Posted Apr 5 2010 10:28AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- All that hate, and now this.
The Ford Center is 15 minutes and 15 years away, a short walk through downtown and a long journey through hell. A couple Fridays ago, the Lakers came to town on a seven-game winning streak and left toes up as the Thunder again turned the joint into Party Central. As part of halftime, about 40 locals were sworn into the military near midcourt with roughly 75 percent of the capacity crowd milling around the seats, waiting to finish clobbering the defending champions the final two quarters. Fourteen thousand people or so. They gave a standing ovation as the inductees walked to the stage and snapped to attention, then kept standing as the oath was read and repeated. Kevin Durant was among the earliest players out to warm up and made it 14,001 witnesses cheering as the recruits exited.
This Thunder season has become higher-power stuff. God and basketball -- that's what it has come to. They went from a promising team with a chance to challenge for a playoff berth to a genuine factor in the Western Conference, on a 52-win pace as small forward Durant turns into a superstar at age 21, Scott Brooks becomes the leading contender for Coach of the Year and Sam Presti a top candidate for Executive of the Year. They may charge all the way to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That's nothing. Try: They may charge all the way to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs when the first round of the playoffs opens the week of the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, with President Clinton scheduled to be in town for ceremonies. The Thunder, by making up the 1 1/2-game deficit to finish in the top four in the conference, could even host a game April 19, the date a guy with a grudge against the government for Waco and Ruby Ridge parked a Ryder truck with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in front of the nine-story structure, put in ear plugs to protect himself from what would come next, set a timer and jogged to a getaway car parked in a nearby alley.
If there is a Thunder love fest that night, said Kari Watkins, the executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, "you've got to wonder if it's someone bigger than us telling us, 'You've done it. You've come full circle. Now keep going.' "
The bombing. Of course the bombing. Enough glass blown into the air that shards rained down for 10 minutes, 323 buildings damaged or destroyed, investigators searching through 450 tons of debris for clues, one of the axle housings from the rented truck found 575 feet away (and that close only because it collided with a car), 168 killed in the blast and another during the rescue. So much death that 30 children were orphaned, another 219 lost at least one parent, that people had to decide which overlapping funerals for friends and co-workers to attend and which to miss, that it was estimated that one-third of the population of 387,000 knew someone who perished or was among the 850 injured.
A few people did the unthinkable and a few hundred thousand did the impossible. Anyone who has been to the Memorial knows that. Somehow, some way, the city that rallied together like a small community transformed the former site of the Murrah building into a touching, graceful setting that honors the dead and celebrates life. In the face of senseless, there is serene.
Some city. The night of the bombing, news anchors announced workers were running short of D batteries, and so many people descended on the site that the TV people had to go back on the air after 30 minutes to withdraw the request. One man drove hours to set up a barbecue station to feed emergency crews. An Italian restaurant served pizzas day after day. Rescue crews bivouacking after 12-hour shifts found candies on their pillows and letters of thanks on their cots from the children of Oklahoma.
The Andersons were home in Midwest City, 30 miles away, when they felt the blast. They drove to help. Fred set up a snack wagon to support the first responders. His wife, a 37-year-old nurse, went into the jagged remains of the building and was apparently struck by falling debris. Rebecca declined medical attention, soon collapsed and died four days later from a head injury, the 169th victim.
When the Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder before last season, the team organized a trip to the Memorial to make sure players and staffers understood the impact. New acquisitions get a similar tour. And part of the pre-game introductions at the Ford Center, the same light-and-noise show that goes on in most every arena, are words like humility, committed and community. Resiliency is the first word. That is no coincidence.
In less than two seasons, the Thunder went from relocating franchise to part of the healing process, whether the group of young players wanted the role or not. It was probably less than one season, actually. There was a statement in just the arrival: The NBA had come to town!
"Now that I think about it, that's what it really is," Durant said. "A lot of people would say Oklahoma City is for the guy that bombed the building downtown. That's the only time, really, national media got a hold of Oklahoma City, and that's unfortunate. But God does everything for a reason. I'm a big believer in that. I'm glad He brought us here to be a part of something special. I'm excited. Words can't explain how excited I am. Hopefully sooner rather than later we bring a championship back here and really let the world know that Oklahoma City is something other than the guy that came in and bombed the building."
The embrace has been just as strong in return. In football country, with Oklahoma about 20 miles to the south, Oklahoma State some 65 miles to the north and the Dallas Cowboys very popular 200 miles away, the Thunder are averaging 17,978 fans in a building with a listed capacity of 18,203. Loud City, people here have nicknamed the Ford Center.
Some residents bought season tickets without being fans or planning to attend many games. It just seemed like the civic-minded thing to do.
"It's huge," mayor Mick Cornett said of the image impact. "The team is starting to play well, we have a bonafide superstar who's been on the cover of ESPN Magazine, who's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Especially that ESPN Magazine. It says 'Oklahoma City' right on the front. Beating the Lakers on [March 26], that story's resonating through Southern California. People on the East and West coast didn't wake up thinking about Oklahoma City. If we didn't do something proactive to get our name out there and associated with something positive, we were going to allow the tragedies of the past, the tornadoes and the bombing, to brand us going forward."
"I get that all the time," Brooks said. "I get that all the time with the fans coming up to me. There's so much community pride and they love the fact that our guys play the way they play. It's a scrappy group. It's a defensive group. It's a team that's going to get on the floor, get on the loose balls. They're really going to have a team atmosphere. And they love that because they feel that's what this city is about. The city since the bombing, they've rallied around each other and supported each through the tough times. It moved the city forward. Our ownership group, it's so rare. All of our owners are from this area and they have so much pride in making this team something that everybody can be proud to be a part of, proud to support and proud to cheer for the Thunder."
It's strange how everything played out. Cornett tried to get an NBA franchise, was diplomatically ushered to the door by commissioner David Stern, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and Oklahoma City won temporary custody of the Hornets. That organization raved about the support, and the Hornets were just passing through. Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett bought the SuperSonics, and everyone in Seattle knew what that meant. Presti came to town to scout the McDonald's high school game in 2004 while in the Spurs front office and was struck by the Memorial, never imagining the city would have a team and that he would be running basketball operations. The first six months here, after the relocation, he lived a few blocks from the grounds and would visit regularly.
The Ford Center is a short walk, about 15 minutes away, the unwanted past and the unexpected present connecting across the years. That Friday night against the Lakers, that night of Thunder domination and halftime inductions, Watkins was walking out of the building with some family members in the post-game celebration when she saw someone with a T-shirt passed out at the first game, with "Living the Dream" inscribed. She couldn't help but think the city really is.
All that hate, and now this.
Tomorrow: One resident's special connection to the Thunder.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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