Category Archives: 5 For 5 Series

A look back at events that shaped the first 5 season of the Thunder in Oklahoma City.

5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

stern bennett oklahoma city thunder

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run

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 months, 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.

“What about Oklahoma City?”

Those four words are probably the most important words ever uttered when it comes to professional basketball in the state of Oklahoma. Those words were mentioned in a conversation then NBA Commissioner David Stern had with then New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn. The context of the conversation occurred shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in September of 2005. With much of the city destroyed and many of its citizens in exile to different parts of the country, the city of New Orleans was in no position to support either of their pro teams (the Hornets and the Saints). As Stern and Shinn were going to a list of contingency plans, Stern uttered those fateful words to Shinn.

hurricane katrina

A lawyer by trade, Stern has always shown the chops to be prepared for any situation, and to be ready with a definitive solution. When he asked Shinn about Oklahoma City, it wasn’t asked as  inquiry. It was asked as rhetoric. Stern knew what cities were hypothetically viable to support an NBA franchise in the short term. People tend to think the only thing needed to support a pro-sports franchise is population and a venue. But there’s so much more to the equation than that. Of course, you have to have the numbers (citizens). The more people in a given area, the more it is likely that 19,000 people will purchase tickets and attend games. You have to have an arena that is technologically up to date (availability of HD cables), and able to produce revenue outside of the NBA product (in-arena restaurants, kiosks, box seats, etc.). The city has to have a business community that is willing to take risks to cover the team’s operational costs if things don’t go as planned. And you have to have a fan base that is starved to support a professional team, no matter what the circumstances or parameters are.

A few months before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, then Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett made a trek to New York to discuss the possibilities of Oklahoma City someday being considered as an expansion or relocation site. He had a brand new state of the art arena and business leaders willing to assist with money and influence. But as Cornett later quipped in an interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, “…the prometrics weren’t in our favor. We had no track record of major pro sports. Stern couldn’t have been kinder, but he left us with no hope for a team.” But alas, every garden starts with but a single seed. Stern, in his due diligence, probably heeded Cornett’s request and did some research of his own.

Some of the businessmen in the Oklahoma City area had previously had dealings with Stern and the NBA, so it wasn’t like OKC was a complete anomaly to the Commissioner. One of those businessmen was Clay Bennett, who once was a principal owner of the San Antonio Spurs in the 90’s and was the team’s representative at the NBA’s Board of Governors. Bennett probably kept the words Oklahoma City within an earshot of Stern every time they spoke. Even though the “prometrics weren’t in (OKC’s) favor” as Mayor Cornett stated, the fact that Oklahoma City was trying (MAPS I and II, Ford Center, downtown renovation), and was constantly being mentioned by associates of Stern probably kept the city in the back of Stern’s mind.

stern shinn oklahoma city hornets

So when Stern proposed that question to Shinn, he knew that he would be met with some opposition. As soon as you mention Oklahoma, most people outside of the region think of 3 things:  The Dust Bowl, the musical, and the Murrah building bombing. A progressive city was probably not on the list of adjectives to describe Oklahoma City. But Stern had already done his research and knew that OKC already had most of the components in place to be a successful temporary relocation site. They had the venue, just enough citizens in the metro and surrounding areas, and the business leaders. All he needed to do was convince Shinn that this would be a viable relocation site.

As is the case with the spirit of Oklahoma, when we are given a chance, we usually shine. When Cornett and Bennett made their presentation to Shinn, he was blown aback with the viability of this option. The business leaders of the City, led by Bennett, provided Shinn with a revenue guarantee. Basically, the business leaders would foot the bill if certain revenue goals were not met. With a new arena, the backing of the City’s business leaders and Stern, and not many other viable options, the decision was made to grant Oklahoma City 35 guaranteed home games for the 2005-06 NBA season.

chris paul oklahoma city hornets

With that, OKC was welcomed into the professional sports brotherhood, even if it was only temporary. And Oklahomans voraciously ate it up. We had always wanted to eat at the big boy table, and now, from out of nowhere, this opportunity was bestowed upon us. Fans came in flocks to attend a New Orleans/Oklahoma City (NOK) Hornets game. The uncertainty of how long the team would stay kept some people from becoming too attached to the team. But even with that, the team sold out over half of its games that were played in Oklahoma City. The Hornets, who had finished last in attendance the previous season, went from averaging 14,221 fans to 18,168 fans, which was a 78% increase.

With the revenue goals, not only met, but vastly exceeded, and New Orleans still in rebuild mode, the team and the NBA decided that Oklahoma City would get another season of Hornets basketball. With that increase in revenue, the team decided to trade for defensive center Tyson Chandler and sign sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic to a near max contract. OKC would get 35 home games, while New Orleans would get the remaining 6 home games.

Attendance started strong, with OKC selling out 6 of their first 10 home games. But when the word came that it was a certainty that the Hornets would return to New Orleans, attendance, understandably, waned a bit. But it was during that time frame, that another domino got put into place.

schultz bennett sonics thunder

After failing to buy a majority stake of the Hornets from Shinn, Clay Bennett decided to set his sights on the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics, and Stern for that matter, had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the city over the viability of their venue, Key Arena. After putting the money up for the baseball stadium and the football stadium, the city was not in the mood to pay over $500 million to subsidize another arena.

