DA's Morning Tip

Thunder have realistic-yet-firm grip on franchise, future behind Russell Westbrook

After Kevin Durant's departure, Oklahoma City and its fans more prepared for whatever may come next

David Aldridge

OKLAHOMA CITY — The earthquake hit around noon.

“The smiles vanished,” an eyewitness recalled, “and for an appreciable instant everyone stood transfixed” by “the sound of unearthly thunder.”

This thunder struck 94 years ago, when the Great Kanto Earthquake, with an approximate magnitude of 7.9, roiled eastern Japan for between four and 10 minutes on September 1, 1923. Estimates range between of 100,000 and 140,000 people killed, with 2 million more left homeless. As the quake and its subsequent aftershocks continued to roll, a series of devastating fires broke out as well, incinerating thousands. The earthquake reduced half of Tokyo to rubble. One survivor wrote, “We often use the expression ‘Take the story with a grain of salt.’ But in this case, the story should not be taken with a grain of salt. On the contrary, this story was too horrible to be exaggerated enough.”

Yet a few buildings withstood the conflagrations.

One was the Imperial Hotel, designed by the famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who’d first come to Japan in 1905 and spent much of the next decade-plus there, much of which was spent imagining a new hotel that would combine western amenities with the smaller scale of classical Japanese architecture. He had designed it with several decorative pools, including a large reflecting pool which some of the investors thought could be eliminated to save money (the project’s cost overruns ultimately exceeded $3 million — more than $42 million in today’s dollars). Wright held fast, though, and the pools stayed. Incredibly, the official opening of the entire hotel — some parts of it had been in use before — was September 1, 1923.

When the earthquake struck, the Imperial’s unique foundation, cantilevered into the local soil, along with the water in the pools, helped save it from major damage; the water also was used throughout the city to keep the fires from spreading further and causing greater damage. One of the chief financial sponsors of the project, Baron Kihachiro Okura, sent Wright a telegram:

Hotel stands undamaged as monument to your genius Congratulations

That wasn’t entirely true. The dining room floor in the hotel buckled and had to be re-leveled, and non-structural items like fans, lights and kitchen equipment were damaged and needed to be replaced. But, compared with the rest of the city, the Imperial Hotel was basically intact. It stood until it was demolished in 1968.

Foundations must run deep into the ground to last, to be able to withstand acts of nature that man cannot forsee. There must be flexibility so that great torque does not snap the structure in half.

This is the point Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti is making.

It wasn’t about drawing comparisons between the city of Tokyo recovering from catastrophe and the Thunder recovering from the loss of Kevin Durant to free agency. When you live and work in a city that has suffered so much real loss and gone through so much real tragedy in the last 20-plus years, as Presti does, you would never do that.

No, Presti is talking about the building. Just the building. It was a testament to Wright’s foresight and stubbornness, traits he displayed throughout his career, designing more than 500 structures around the world. (Ironically, Wright also designed the Price Tower, in the city of Bartlesville, Okla., two and a half hours north of Oklahoma City — the only skyscraper he ever designed in his illustrious career that actually was built).

Wright’s imagination created a building strong enough to be able to survive something he couldn’t have foreseen coming and couldn’t have planned for even if he could. The Thunder’s standing in OKC and throughout the state as Oklahoma’s only major pro sports franchise requires that it goes on, even after losing its touchstone. That requires a foundation built on consistency.

Durant’s return to OKC Saturday with the Golden State Warriors surely met the overhyped, overwrought standards of our hot take age. There was real emotion for Durant, who sincerely connected with this city, and emotion from the team and its fans, who connected with him on so many levels. Golden State has become NBA royalty, a team full of stars and personalities and an affable quote machine of a coach who sees the world with a wry sense of humor and an unshakable sense of humanity.

But, make no mistake: Durant’s departure put a hole in the city’s heart. Everywhere else, Durant is thought of as being from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Here, he’s an Oklahoman. Or, at least, he was.

