Posted Jan 19 2009 11:25PM
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Clay Bennett was lauded as a civic hero when he brought Oklahoma City its first major-league sports franchise.
The NBA's arrival in town was something to celebrate, the unveiling of the Thunder nickname a long-awaited event that packed the lobby of a downtown building with anxious fans.
"That was only the beginning," Bennett, the Thunder chairman, said Monday. "Little did I know."
After six months in Oklahoma City, the infrastructure for the Thunder is still being built. The wins have been slow to come. But there are signs of progress.
Oklahoma City is coming off its most impressive stretch yet, playing .500 basketball over the past 10 games to go from league laughingstock to mere mediocrity. No longer is the franchise a shoo-in to have the worst record in the league -- and, along with it, the best odds to emerge from the draft lottery with the No. 1 pick.
The Thunder, once on pace for the worst record in NBA history, have pulled even with the Washington Wizards with a league-worst eight wins and are within striking distance of moving out of last place in the Western Conference. That distinction could be on the line Friday night when the Thunder visit the Los Angeles Clippers, who are 9-31.
"Every day, we're heading in a better direction," Bennett said after announcing that a health care company would sponsor the team's temporary practice facility and a new $25 million training center due to be finished before the 2010-11 season.
"We're working hard to get a little better every day at everything we do."
Kevin Durant has led the way by averaging 25.9 points and 8.1 rebounds over the last 10 games, but there's much more to the recent turnaround than the reigning Rookie of the Year.
Oklahoma City, which had been next-to-last in the NBA in scoring, has averaged 102.2 points during its .500 stretch and has been shooting better from the field and the free-throw line and averaging 21/2 more rebounds per game.
Assistant Ron Adams, whose Dec. 31 hiring coincided with the first win in Oklahoma City's 5-5 stretch, has been credited with bringing new defensive principles that have helped put a dent in opponents' shooting percentages. Perhaps more importantly, foes are averaging nearly five less rebounds.
While players realize there's progress being made, they also don't want to "let the past come and haunt us again," second-year forward Jeff Green said.
"We have a lot -- a lot, a lot, a lot -- to learn," Green said. "We can still get better. We're not all the way there yet."
The results are clear on the scoreboard. Instead of getting blown out early, the Thunder have at least been competitive in most games lately.
"Early in the season, there were wins we should have got and we didn't," Durant said. "We're just learning how to close them out now. I wish we would have learned that earlier in the season, but right now is the perfect time for us to get better.
"We've been doing that this whole year, and now we're starting to see what we've been working on."
Interim coach Scott Brooks, who took over when P.J. Carlesimo was fired after a 1-13 start, believes his team is "still learning how to win" but has improved because of an unwillingness to quit despite a hopeless 3-29 start. After the team returned from a recent overtime loss at New Jersey at 3 a.m., he decided not to hold practice later that day.
When he showed up hours later, there were nine players at the practice gym.
"I needed a day off. I'm like, `Get out of here,"' Brooks said.
"We have a team full of that. They're young guys that want to get better," he added. "They're thirsty, they're hungry, they want to enjoy this league, but they enjoy it by working hard."
It's that dedication that keeps Bennett feeling positive about his team, along with remarkable fan support that has the Thunder ranking 12th in the league with average attendance of 18,617, following back-to-back sellouts this week.
Bennett said the fans he encounters tell him they take great pride in the city's first pro franchise, even if it is struggling.
"The commitment from our sponsors is great, we're hearing a lot of good things from our season ticket-holders and the team is playing better," Bennett said. "I feel like we are beginning to be our own team on our own ground."
But Bennett, who was part of the San Antonio Spurs' ownership group before their run of NBA titles, isn't about to believe the Thunder have it all figured out.
"It's like the old saying, 'The more you know, the more you don't know.' I know nothing," he said. "All I know is to show up and work hard and try to do the right thing and put good people together. I feel good about how we're making progress."
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