Tag Archives: Peja Stojakovic

Disasters and Opportunities: How Oklahoma City got on the NBA map

hurricane katrina

Its a process that can be both beautiful and scary all at the same time. A low pressure disturbance, which is basically winds that pick up water vapor, intensifying into something so massive and deadly is why mother nature reigns supreme on the respect scale. Usually these storms run their course, while keeping their impact to a minimum on the area they impact. But every once and a while, these behemoths can impact an area so severely, that the ramifications are felt, not only years later, but also in cities outside of the affected areas.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, a city about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.  It struck land as a Category 3 hurricane after intensifying all the way to a Category 5 only 24 hours earlier. As with most hurricanes, the danger didn’t lie in the storm itself, but instead, on the amount of water that was dumped into the area. It is estimated that New Orleans received 8-10 inches of rain over a 4-5 hour period, while also receiving 12-14 foot storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico. That deadly combination of rain and storm surge overwhelmed the aging levee system, which caused it to completely fail. To make matters worse, the natural geography and topography of New Orleans is not very conducive to flooding. The city is already located below sea-level and is surrounded by huge bodies of water (Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River to the east, Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast).

Once the storm passed through, the devastation become apparent. Over 80% of the city was completely flooded and infrastructure was almost non-existent. Bridges and highways were damaged. Hundreds were dead. Tens of thousands were displaced. The once great city was a shell of itself. As the shock and awe of the situation began to wear off, the reality of the monumental recovery/rebuild quickly shifted to the foreground.

When infrastructure and lives are in jeopardy, sports gets understandably pushed down on the priority list. But the NFL and NBA needed to find contingency plans for the two teams in New Orleans. The NFL season was about 10 days away from beginning when the hurricane struck. Nearby metropolises with NFL-ready stadiums  already had NFL teams, like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kansas City Chiefs. Many other nearby cities didn’t have stadium capacity necessary for an NFL game. The Saints and the NFL chose San Antonio, Texas as the base for the Saints for the 2005 season, but the Saints only played 3 “home” games in the AlamoDome. Four other “home” games were played in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and one other home game had to be shifted to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Because of all the limbo and travel, the Saints finished the season 3-13.

Unlike the NFL, which only had days to work on their contingency plan, the NBA had at least a month to work on theirs. The biggest question was where the Hornets would be headquartered while the city was being repaired/rebuilt. If this article were a TV show, this would be where the show would feature a flashback. In the mid-90’s, now Oklahoma City Thunder majority owner Clay Bennett was one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs. One of his main duties was to attend the Board of Governors meetings the NBA and its owner has at various points in the season. When that many powerful people are in one room, networking is one of the orders of the day. During those times, Bennett and then NBA commissioner David Stern developed a relationship that would come to affect Oklahoma City in years to come.

stern-bennett-oklahoma-city-thunder

When the NBA started in on their process to find a suitable temporary location for the Hornets, one of the first people to contact Stern was Bennett. The businessman who had roots in Oklahoma through marriage had already convinced the mayor Mick Cornett and other business leaders that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for by the time he made that call. It’s at this point where the show would flashback again. Ten years prior to the events in New Orleans, Oklahoma City suffered its own tragedy. The carnage created by the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building may not have been as widespread as the flooding in New Orleans, but it still affected the lives of many Oklahomans, even still to this day. The bombing became the catalyst to the improvement of downtown Oklahoma City. The City no longer wanted to be known as the “fly over city where the bombing occurred.” Instead, it wanted to compete with the likes of Dallas, Kansas City, and San Antonio in matters of tourism and culture. One of the things approved in the first MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Plan) was the construction of an 18,000+ seat multipurpose indoor sports arena which originally was known as the Ford Center.

The Ford Center became the biggest selling point for Bennett in his quest to secure Oklahoma City as the temporary location for the Hornets. The 18,203 seat arena did not have a permanent tenant and was readily available for most any day the schedule called for. In addition, the business community stepped up to support the Hornets and cover a lot of the costs from the relocation. With all that in place, Stern and Hornets owner George Shinn made the decision to grant Oklahoma City the opportunity to temporarily house the Hornets for the 2005-06 season. While other cities may have been larger with more resources, such as Las Vegas or Kansas City, Oklahoma City offered no competition as far as pro sports goes and was ravenous in their pursuit to prove themselves on the big stage.

