilisa and his brother Federico back in Italy, though he still talks to his younger sibling every day. Danilo was drafted 6th overall in 2008 to the New York Knicks and played there until 2011 when he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in a deal for Carmelo Anthony.
He played briefly for his Milanese team while waiting for the 2011-12 NBA season to begin in December and has remained a crucial member of the Italian National Team, appearing in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
After signing with the LA Clippers in 2017 and helping to fuel a surprising 2019 Playoff appearance, Danilo came to OKC along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a haul of draft picks last summer. With Danilo in Oklahoma City and Federico playing for NAIA Rochester University in Michigan, the Gallinari family is spread out not just across the Atlantic but within the United States as well.
In the summer of 1992, Charmaine Gilgeous was 4,000 miles away from her native country – the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. It was her speed that brought her to Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics, where at age 21 she competed in the 400-meter dash.
Nearly three decades later, her son Shai, at age 21, is shining for the Thunder. Not many kids can say that their mom was an Olympic athlete, but Shai and Charmaine have never been too talkative about that part of the family pedigree. Humility is the foundation of the family. That steadiness has guided Shai through a winding path to NBA stardom.
He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, a 50-minute drive from downtown Toronto. Despite the athleticism gifted to him at birth, it wasn’t pre-ordained that Shai would take his place in line with the collection of now 22 Canadian players competing at the NBA level. For Shai, becoming the next Andrew Wiggins or Jamal Murray took growing into his 6-foot-6 frame, refining his handles, rounding out his diet and committing to film study.
Under the tutelage of his father, Vaughn Alexander, Shai learned the fundamentals of the game. His flair for footwork, floaters and fall-away jumpers all arrived early. Shai stayed in Ontario for his first two years of high school before packing up for prep school in Chattanooga, Tennessee alongside his cousin, and now New Orleans Pelicans guard, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Shai and Nickeil are less than two months apart in age and were roommates in Tennessee before parting ways in the summer of 2017 to go off to college.
Shai continued his journey at Kentucky where he surged at the end of his freshman year, becoming a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Shai joined the Thunder in July 2019 and has been one of the most improved players in the NBA this year. Providing Thunder fans with a stream of bold walk-in outfits and playful jokes with Chris Paul, Shai also dances on TikTok with teammate Darius Bazley, watches the OKC Blue play and embraces his role as an emerging leader for OKC.
At an elementary school in downtown Chicago, a young child with a unique name walked into class wearing an all-white British schoolboy uniform. He’s lucky he got out in one piece.
Abdel was a recent immigrant to the Windy City, living in tenant housing on refugee visas with his family, close by to an uncle, until they could get on their feet.
Back in Egypt, those school uniforms were normal. The Nader family quickly realized just how different things were in the United States. Abdel’s father, Ahmed, had been a high-ranking officer in the military back in Egypt. A great career to be sure, but in a country that in the ’90s was going through strife.
Tanks and soldiers lined the streets. Photos of president Hosni Mubarak were hung, by decree, in every house. Abdel’s parents knew that their life of relative comfort in Egypt might be fleeting and sacrificed everything by moving halfway around the world to provide better opportunities for their children.
Once in America, Ahmed found work as a janitor and his wife Amina worked as a hospice nurse. They lived on one floor alongside seven other immigrant families from Asia and Africa, bridging the language barrier all while sharing a communal bathroom.
His head spinning as classmates teased him, Abdel just tried to fit in. At Chicago’s Washington Park, Abdel watched the kids play basketball for hours, waiting until the court cleared to take a crack at the rim.
A youngster named Latrelle eventually approached and asked if he wanted to play video games. Abdel had made a friend. It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that Abdel started taking basketball seriously.
He excelled at Niles North High School before beginning his college career close to home at Northern Illinois. He transferred to Iowa State, where he played with Thunder guard Deonte Burton before being picked in the 2nd round of the 2016 NBA Draft.
He joined the Thunder in 2018 and has both sharpened his shot and rounded out his overall game to play a crucial role in the team’s rotation this year.
It all started with a promise. An ailing man named Axel Schröder listened as his son Dennis made him an oath that one day, even if he wasn’t alive to see it, that he would make it to the NBA.
Axel passed away, but Dennis upheld his end of the bargain. It wasn’t an easy road. Dennis’ mother Fatou immigrated to Germany from the west African nation of Gambia in 1992. Dennis was born in Braunschweig, a central German town of 250,000 people located 150 miles west of Berlin.
The skinny child was an outsider in a regimented German culture but grew to love his hometown dearly. He and his brother Che ran roughshod over concrete on their skateboards until Che fell and broke his arm, putting an end to that career path.
A local youth basketball coach, Liviu Calin, noticed an 11-year-old Dennis shooting in the park and encouraged him to take the game seriously. While Fatou suggested the gold streak in her son’s hair, Dennis connected with his father by joining him in his hobbies.
In 2009 however, when Dennis was just 16, Axel passed away. For any teenager, that can be trial with make or break consequences. Instead of withdrawing, Dennis dug in and worked harder. He propelled himself into the Basketball Bundesliga, playing for his hometown club, Phantoms Braunschweig.
Dennis won the league’s Most Improved Player Award in 2013, the same year he was drafted 17th overall by the Atlanta Hawks along with current Thunder teammate Mike Muscala, who the Hawks selected in the second round. Muscala was Dennis’ first true friend in the NBA and the two have grown extremely close over the years.
In fact, Muscala traveled all the way to Braunschweig last summer to attend Dennis’ wedding, which was held in his Bundesliga’s team’s arena. Dennis stays in close contact with his family and his hometown and carries his language and culture with him, along with his son Dennis Jr., whenever the Thunder’s travel schedule permits.