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The Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder

by William H. Benson

October 4, 2018

     Early in the twenty-first century, Oklahoma City’s citizens were desperate to bring to their city their first professional sports team. The city’s fathers had already built a downtown arena, hoping to lure a hockey team there perhaps, but sports officials who make those decisions concluded that “OKC’s television market was too small to support a team.”

     Then, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina cut a wide and killing swath through New Orleans, and that city’s basketball team, the Hornets, had no place to practice that fall.

     OKC’s city fathers invited the Hornets to move north and play in their arena. The team agreed, and the OKC arena “was almost always sold out, and it became one of the loudest places in the league,” even though the New Orleans / OKC Hornets lost half their games that one season.

     In 2006, the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics put their team up for sale, and the Professional Basketball Club, LLC, a group of OKC investors, led by businessman Clay Bennett, indicated that they would pay the owners’ asking price, $350 million, promising Seattle that the team would stay in Seattle.

     Sam Anderson, sports writer for the New York Times, wrote in his book, Boom Town, “It’s hard to map all the currents and crosscurrents of delusion, collusion, deception, self-deception, naïveté, false consciousness, and magical thinking that must have allowed what happened next to happen.”

     In 2008, Clay Bennett announced he would move the SuperSonics to OKC. Anderson wrote, “This seemed like the world’s most obvious bait and switch, a swindle in broad daylight, for which both sides were partly culpable. Mayhem ensued: lawsuit after lawsuit.”

     Seattle’s fans were outraged. Yet, after the Oklahoma dust and the court cases settled, the team’s players and coaches packed up and moved to OKC. Seattle lost their pro basketball team. OKC won.

     One of the SuperSonics’ players who now put on the OKC Thunder’s blue and orange jersey was Kevin Durant. The SuperSonics had drafted him the year before, in 2007, and now he was ready to play his second season, but in OKC, and for the Thunder.

      Then, in 2008, Thunder’s management drafted an erratic point guard named Russell Westbrook, and in 2009, they drafted James Harden, the guy with a thick black beard. This was deep talent on one team. The stars were now aligned for a possible NBA championship. Another boom in “Boom Town.”

     Sam Anderson calls the six-foot-nine Kevin Durant “Mr. Nice,” a polite guy who, before games, kisses his mother and reads his Bible. His motto is “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” His OKC fans loved him. “He was the perfect bridge between the NBA and Oklahomans.”

     Some commentators thought, “he was a little too nice, that he wasn’t aggressive enough,” on the court, given his size, and “that too often he failed to use his nuclear skills with maximum violence.”

     Six-foot-three Russell Westbrook was Durant’s polar opposite. Sam Anderson calls Westbrook “a petulant, impulsive, cursing, scowling, unbalanced, bullheaded vortex of doom.”

     Westbrook’s favorite play was the pull-up jumper. He would “charge toward the rim with reckless lunacy,” forcing defenders to backpedal, but then he would stop, “launch himself straight into the air,” shoot, and make basket after basket. After a big play, he “stomped and strutted all over the court.”

     Durant and Westbrook “formed as powerful a duo as you were ever likely to see in sports. It was absurd that one team had both.” These two pros “were a mighty but imperfect fit. They clashed and blended, amplified and diminished each other. KD was civilization; Russ was chaos.”

     Six-foot-five James Harden was the sixth man for the Thunder, the first off the bench and into the game, a left-handed shooter with a bag of tricks: “quick shots, misdirections, sudden shifts in speed, and arm motions that baited defenders into fouls.”

     Durant, Westbrook, and Harden made the playoffs in 2010, but lost in an early round to the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2012, the Thunder made it all the way to the NBA finals, where they met up against the Miami Heat and LeBron James, who proved too much. The Thunder won the first game, but lost the next four. Another bust in Boom Town.

     After the 2012 season, the Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets, and in 2016, Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors. Only Westbrook remains at OKC.

     Next time in these pages, I will consider Oklahoma’s historical struggles with racial equality, another most interesting part of Sam Anderson’s book Boom Town.