And prove themselves they did. The city took to the team like a fish to water. It was the combination of a young fan base cheering for a young team. Oklahoma City was okay with just having a team, while the team was thrilled to have a crowd cheer for them. For five years prior to the move to Oklahoma City, the attendance for the Hornets had dwindled to about 14,110 people per game. They finished last or second to last in 3 of those 5 seasons, and were worst in attendance the season before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The attendance in Oklahoma City averaged 18,168 as the Hornets went on to finish No. 11 in attendance in the league. The fans got to see Chris Paul’s rookie of the year campaign. They got to see the return of a hometown hero in Desmond Mason. They got to see one of the most vicious dunks ever when Kirk Snyder jumped over (yes, jumped over) Von Wafer for a dunk. They got to see the emergence of David West, who gave the fans three game-winning shots in that one season alone. They got to see a team that extolled many of the virtues they lived by; a team that many thought wouldn’t do well, but instead, stayed competitive throughout the season as they finished 38-44. Most importantly, the NBA decided to give OKC a second season, as the numbers in terms of population size weren’t yet where they wanted them to be in order to support two professional sports teams. The NBA knew that while the fan base for the Saints was strong, the fan base for the Hornets was not quite at that level. Instead of seeing an arena full of empty seats like they had before Katrina hit, the NBA decided to give New Orleans another year to recover, while also providing them some games in the Big Easy to whet their appetites.

chris paul okc

The 2006 offseason was the first offseason Oklahoma City ever got to experience, and it was a busy one at that. The team drafted 3 rookies (Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, and Marcus Vinicius), traded for Tyson Chandler, and signed Bobby Jackson and marquee free-agent Peja Stojakovic. While it was an exciting time to be an Oklahoma City Hornets fan, it was also starting to become bittersweet. When Stern and Shinn commented on the success of Oklahoma City as an NBA city, they always followed that up by stating they were fully committed to returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. Being a Hornets fan in Oklahoma City began to feel like we were the committed mistress in a relationship that would be nothing more than a short-lived affair. The fan base loved their new team, but knew it belonged to someone else.

In the background, though, Bennett was trying to buy majority ownership of the Hornets from Shinn. He would allow Shinn to remain with the organization as a minority owner, but wanted majority rule in decision making. Shinn rejected the offer, citing the NBA’s desire to successfully return back to New Orleans. With that, Bennett set his sights on some other franchise to purchase.

As the season started, the Hornets came out like gangbusters. They started the season 4-0 and got all the way to 8-3 before the wheels started falling off the bike. Injuries derailed the seasons of Stojakovic, Paul, West, Jackson, and Chandler. The Hornets continued to battle hard through the injuries, but were never able to put enough victories together to make any sort of impact, as they finished with the same record as the previous season.

With that, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets once again became the New Orleans Hornets. While the hearts of many Oklahoma City fans were broken, there was another development happening in the Pacific Northwest.

During the season, Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics from Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz. The move was likely backed by the league to get a ground swell of support for the construction of a newer, more profitable arena in the Seattle area. When the local owner couldn’t get it done, the NBA tried to bring in the new kid in the NBA circles to put pressure on the Washington legislature to get an arena deal done. Bennett went to Seattle and laid down his plan: he would try to get an arena deal done for that next season (07-08). If nothing was done by then, Bennett would pursue other options. A blind man could have seen from a mile away what Bennett meant by “other options”.

