Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oklahoma City Goes Big League: Eight Shot

When I moved to Oklahoma City in 1959 I was told there were 325,000 people here. No one ever mentioned the term metropolitan area. A place like Edmond, which is just north of the city limits might have had 5,000. Moore, which is just south probably had fewer than that. Norman, which is south of Moore and the home of the University of Oklahoma might have had 12,000 permanent residents.

Although the city did have a history of minor league baseball and surprisingly, minor league hockey, when my family hit town there wasn't a pro team to be had in any sport. If you wanted to go to a sporting event you went to see high school football, high school basketball, or wrestling. The only thing even approaching big time was OU football during the fall down in Norman. The stadium held a little over sixty thousand and every now and then it sold out.

Things, as they say, have evolved. The metro is now hovering around 1.2 million. A few years ago some giddy dreamers began talking about trying to land a major league franchise. The NFL and MLB seemed a bit far fetched, but the NHL actually did seem doable.

The NHL did toy with the city a couple of times. They were never truly serious though. The league was using OKC as a threat to wring concessions out of other cities, bigger markets because the market is everything.

To make a long story short, Seattle had a basketball team called the Super Sonics. They were playing in a dump called Key Arena. They were owned by a guy named Schultz who was far better at brewing coffee than he was running a NBA franchise. The people of Seattle having tired of paying for pro sports franchise stadiums refused to ante up for a new arena. Schultz sold to a whiz bang Oklahoma group headed by Clay Bennett who had married into the Gaylord family and was fabulously well to do. After only a year in Seattle he moved the team to Oklahoma City and renamed them The Thunder.

People in Seattle went ballistic and still do even a few years after the fact, although hardly any of them went to Sonic games in the first place. Everyone else just sort of groaned. Down in Dallas, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban mumbled some things about creating a "Dust Bowl Division" in the league. Eyes rolled in places like Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and New York. The daily paper, "The Oklahoman" which was then owned by, you guessed it, the Gaylord family ran a head line that went something like this, "BIG LEAGUE!" You could almost hear the disgusted whispers. It was as if the Clampetts had just crashed the country club dinner.

Seattle continued to boil and OKC got a chip on its shoulder. The team also started to win during the second year here. Last year The Thunder went to the Western Conference finals by thumping Denver and edging out Memphis. It didn't take long for Cuban's Mavs to end that dream, but the seeds were sewn.

This year every game was a sell out and large numbers of people could be found standing outside the arena watching the game on a big screen video screen. In the first round of the playoffs OKC blew out the defending NBA champs, Dallas in four games. In the second round, the storied LA Lakers came to town.

Unless you are from this burg you really cannot grasp what that means to a life long, or nearly life long OKC resident. A couple of years ago the Lakers knocked the Thunder out in the first round in six games. Still the idea of Oklahoma City taking on Los Angeles as an equal in anything, anything at all, just takes the average Oklahoman's breath away.

Last night, in game five The Thunder beat the Lakers 106-90 to win the series four games to one.  Inside the downtown arena there were 18,203 screaming fans. Outside it, depending on which estimate you believe there were somewhere between 6,000 and 7,500 more. They witnessed what even ten years ago was a fantasy so ridiculous that if spoken aloud it would have gotten you laughed out of any bar in town. The party was ON!

Then of course some stupid troll opened fire. It happened about three blocks east of the arena. Details are fuzzy, something about an argument between a group of guys and a group of women. Police don't think it had anything to do with the game, or at least they aren't admitting to it. Eight people were wounded, one seriously. A couple of arrests were made.

Yes, welcome to the big leagues, Oklahoma City and all that comes with it. It has become painfully obvious that we have more in common with Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and LA than just a NBA team. We have arrived in more ways than one.

For decades we wanted to be counted with the big boys. I guess we will be now. The city was never that innocent to begin with, but this was stunning. That small town glow was happily and finally sacrificed for the bright lights. Today we understand the bright lights cast very dark shadows. And, it only takes a single step to go from one to the other.

We won last night and then we lost. Unfortunately we should probably get used to that symbiosis. It comes with the territory.





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