Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Oklahoma City Thunder and The Close Thing

Here is how close a thing it is when you talk about turning a sagging pro basketball franchise into a winning proposition. In the 2007 NBA draft the first  over all pick went to the Portland Trail Blazers. The then Seattle Super Sonics were picking second. There were two players that everyone, I mean everyone, agreed would be the first two selections. One was the hulking big man Greg Oden out of Ohio State and the other was a skinny kid who had played one year at Texas named Kevin Durant.

Durant was a pure shooter, but there were questions about his strength and therefore his durability in a league that plays over twice the number of regular season games that colleges do. Portland went for the big man and understandably so. Big men are at a premium no matter what the level of play. Seattle immediately took Durant.

In the mean time up in the Pacific Northwest, Sonic's owner Howard Schultz, the coffee shop magnate, was struggling with a shrinking fan base, a rotting arena, and a populace who refused time and time again to finance a new arena. And really, who could blame them? They had just shelled out for a new football stadium and a new baseball stadium. Of the three major league franchises in town the Sonics were the least popular and hadn't won a NBA championship for something like thirty years.

Enter Clay Bennett of Oklahoma City along with a group of bankers, oilies and other assorted high stakes corporate gamblers. Bennett made all the right promises at first with the caveat that the team had to have a new arena. NBA fans in Seattle began to feel the sand shift beneath their feet.

Oklahoma City was hungry for a team. We had successfully supported the temporarily relocated New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Big Easy. During that two year run we felt we had proven we could be a viable home for a franchise.

The powers that be in Seattle, abetted by a majority of the city's population wouldn't budge on the arena deal and perhaps thought Bennett was bluffing about shipping the team to the southern plains.

Unfortunately for them, he wasn't. In a year the Sonics became the Thunder and began playing their home games in downtown Oklahoma City. That first year on the court was abysmal. At one point the Thunder were on pace to set a NBA record for losses in a single season. The original coach was fired not even halfway through the season.

Last night, a scant four seasons later, the Thunder chopped the legs out from beneath the San Antonio Spurs and qualified for the NBA finals. Until next Tuesday, when those finals begin the win ranks as the single greatest moment of sports in OKC history. The city which had been built in a day, but had been fractured from its inception because of divided collegiate loyalties had come together as one. The arena, the town and large parts of the state were thrown into absolute delirium by the win.

Normally stoic and sane people immediately started babbling about dynasties. They pointed to the line up and the ages of the stars that had led the team to the promised land. Indeed, a couple of years ago one of them, James Harden had been busted for trying to buy a beer in a local bar not because he was drunk, but because he was under the legal age of 21. It is all, for the instant, magnificent madness.

The wunderkind who is the driving force behind much of this is Kevin Durant. He has led the league in scoring three years running. He was second in voting for MVP during the regular season this year. He has been known, on more than a few occasions, to drain an impossible shot with only a couple breaths left in a game that drives a dagger into the heart of the opposition.

Last night with fourteen seconds left to go he could be seen hugging and kissing his mother at her court side seat.

There is still work to do. The Thunder will face either the star studded Miami Heat, or the wily and grizzled Boston Celtics. Neither of those two outfits will go quietly into that good night. It could all, still, come to a crashing halt.

Be assured that right now no one in this burg, other than perhaps coach Scott Brooks and the team itself, is thinking that far ahead. Right now the city is still rocking and rolling. Ecstasy is far too mild of a term to describe the local mentality.

It is a real life Horatio Alger saga that no one can fully, or properly explain.

It makes one wonder what would have happened if Schultz had tightened his belt and hung onto the team, or found local ownership that would have kept the Sonics in Seattle. He did neither and the organization fell into Bennett and Co's lap.

It also makes you wonder what would have happened if Portland had gone with the skinny shooter from Texas rather than Oden. I mean Durant was there for the taking and to paraphrase the song, his future is so bright we all need shades. They didn't however and as the Oklahoma City Thunder was closing in on this perfect of all moments in March, the oft injured Oden was waived by the Trail Blazers. His physical ailments were such that he never even completed a full year of competition.

It is good to be good and sometimes it is really good to be lucky. The planets lined up just right for Oklahoma City this time around. Somewhere down the road that won't be the case.

When it happens it will be another story at another time. Right now everyone is loud, proud and more than just a little giddy.

Thunder up, baby. The finals are coming to town. Who would have ever dreamed it?


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