With no arena deal in place, the wheels were already put in motion to try to get the Sonics to Oklahoma City. After a legal battle and about $100 million dollars in relocation fees and lease payments, the Seattle Supersonics officially became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Disaster begets opportunity. That’s just the way the cycle works. In a Utopian scenario, Katrina never happens, Seattle keeps their team, and Oklahoma City eventually (somehow?) gets an expansion franchise. But that’s not how it happened. Tragedy and disaster happened. Because of that, an opportunity arose. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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House of (Lottery) Cards – The Thunder and the NBA Draft Reform

frank underwood house of cards

On Wednesday, the NBA Board of Governors will be voting on whether to change the format of the NBA Draft Lottery process. In the reform, the 14 non-playoff teams will still vie for lottery positioning in a lottery style system. What does change are the percentages to vie for the top 3 picks. In the current system, the team with the worst record has the highest chance (25%) of getting the number 1 pick, while the lottery team with the best record has the lowest chance (0.5%) of getting the number 1 pick. The basic gist of the current system is, the worser your record, the better your chances of obtaining a top 3 pick. In the proposed new system, the 4 teams with the worst records each have a 12% chance of getting the first pick, with the 5th worst team garnering an 11.5% chance, and the 6th worst team garnering a 10% chance, and on down the line. Even worse, in the new system, teams aren’t as protected as they are in the current system from free falling to a lower spot in the draft. Under the current system, the team with the worst record can not fall lower than the 4th pick. In the new proposed system, the team with the worst record has the possibility of falling all the way down to the 7th pick.

Free agency is to big market teams as the draft is to small market teams. Big market teams are at an advantage because they can not only build during free agency, but also in the draft if they are lucky enough. Unfortunately, small market teams can usually only build through the draft. For as great as Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Milwaukee are as metropolises, they pale in comparison to the global cultural centers that are New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.

The Thunder experienced this with Pau Gasol this offseason. While not necessarily a top 10 player, Gasol would have instantly made the Thunder the favorites to win the title in 2014-15. But when push came to shove, Gasol, having just completed a 7-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers, decided to go with the Chicago Bulls. One of the factors in his decision was the lack of cultural diversity in OKC. Whatever that is, when you compare OKC to Chicago, you kind of see what he is talking about. I don’t know when was the last time a small market team signed a marquee free agent (and by marquee, I mean a Top-20 player at the time of his free agency). The last one was probably when Peja Stojakovic signed with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets in the 2006 offseason. At the time, Stojakovic was a fringe top 20-30 player in the league, but was beginning to show the signs of being injury-prone. The Hornets, of course, overpaid, and injuries were a major theme of Stojakovic’s term with the Hornets.

With this new draft reform, the NBA is essentially decreasing the life blood of talent to small market teams. The cycle of success to rebuild and back to success occurs a lot more regularly for small market teams than it does for big market teams. Small market teams have to rebuild when times get rough, and hope that they don’t make a big mistake. Big market teams can simply reload when the well runs dry. Is it always successful? No. But if the same mismanagement of funds that occurred with the New York Knicks from 2005-2012 would’ve happened to occur in Milwaukee, you can rest assured that Milwaukee would either be under new ownership or would be playing in a different city. The draft is the harbinger of hope for small market teams. And this new draft reform would lessen the opportunity for small market teams to nab a franchise talent like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or Anthony Davis.

mcgary presti thunder

The ironic part of all this is that the team at the center of this change is a big market team. The visual tank job that has been the Philadelphia 76ers in the past season and a half is at the root of all the draft reform discussion. In the past 18 months, the 76ers have sent away any veteran asset they had for draft picks and cap space. And in the last two drafts, the Sixers have taken 3 players in the lottery that were either injured (Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid) or not intending to come to the NBA for at least two season (Dario Saric). Strategic tanking has always been a part of the rebuilding process. A rebuilding team wants to shed salary and obtain assets, while at the same time putting a “competitive” product on the floor. But Philadelphia has completely eschewed the competitive part of the equation, and has blatantly put a subpar product on the floor in order to build for the future. It is no different than other tank jobs, with the exception of the blatantness of it all.

