This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.
For the first defining moment, you have to, of course, start at the beginning. But, it’s not the beginning that you think. While the Thunder were established in 2008, the road to having them in OKC began in December 1994. It was during that time that Timothy McVeigh visited and decided that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would be the site of his mayhem.
After meticulously planning and gathering the necessary materials, McVeigh, and his accomplice Terry Nichols, put their plan into action for April of 1995. They rented a Ryder moving truck on April 15th in Kansas and packed it with its deadly payload on the 17th and 18th. The next day, they drove down to Oklahoma City where, at 9:02 AM, they detonated the 4,800 pound monster that resided inside of the Ryder truck. The blast completely dismantled the north side of the building leaving countless people injured and 168 dead in its wake. It was the deadliest terroristic attack on US soil that the nation had seen up to that point.
Once the smoke cleared though, the choice was clear. We would not stand to be known by the evil of the tragedy, but by the fortitude with which we recovered. We chose to be known by the way we rose together, instead of by the way we momentarily got knocked down. That mindset, which comes naturally to Oklahomans, galvanized us to remember those lost, while also promising them that we would rise stronger than before. The possibilities were there, but the question was how would be we get there?
While the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan (MAPS) had already been approved for by the beginning of 1994, the bombing acted as a catalyst to make MAPS a rousing success. One of the things that MAPS brought with it was a state of the art arena called the Ford Center that could host concerts and sporting events, especially hockey and basketball. Opening in 2002, the Ford Center served its purpose hosting top notch concerts, preseason basketball games, and minor league hockey.
Then, on August 23, 2005, Tropical Depression Twelve formed over the southeastern part of the Bahamas. By the next day, it had been upgraded to a tropical storm and was given the name Katrina. It entered the southeastern coast of Florida as a Category One hurricane, skirting the southern coast of the state and finding its way back into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf, it quickly intensified into a Category 5 hurricane, before crashing into New Orleans, Louisiana as a very strong Category 3 hurricane. The lethal combination of torrential downpours, extremely high winds, and towering storm surges overwhelmed the protection net of levees in the city and caused them to collapse. The resultant flooding inundated 80% of the city and made living conditions extremely inhospitable.
The life blood of any sports franchise is the fans. It’s the reason why professional teams are usually located in densely populated cities. The bigger the population, the higher the probability that enough people will purchase tickets to the game and fill the arena/field/stadium. The flooding in the days after the hurricane made it extremely difficult to maneuver around the city, and many residents were forced to relocate. This exodus of people out of New Orleans would have made it extremely difficult for the city’s sports teams, the Saints (NFL) and the Hornets (NBA), to financially sustain themselves. To make matters worse, the timing of the hurricane occurred right when the NFL season was beginning and a month and a half before the NBA season was set to begin. As the clean-up efforts began, it became very evident that the reconstruction of the city would not be measured in months, but instead, years.
When the NBA started looking at contingency plans for the New Orleans Hornets, one of the more surprising choices for temporary relocation was Oklahoma City. NBA Commissioner David Stern mentioned it to Hornets owner George Shinn, who was at first surprised at the choice, but then decided to tour the city and the Ford Center. Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett and various local business leaders put together a presentation that showed Shinn and the NBA the potential the OKC market had as a big league city. That presentation persuaded Shinn and the NBA to make OKC the temporary home of the New Orleans Hornets for one, and possibly two, seasons.
Cities don’t usually have the opportunity to have a trial period before owning a team. It was like one of those informercials where they say, “We’ll let you try it free for 30 days and if you are not satisfied, just return it.” This was an extremely unique situation for Oklahoma City with a lot hanging in the balance. The Hornets weren’t exactly the darlings of the NBA before they arrived in Oklahoma City. They had finished with an 18-64 record and had just fired their head coach, Tim Floyd. Fail to support the adopted team and you risk losing any opportunity, whatsoever, to attract a pro team. To top it off, on opening night, George Shinn completely forgot what city he was in when he was addressing the OKC crowd. “I’m so thankful for the city of Ok…..er….Okla…er….City.” That may not be an exact quote, but it went a little something like that. Then they tossed the opening tip up in the air….
