WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Oklahoma City center Steven Adams is breaking new ground as a New Zealander succeeding at the top levels of the NBA, and the jubilation of his fans back home seemed little dimmed by his comments that caused a stir in the U.S.
After his team's victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference final Monday, Adams described Golden State's guards as "quick little monkeys" in an on-court interview. He later apologized, explaining he was still trying to assimilate to a different culture in America.
In New Zealand, the term "little monkey" is often used to describe the antics of children. It's less frequently used when talking about adults, but generally wouldn't be considered offensive. However, it's widely considered to be a taboo, racially insensitive term in the U.S.
Kenny McFadden, who coached and mentored Adams in New Zealand, said Wednesday that Adams simply used the wrong words.
"It was unintentional, there was no malice behind it," said McFadden, a former Washington State University player who is African American.
"You have to put it into context. Growing up in the U.S., certain words mean different things to different people," McFadden said. "In New Zealand, we don't have the same issues. We've never had the same type of issues."
In New Zealand, race relations have tended to revolve around the relationship between European-descended whites, who make up about two-thirds of the population, and indigenous Maori, who account for 15 percent. There are also significant numbers of Pacific islanders and Asians but few Africans or African Americans.
"Obviously in the United States with a high proportion of African Americans in the population, who have received and still receive extensive racial discrimination, a term like that is received differently," wrote David Mayeda in an email. Mayeda, who is American, is a senior lecturer in sociology at New Zealand's University of Auckland.
Adams himself comes from a multicultural background. His father is from England, his mother from Tonga.
Graeme Yule, the headmaster at Scots College in Wellington, where Adams went to high school, said Adams arrived at the school "a bit lost" after his father died and he had all but given up on academics. He said Adams developed into a genuinely nice guy who wouldn't seek to harm anyone or cause offense.
Yule said the high school's dining hall was packed Tuesday with students watching the game during their lunch hour.
Indeed, there has been a new, nationwide interest in the NBA thanks to Adams. New Zealand singer Lorde this week even posted a picture on Twitter of a half-eaten piece of local chocolate, offering to send Adams some supplies.
The basketballer's comments hit close to home for Nick Koirala, founder of the Wellington-based software development company LittleMonkey.
Koirala said he'd chosen the name because the web domain was available at the time and it sounded playful and fun. He said he'd never really considered it to have any racial undertones until Adams' comments made headlines.
"Obviously that caught my attention," Koirala said. "I actually agree with what Steven Adams said, that in New Zealand it doesn't have the same connotations." He said he wasn't considering changing the company's name.
Wynne Gray, a sports columnist for the nation's largest newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, wrote that he didn't think Adams needed to apologize: "a microphone jabbed up his nose by some TV-type, these are unscripted moments," wrote Gray. "There will be blemishes but viewers are looking for the raw reaction to what has just happened."
The paper's sports editor, Cameron McMillan, disagreed, saying he thought Adams did the right thing by apologizing quickly: "Well handled," he wrote. "Now let's move on to game two."