With all this on the table, it would almost seem to be a given that at least 8 teams would be against this draft reform. Philadelphia, for sure, would be at the forefront. But stepping up to the podium has been Thunder GM Sam Presti. Surprisingly, Presti, of the championship contending Thunder, has been leading the charge against draft reform. You see, Presti knows what’s at stake. Under the current system, a couple seasons of drought can lead to gold if you draft well and spend your money wisely. But under the proposed system, those couple of seasons of drought can lead to gold or they can lead to iron pyrite. And while draft position is never an exact science, a lot more superstars are drafted in the top 5 picks than anywhere else in the draft. Presti is always looking ahead and knows that there will come a time when Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka will no longer be donning Thunder uniforms. It could be in the next 2-3 seasons, just like it could be in the next 10 seasons. But when that day comes, the Thunder will likely look to the draft to rebuild.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports, Presti is struggling to come up with the six extra votes to block the 3/4 majority needed to pass the draft reform. Which is absolutely asinine to me. If those small market teams would realize how much more difficult it will be for them to land franchise talent with this change, it would seem like an easy decision for them to make. If anything, this is an opportunity for small market teams to flex a little muscle. Like Frank Underwood of House of Cards says, “There is no solace above or below. Only us – small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.” I can definitely see Presti working the back channels tonight like Underwood in trying to get those necessary 6 votes. And after he gets the votes, I can see Presti going to his hotel, opening up his balcony window, and cooly smoking one lonely cigarette while staring into the night.

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.

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

It Was All A Dream

“It was all a dream…” The opening line to “Juicy”, one of the greatest rap songs ever written. Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s opening salvo into our collective consciousness was, perhaps, the greatest conveyment of a musical rags-to-riches story. Great things always have a way of starting off small. Facebook started off as a social network for only Ivy League students and had the word ‘the’ in its original title. Microsoft started off as two friends who were great computer programmers. The Oklahoma City Thunder started off as a 23 win franchise that was in the running to be the worst team in league history for much of the season. But, oh, how things have changed. 

From a fan’s perspective, this was a celebration of the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals. From the outside, this just looked like the finality of a four year run that started off very slow, but has been on a uphill trek ever since. But from the inside, this wasn’t just about the last 4 years. That collective cheer that you heard from the Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 06, 2012 at about 10:30 PM was a roar of passion. Passion, not only for the team, but for the state. A roar for ourselves. Not for each collective ‘me’, but instead, for the collective ‘we’. 

 When you are from Oklahoma, you always hark back to THAT day. April 19, 1995. The day innocence was ripped from the hearts of Oklahomans of all ages. The day we learned about evil and heartbreak. But, on April 20, 1995, we got up and started using a new vernacular. We started to live by words like RESILIENCY, COMMUNITY, SACRIFICE, TOGETHER, HUMILITY, HARDWORK. We knew the trek ahead was tough, but we knew it was a trek we would take together. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, 4 years later, the city was struck by what has been called the Monster of all tornadoes. An F5 tornado with multiple vortices, ripped through the southern part of Oklahoma City, destroying the suburb of Moore, Ok and the city of Bridge Creek, Ok. Once again, probably because of the hard lessons learned from the Murrah Building Bombing, we knew how to react to this tragedy and pulled together.  

City leaders, construction workers, politicians, and citizens all stepped up to the plate to improve the namesake city of the state. What was once a warehouse district was transformed into a sprawling entertainment district in the span of 20 years. With those improvements, came a 20,000 seat indoor sports arena originally known as the Ford Center. This would become the hub of our professional sports dream. 

Of course, with any dream, there are obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the ultimate goal. First, was the fact that we were the 44th largest TV market in the United States. While that sounds great in comparing it to the other 25,000 cities in the United States, that doesn’t bode well for any professional sports league looking for an expansion city. Secondly, was that fact that the professional sports leagues weren’t necessarily looking to expand at that time. The NBA last expanded in 2004, MLB in 1998, NFL in 2002, and the NHL in 2000. 

There’s a saying that goes, “When opportunities comes a’knocking, you better open the door.” When the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina happened in September 2005, the New Orleans Hornets were left with no place to play and hardly a populance to play for. Looking to lend a helping hand AND prove our worth as a big league city, Mayor Mick Cornett and city officials lobbied the NBA’s front office for the opportunity to host the Hornets for as long as necessary. While initially down playing the idea, the NBA decided to give Oklahoma City this opportunity of a lifetime and allow the Hornets to play at the Ford Center for what would eventually become 2 seasons. 