And we were hooked. And not “little kid with a new toy” hooked, where they are tired of playing with it two weeks later. It was “addict nodding off with the needle still in their arm” hooked. People came in droves to see this new attraction called professional basketball. People signed up for season tickets. Businesses were clamoring to get their names associated with the likes of the NBA and the Hornets. And, like an overweight person who has lost a significant amount of weight can attest, we were loving the positive attention. In a group that included New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, etc, the nation was looking at us and saying, “Wow, look at this fan base in Oklahoma City. That’s what a rabid professional fan base is supposed to look like.”
We took it all in. The game winners, the highlight plays, the great in-game atmosphere. Everything. We saw Chris Paul’s entrance into the NBA. We saw David West’s transformation from bit player to blossoming All-Star. We saw Tyson Chandler become one of the best defensive centers in the NBA. We saw Peja Stojakovic be healthy for the last time in his career. We saw JR Smith’s regression from promising young player to end of the bench doghouse attendant. We saw DJ Rob Nice’s smoothness as an in-game commentator. We saw Chris Andersen get suspended for 2 years for partying too much. We say NO/OKC or NOK listed on NBA standings throughout the internet. We saw Kobe, Lebron, Iverson, Shaq, Dirk, Wade, Melo. But, most importantly, we battled and we competed. The Hornets’ competitiveness is one of the most important things to take away from the team’s stay in OKC
In the back of our minds, though, we knew that the Hornets were destined to go back to New Orleans. Even with all the rumors that were swirling around saying Shinn was looking (and looking HARD) for someway to stay in the Oklahoma City market, we knew they HAD to go back. No league would want the smear of being the one that abandoned a recovering city in need. David Stern said from day one that the Hornets were returning to New Orleans, and not even a great trial run in Oklahoma City could prevent that. We, thankfully, got 2 great years from the Hornets, but by the beginning of their second season in OKC, it was confirmed that they were going back to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season.
But another surprising revelation happened at the beginning of the Hornets’ second season in Oklahoma City. An Oklahoma City businessman by the name of Clay Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics on October 31st, 2006. Bennett tried to purchase a majority stake in the Hornets while they were in town, but was rebuffed by Shinn, who never wanted to lose controlling majority over the team. Instead of settling for being a minority owner, Bennett instead ponied up the necessary funds to purchase a team of his own. From the beginning, it was an uneasy truce as David Stern had already ruffled enough feathers in the Seattle area with his veiled threats of relocation if the Seattle/Washington leaders didn’t approve measures for a more cost-effective, state of the art arena.
When the out-of-town owner finally started taking control of the team, there was already a huge resistance from the locals to acquiesce to any of Bennett’s demands for an arena. Seattle’s choices were pretty clear from the beginning: either find funds for a new arena and keep the team or continue fighting and risk losing the team due to the short lease the team had with Key Arena. Bennett laid his demands on the table from the beginning. He gave the city one season to come up with funds for a new arena. If nothing was accomplished in that time frame, then other options would be explored. That Seattle city officials were too blind to know what “other options would be explored” meant, showed the leadership in that city was in denial that the Sonics actually had a chance to be moved, especially to a city of supposed lesser stature. Seattle seemed to have gotten a leg up in the court of public opinion when leaked emails showed that Bennett and his minority owners may have wanted to move the team to OKC from the beginning. But that still didn’t change the fact that Seattle was given an option and chose not to follow through with it.
When the deadline expired, Bennett decided to put into motion the relocation of the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Seattle officials tried to block the move by claiming that there was still time on the Key Arena lease and that because of that fact, the team was legally bound to play in Key Arena until the lease expired. The dispute was taken to court and the city leaders decided they would rather have something in return ($$$$$) instead of losing the team for nothing. With that, the moving vans arrived and, eventually, the Oklahoma City Thunder were born.
Two tragedies, one man made and one natural, and one trial, put into motion the steps that led to Oklahoma City eventually getting a professional basketball team. The exclusivity of the NBA club makes it extremely difficult for a newbie to join the fray. The only option, usually, is via expansion, and that hasn’t happened into a new market since 1995. The fact that Oklahoma City got a team in the manner that it did, with a trial run and then purchasing and legally moving an existing team, was unchartered and without precedence. Regardless of how it happened, though, on October 29th, 2008, the Milwaukee Bucks opened the season in Oklahoma City playing against the Oklahoma City Thunder.