“He did us dirty,” says Connie Scott, sitting up in the rafters of Chesapeake Energy Arena last week. She and her husband, Gary, come from Dustin, about 90 minutes away, to see the Thunder. They were planning to be in attendance Saturday, with Connie wearing her self-described “booing shirt” to the game.

So I asked: You think he’s gonna get booed Saturday?

Connie: “Yes, I do. Big time. Kind of like [Houston Rockets guard] Patrick Beverley gets booed when he comes here.”

Gary: “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of howdies here in Oklahoma. You know, hicks. We’re about southern hospitality, but we can boo.”

Gary Scott is clear-eyed about what Durant did.

“That was his decision to make,” he says. “I don’t think he did the city dirty. They do this all the time. And I thought when Kevin Durant was here, he was a good representative. He went out with the tornado victims. He walked the streets. He did what I expect an NBA player making massive amounts of money to do — be part of the community. I didn’t like it when he left, but I didn’t feel betrayed. I just thought that’s what they do.”

Connie: “I just thought we had a chance with him. To me, Russell’s a very exciting player. But he needs some help. Kevin was the help.”

Gary: “Not to me. Kevin was the man. Russell was the help.”

Russell, of course, is Russell Westbrook: out front, careening toward history like one of those remote controlled racecars you see at auto shows when handled by a 7-year-old. But in the rooms you can’t see (more to the point, don’t have access to; the Thunder’s penchant for controlling everything has not changed and will never change), OKC’s brand is just as powerful. This is a franchise that grinds.

“I think, as a community and as an organization, we’ve always drawn deeply from the community that we represent, and that supports us,” Presti said in a hallway by the Thunder’s locker room Thursday. “That’s very much steeped in, one, gratitude for what you do have, a day-by-day approach, putting one foot in front of the other.

“And then taking an optimistic approach about trying to influence what happens next. I think that’s certainly in the roots of Oklahoma, and it’s also very much a part of the organizational mentality we’ve tried to apply through the best of times, and the most difficult of times. But I think when you subscribe yourself to that, in a lot of ways, it’s empowering. We’re still applying the same things that we did in 2008, and I think that’s based on the fact that the city we represent has been the best model for that.”

After losing to the Warriors Saturday, the Thunder remains in comfortable position in the Western Conference, looking like a lock for no worse than the No. 7 spot, and capable of getting as high as fourth with a good hot streak. If OKC can make the playoffs, it will realize a feat that few who have lost a superstar have accomplished the following season.

The Chicago Bulls imploded after Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and coach Phil Jackson left in 1998. The Cleveland Cavaliers collapsed after LeBron James left in 2010. Even Kobe Bryant in his prime couldn’t keep the Los Angeles Lakers from sinking, after Shaquille O’Neal was traded in the summer of 2004, from falling from The Finals the previous season to 34-48 in 2004-05.

There have been a handful of teams that survived such losses. When Jordan retired as a player for the first time in 1993, Pippen was still there and he led Chicago to a 55-27 record and a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals in the 1993-94 season. That remains the closest comparison to the heavy lift Westbrook is attempting this season.

His pursuit of Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 season, when “The Big O” averaged a triple-double, has kept the Thunder in the national and local conversation. The city clings to Westbrook now, embraces him in full as it did Durant before. The grip is more desperate; the Innocent Climb days are long gone.

“There’s no question that Russell’s season is something that’s got this whole town on the edge of its seat,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said last week. “We’re grateful that he’s so invested in us and what we’re trying to accomplish. If he can pull off the triple-double for the season, I can’t imagine he won’t win the Most Valuable Player award. Russell’s our guy. I talked about effort earlier; nobody gives more than Russell. He plays like he’s got a chip on his shoulder for no apparent reason.”