And Oklahoma City proved its worth, quickly growing a reputation as one of the loudest fan bases in the league for its adopted team. For those two seasons, the Hornets became synonymous with having a distinct home court advantage. It became OKC’s first foray into professional sports. Chris Paul won Rookie of the Year in his first season in OKC and David West became a burgeoning All-Star. Tyson Chandler became known as one of the best defensive big men in the league and Peja Stojakovic became known as one of the biggest free agency busts in his one season in OKC. And after two seasons, the music stopped. 

It was a bit disappointing when the Hornets left. Its like being in a 2-year relationship with someone that still had ties to their ex, and then being single again when your significant other goes back to their ex. We always knew the Hornets were going back to New Orleans, but the hope of them some how staying in OKC long-term was still in the back of most our minds. But this was no time to hold our heads down. Their was another opportunity to be had, and another team in the horizon. 

Regardless of what you think of the way OKC got the Thunder, the fact still remained that as of July 2008, the Seattle Supersonics ceased to exist and the Oklahoma City Thunder came into existence. Civic pride will make you argue the move until you are blue (Thunder blue, of course) in the face, but Oklahoma City had its team and it was time to show and prove. That first season was brutal, though. We knew we were getting a skeleton crew of a team with some young, unproven talent, but we didn’t know it was going to be this bad. 

The morning after another of our home losses, I called to the local morning sports talk radio show and just vented. I didn’t know if I could do this anymore. Living 90 miles from OKC and having to drive more than an hour each way, made driving back from the mounting losses excruciating. It’s almost like the team was stuck in a rut when it first got here and you had to wonder whether there wasn’t some karmic justice at play at how we had obtained the team. Thankfully, a coaching change and the general improvement of the young players led to a good finish and a hope for the next season. 

We all know what has happened the last two seasons. After a meteoric rise in their second season in OKC, the Thunder made the playoffs as an 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of a 7th game in a riveting first round series. The team’s young stars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) went on to be the main components for a Team USA squad that won gold in the 2010 World Championships. In the next season, we finished with the 4th seed and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, losing in a close 5-game series to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Suffice to say, expectations were definitely mounting.

Finally this year, in a season that was on the brink of not happening at all due to labor strife, the team exerted its dominance on most of the league and finished with the 2nd seed in the West. Two things became apparent as we marched towards this point. Number 1: This team was mature beyond its years and eschewed the notion that youth has to wait. Number 2: The home crowd was actually beginning to affect the play of the young Thunder. 

While last season, the Thunder players were the ones being criticized in the postseason, it was our turn, as fans, to be criticized this postseason. It started when the organization began playing games on the huge jumbotron TV outside of the stadium. What became famously known as Thunder Alley started as a small gathering (1000-2000) of fans that could not get tickets to the game, but wanted to experience, first-hand, the atmosphere of being at the playoff game. Eventually that small gathering turned into an all-out block party that some reports say reached as high as 10,000 + spectators in Thunder Alley. When you get that many people in a small space, bad things are bound to happen. Violence erupted after the clinching game of the 2nd round, and the postseason form of Thunder Alley was shut down. It is pretty sad when real fans have to suffer at the expense of a couple knuckleheads. Some people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford playoff tickets, but still want to be in the playoff atmosphere. 

Then there were the complaints that we actually wear our free t-shirts that the team supplies to each fan during playoff games. The travesty that fans would wear those shirts and cheer together as one. Who does that? Who cheers every great play and jeers every questionable call? I thought this was the norm for fans. I thought it was par for the course. But, just like everything else, we do things just a little different. We actually feel emotionally attached to our team. I saw grown men and women crying tears of joy for our trip to the Finals. People from the outside will never understand. As we venture into the unknown world of the NBA Finals, we will move forward the only way we know how: Together as one team. #TeamIsOne