Collison, Aldrich Join Thunder Rally in Wichita

WICHITA -- Cole Aldrich took his familiar place in the paint
Sunday and waited as the opposition tried to execute a 2-on-1
fast break. Then one of his opponents stopped and laughed.

Aldrich, a first-round pick in June's draft, wasn't participating in a competitive scrimmage in anticipation of his first NBA season. The former Kansas Jayhawks star was back in the state he brought an NCAA national championship in 2008, this time as part of a Thunder Rally at the Lynette Woodard Center in Wichita on Sunday.

Another former KU star, Nick Collison, also participated in the
rally and free youth basketball clinic. The two players took questions from some of the approximately 200 kids in
attendance, then worked on drills with the kids.

The 6-foot-11 Aldrich didn't let his guard down when a girl participating in the clinic chuckled as Aldrich towered over her.
Aldrich blocked the shot anyway. The Thunder hopes he does the same to more evenly matched opponents this season.

"It's a blast coming to these," Aldrich said. "The kids are the foundation of the game of basketball for the next decade. These kids are the ones that look up to us and players like myself were the ones, 10 years ago, looking up to other players. To come back and give back to the community and to the game of basketball really means a lot to me."

The rally was to help the Thunder expand its fan base in its third season in Oklahoma City. The Thunder were among the NBA leaders in attendance last season, but in a region without many major professional sports franchises, the team can reach many untapped markets.

The team is already making progress in Wichita, where more than 1,500 people bought single- or multi-game ticket packages or season tickets. The Thunder's games are televised in Wichita on FOX Sports Kansas City.

"We're entering our third full season," Thunder Senior Vice President Brian Byrnes said. "We feel like for the first time we have our legs underneath us as a brand. We can start looking at ways to bring Thunder Basketball to communities outside of Oklahoma City and even outside our state."

The Thunder's brand-building has capitalized on multiple aspects that have created a successful formula. The team features players familiar to residents of the region in former Big 12 stars Aldrich, Collison and Kevin Durant, who played at Texas.

Core players such as Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook , and the team's budding success, are sure to bring new fans from across the midwest.

"I would think, as a fan, we'd be a team that's fun to watch," Collison said. "Kevin Durant is going to be maybe one of the best to ever play -- I don't want to put too much pressure on him. If you can get in now and get on board, I think it's going to be a fun ride. I think the organization is set up to be good for a long time."

Durant and Westbrook have been playing the last few weeks in the FIBA World Championships in Turkey. Durant and Westbrook helped lead the United States to an 81-64 win over the host country in Sunday's gold medal game. The win happened at the same time Collison and Aldrich were working with the kids in the Wichita gym.

"I've been catching (Team USA) games when I can," Collision said. "They've really been playing well. Kevin's continued to be a leader and be a go-to scorer and Russell's really given them a boost in a lot of games."

When similar boosts happen during the Thunder's season, which opens at home against Chicago on Oct. 27, the efforts of the team to grow figure to mean more fans from more places will be at the arena and watching on television.

"There's no question that long-term, that's a great opportunity for us, that's a regional opportunity for us," Byrnes said. "We have folks from around the state of Oklahoma and now into Wichita who define themselves as Thunder fans. If we can move that a little more north, a little more east, then we really have an opportunity to operate in the most dynamic manner that we can."