Posted Oct 13 2010 8:55AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:07PM
It began in the prairie and ended in the clouds, started in training-camp potential and finished in earned playoff credibility. It opened in local pride and closed in national respect.
What a ride. What a historical, hysterical ride. The team in the place that never should have had the NBA, with the general manager who never should have been hired -- with a coach who never should have been hired -- became the group that changed a region and went to work altering an entire league.
The 2009-10 Thunder were an unprecedented interpretation of what it means to impact a hometown. No one would disagree around greater Oklahoma City, of course, and by the end of the season, the Thunder bandwagon had filled around the country as they threatened the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. And when brightest light Kevin Durant followed that with a summer of pushing the United States to the gold medal at the world championships and signing a new contract in understated fashion (in direct contrast to the LeBron James marketing fiasco), the star and the team had won more fans without even playing.
Playing, strangely, might be the least of it. The most of it is that the Thunder of 2009-10 came to stand for the emotional rebirth of the city that had been branded by the devastation of the bombing of the Murrah Building some 15 years before. There had been other significant gains celebrated in between, but nothing that shouted to the outside world quite like a successful major sports operation.
It was about the personality of the team, too, not just the success. Fans embraced the Hornets when Hurricane Katrina demanded relocation from New Orleans, but the Thunder were different. They were permanent. They became an instant part of Oklahoma City. And they got it. Young players, some of whom had never been anywhere else as professionals, seemed to appreciate the good fortune of landing in a city many peers would have wanted to avoid on reputation.
"I get that all the time," the coach, Scott Brooks, said near the end of the season. "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 locker room was great. Players called each other out for missteps, especially in practice. Brooks became convinced Durant was accepted as a leader because KD made a genuine commitment on defense, not because of his offensive pyrotechnics. Nick Collison was pretty quiet but earned that credibility through tremendous work and the timing of when to use it -- the quiet guy would be the one to grab a collective collar and direct everyone back in line. Kevin Ollie had a veteran's voice. Steady Jeff Green was the glue.
On the court, they were young and bounding, the opposite of the grounded locker room. The Lakers beat the Thunder in six games in the first round and spoke with a combination of respect and exhaustion over having to deal with all that athleticism.
The fan base that had embraced them since arriving from Seattle the season before turned the Ford Center gloriously chaotic. Loud City, they re-christened it. The place and people became part of the 2009-10 experience. Civic leaders delighted in the payoff they had envisioned when the quest began to bring a major-league team to Oklahoma City. They originally hoped for the NBA, were turned away, plotted for the NHL, got the Hornets through an act of God and proved capable of supporting pro basketball about 20 times over. Now, with the relocated Seattle franchise, they had a scoring savant and a bunch of other good guys. Word went forth.
They also had the appeal of the improbable. The Thunder were new and different and had been put together in unique ways. Sam Presti was hired as general manager in 2007 at age 30 and proved himself as one of the best minds in the game, not just one of the best young minds. Brooks was hired with only a large chunk of one season as the interim No. 1 at a time an organization would ordinarily want a tested hand. All he did was drive the defense, epitomize the community love affair and lead the team to a 50-32 record. He was voted Coach of the Year.
Oklahoma City was supposedly not pro-sports country and Oklahoma City was not a basketball hotbed, but there were the Thunder, the favorite for a lot of people. Between the circumstances and the success and the emerging players and the connection to the town, the ride was unforgettable.
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