The team’s then owner Howard Schultz was losing money because of the team’s lease with the arena, and because of attendance issues. He sold the team to an outsider hoping that even the veiled threat of relocation would send the city into action to build a brand new arena. Instead, the city passed Initiative-91 which prohibited Seattle from supporting teams with city tax dollars. This initiative basically doomed any new stadium being built in the city of Seattle.

Clay Bennett gave the city an ultimatum of 12 months to approve a plan for a new arena. When that time ran its course, he put in motion plans to move the team to Oklahoma City. He was met with opposition and litigation, but in the end, the city felt it would be better if Bennett payed a hefty sum to get out of the lease instead of waiting the lease out and getting nothing in return.

bennett silver stern nba thunder

Adam Silver took over for Stern as NBA Commissioner on February 1st, 2014. But much like the space between presidential election day and presidential inauguration day, the real Silver era doesn’t begin until after the All-Star break. This space in between from Feb 1st – 14th is more of a hybrid era where we praise the exiting commish and wonder what the new commish has in store.

So in this hybrid period, I just wanted to say to Mr. Stern, “Thank you.” Thank you for giving Oklahoma City a chance at proving it’s worth as a pro-sports city. The process of OKC getting a team was a messy mixture of tragedy, finances, and politics. A lot like Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Stern acted as an objective facilitator to Oklahoma City and helped us step into the world of professional sports.

Advertisements

5 for 5: The Run

durant westbrook thunder lakers fisher farmer

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

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.

When the Thunder went into the 2009-10 season, their expectations weren’t that high. They were coming off a 23-win season that saw them change coaches mid-season and continued cultivating the young talent that would eventually become their core. They drafted James Harden with the 3rd pick in that year’s draft and ushered in Serge Ibaka, who was drafted in the previous year’s draft, but stayed in Europe for an extra season of development. With the coaching staff firmly entrenched under Scott Brooks and a full year after the Seattle to Oklahoma City transition, the team was looking for tangible improvements on the floor and in the win column.

Hindsight being what it is, the most important addition to the Thunder that season didn’t even don a jersey. After Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlismo in late November of the previous season, the team also fired Carlismo’s number one assistant Paul Westhead. On December 31st, probably in response to Brooks’ inexperience as a head coach, the team hired veteran assistant coach Ron Adams, whose specialty was defense. The teachings of Adams didn’t immediately pay dividends as the team saw their opponents’ scoring average go from 102.2 ppg before his arrival to 103.7 after his arrival. But the seeds of his defensive principles started to take root after the team had an entire offseason and training camp with Adams.

ron adams mo cheeks thunder

The team came out the next season with a defensive mindset that immediately showed results not only in the stat column, but also in the win column. They improved their defensive rating from 20th to 9th in the league, and held opponents to 98.0 ppg, which was a 5 point improvement from the previous season. The continued evolution of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into All-NBA stewards also helped in the improvement process, as well. The result was a 27 win improvement that netted the Thunder the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Their opponent in wait were the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Run

5 for 5: The Rivalries

harden sefolosha durant thunder rockets

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

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 third part in this series, I wanted to focus on the rivalries. Sports are only as good as the competition they incite. Playing driveway basketball against your kids when they are 5 years of age can quickly get boring (although palming misdirected shots in midair like you’re Serge Ibaka can be entertaining for at least an hour or so). But, try playing your kids when they are 18 years old and have had 12 years of playing experience. Then it becomes an entirely different ballgame.

When it comes to competition, I’ve always looked at the career of Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a sliver of disappointment. That he’s a great boxer with arguably the best defense in the history of boxing is without question. The issue that I’ve had with his career has been the level of competition of his opponents. Now, I’m not saying that falls squarely on Mayweather. The guys in his weight classes have not been particularly consistent in the past decade. He’s also “luckily” scheduled the right fights at the right times, choosing to fight boxers that were either on the downward slide of their career (Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley) or fighters that were too inexperienced to compete with him at the time of their fight (Canelo Alvarez and Victor Ortiz). He’s never had that one opponent that defined him. Mike Tyson had Evander Holyfield. Arturo Gatti had Mickey Ward. Mayweather has…… (and therein lies the problem with his career).

mayweather alvarez boxing

If fans are the life blood of sports, then rivalries are the engines that keep them running.  You naturally root against your opponent because they are competing against you and you want to win. Pretty simple concept. But if you add something more to that competitive fire, it can act like an accelerant, creating an even bigger blaze. Rivalries, and the differing reasons for them, can be that spark. When it comes to the Thunder, I’ve categorized their rivals under 4 different categories.

1. Regional Foes

Geography and competition are probably the easiest ways to breed a rivalry. Whether it’s an intracity game between two high schools or a game between professional sports teams 200 miles apart, that desire to be superior to those closest to you is an innate characteristic of the human psyche. Even if the two teams aren’t on equal footing at the time of the game, the rivalry aspect of the game often lends it to be a close affair. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Rivalries

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

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.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings

kd russ

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

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.

okc bomb

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. Continue reading 5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings