The impossible rise of Oklahoma City Thunder
By the time you read this, the first round of the NBA playoffs will be reaching its conclusion. As befits basketball’s biggest end-of-year showdown, there’ll have been plenty of upsets already. But one series, yo-yoing between the southern towns of Oklahoma City and Memphis, is going down to the wire. At the time of going to press the Memphis were 3-2 up in a best-of-seven showdown.
Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s biggest star, has misfired badly, shooting as few as 16 percent of three-pointers. Meanwhile Mike Miller, Memphis’ 34-year-old three-point specialist, posted 21 points in the fifth match, which his team won 100-99 in overtime. Oklahoma City even had a lay-up shot on the buzzer chalked off on review – such fine margins are what the sport is built on. But perhaps more implausible is how a small town team from an unfancied city have become big news in the NBA at all? Especially given a short past that’s ranged from blind luck to absolute calamity. In 2012 ESPN named the Oklahoma City Thunder America’s top sporting franchise. It was just four years old. Another two later, the league’s unlikeliest team is still going strong.“Durant should have been arrested for reckless driving at around age 9, broken his hand in a strip-club brawl at age 12 and accidentally shot his chauffeur no later than age 15”
Most people outside the States know Oklahoma from the musical of the same name. So do Americans, alongside a place on the path of 19th century Native American ethnic cleansing known as the Trail of Tears. To add to that tragedy, on April 19, 1995 a van containing 4,000lbs of fertiliser exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City’s downtown, killing 168 people. It remains the deadliest act of terror on US soil after 9/11.Oklahoma City is a sprawling metropolis of of 600,000 people, whose dusted downtown bursts up from its flat surroundings like a brown thumb. Wealth, via oil and gas, has arrived in the past couple of decades, but it’s still a frontier town, with a history drenched in drinking, farming and country music.
Today the reflecting pool and memorial that mark the explosion, sit just a short walk from the Chesapeake Arena, the Thunder’s 18,000-capacity stadium. It has been sold out for 157 games this year and counting. “When you say ‘Oklahoma City’,” muses mayor Mick Cornett, “the next word out of your mouth is probably ‘bombing’. Having a major sports team helps identify our city with something positive.”
No wonder he, and thousands of Oklahomans, are reluctant to speak about why they have a team at all.
Seattle’s SuperSonics were founded in 1967, and quickly established themselves as one of the league’s consistent franchises. Twelve years later the team topped the NBA thanks to greats like Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. But by 2006 the club wasn’t making any money, so owner Howard Schulz – chairman and CEO of local export Starbucks – sold it to a group of Oklahoma businessmen.
The group insisted that it wanted to keep the Sonics in Seattle – if the city coughed up $300m of tax money for a new stadium. That enraged local fans, who claimed, not altogether unfairly, that the demand was contrary to the ‘good will’ in which the Oklahomans had taken their team. By 2008 the city had given up: the Sonics were leaving, and Seattle was no longer a basketball town.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, had already been getting a taste for the big league. When Hurrican Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 it killed almost 2,000 people and left New Orleans a shattered wreck. The city’s NBA side, the Hornets, couldn’t play at their home stadium, the New Orleans Arena, so they moved 700 miles north to Oklahoma for the 2005/06 season. So enthusiastic were the locals that the team was even named the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets for a second season in 2006/07.
“I venture to say Oklahomans don’t give the perceived controversy a passing thought,” says Susan Bible, a writer with Basketball Insiders, and Thunder fanatic. “I believe what weighs heavier on our minds is the fact that the truly devastating Hurricane Katrina is the only reason we ultimately ended up with an NBA team at all.” In the Thunder’s first season, 2008/09, the club made $111m. That they broke even at all would be considered a minor miracle by many.
At the heart of the Thunder’s success is Kevin Durant, a gangly three-point specialist whose quiet demeanour is almost as surprising as his skill. In his rookie year as a Sonic, Durant became one of only three teenagers to score more than 20 points per game, alongside Miami’s legend-in-waiting LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks. In his second season, transplanted with the Sonics to Oklahoma, Durant racked up 25.3 points per game. This year that figure has topped 28, making him the league’s third-highest scorer behind James (yes, him again) and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge.
As a young talent in basketball “it follows that Durant should also be a prodigy or a head case,” says the New York Times’ Sam Anderson. “He should have been arrested for reckless driving at around age 9, broken his hand in a strip-club brawl at age 12 and accidentally shot his chauffeur no later than age 15.” Allen Iverson mixed a homophobic rap album in his spare time, while Carmelo Anthony kept himself busy making a video that urged kids not to ‘snitch’ to the cops. And Kobe Bryant’s extracurricular activities have been rather well recorded.
But Durant’s oft-drummed mantra remains ‘Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,’ and his humble, recalcitrant manner has won over Oklahoma’s fans, most of whom are salt-of-the-earth Middle Americans. Whereas LeBron James is all brawn and swagger, Durant is guile, poise and precision. It’s a style he’s had to hone without muscle: as a teen he was so spindly his telescopic arms couldn’t even lift the 185lbs required of an NBA draft.
Now those arms are making him, and his Thunder teammates, stars. The Thunder have finished top of their northwest division in each of the past four seasons. The closest they got to a championship win was in 2011/12, when they went down 4-1 to James’ (yes, him again) Miami Heat. This year their regular season record of 59 wins and 23 losses is second only to the San Antonio Spurs, who lost in last year’s final to, you guessed it, the Heat. Might 2014 be the year the Thunder finally make good on their NBA assault?
Whatever the outcome, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a truly American sporting story. From disaster to controversy the team has already seen a lot in its short history. “The honeymoon phase is not even close to ending,” says Bible. Oklahomans will be hoping that they can consummate it this year.