With Durant gone, Westbrook’s role is obviously bigger, more expansive now. But he’s fallen into a comfortable routine with the Thunder’s younger players. He’s still in at 8:30 every morning, before practice, to get his early work in. But he’s reached out to rookie Domantas Sabonis as Sabonis struggled with a protracted shooting slump. He called Victor Oladipo before Durant made his free-agency decision to schedule workouts in the summer.

“He’s definitely taken on more of a leadership role, being more vocal,” said guard Andre Roberson. “And just approaching guys differently than last year. He’s the guy on the team. He’s the vet. And he’s pretty much one of the oldest guys on the team. He’s been through it. It’s his ninth year in the league. He’s just trying to show everybody the ropes.”

Westbrook still almost always watches film by himself — though occasionally he invites youngsters like Jerami Grant to join him — but he still influences his teammates when he’s not there.

“He tells them, ‘you can’t just watch film on your guy,’” Coach Billy Donovan said. “’Because what happens if we get crossmatched? You have to know all the personnel on every team and what every guy does.’”

It’s a role that Westbrook didn’t, and couldn’t, have earlier in his career. Back then, he was the young guy, along with Durant, as the Thunder rolled in one vet after another — Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Nazr Mohammed, Kevin Ollie, Royal Ivey — to be the old heads. Not to mention Westbrook was still trying to figure out his place in the NBA firmament, under the hot lights of the playoffs and occasionally withering criticism about his shot selection and decision making.

“That guy has an incredible heart, that doesn’t want people to really know about it,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, OKC’s coach from 2008-15.

“I think he was, and to me, the most satisfying thing I see him doing the last year or so, he was, for the first five years, it was ‘Russell can’t do this; Russell can’t do that; Russell’s not this; Russell’s definitely not that,’” Brooks said. “They always wanted to put him in a different place than where he was the best at. It was always him defending (himself) — or me. It was, like, constantly. And so he built that, you have to build that natural wall against all that negativity. Otherwise, you start believing what you’re hearing, and you start thinking, ‘you know what? Maybe I am a backup two guard.’ ”

It is easy to forget, now, how many people around the league thought Westbrook could never be a successful lead guard — and said so, loudly, on television, online, everywhere.

“Now, he’s the MVP,” Brooks said. “For me, it’s gratifying. Russell was, they were saying things that were, to me, unfair. And they were killing me for being the world’s dumbest coach playing him at point guard — he can’t make point guard decisions … he averaged 15, 5 and 5 as a rookie! Five rebounds. And there were only like four other players who’d ever done that at the time. But people forget about that.”

Durant’s shadow was vast. His love for the city was real. No one who witnessed his “You the Real MVP” acceptance speech in 2014 — in a room full of team employees, teammates, family and friends — could think otherwise.

“We loved Kevin while he was here,” Cornett said. “He wore our jersey. He was promoting us on magazine covers all over the world. He was the best ambassador we could ever hope for. But we like our roster now. I think we’re just as enthused about the roster we have now as we’ve ever been. They’re a little young. We’re kind of in a little bit of a rebuilding phase, unless they’re making a trade I don’t know about. The town adapts to the team it has. In our city, as long as the team is giving everything they’ve got, they’ll get our full support. We’re big on effort and trying to do the right things. Kevin was a part of that, and now he’s not.”

There is no more KD’s, the restaurant in the Bricktown district. It was temporarily shuttered after his departure and re-opened as the Legacy Grill in the fall, with some of Durant’s own favorite foods still on the menu. (Briefly, Durant’s reps toyed with the idea of keeping KD’s open even after he left; after discussing it with the restaurant group that ran KD’s and opened Legacy, it was quickly, and mutually, agreed that his name come down permanently.)

Oklahoma City still has Fortune 500 companies headquartered there, like Chesapeake, and Devon Energy. The Sonic Corporation is based in OKC, as are the headquarters for Hobby Lobby stores. A study by Realtor.com last year had Oklahoma City in the top 10 cities nationwide among top destinations for millennials.

And — at least so far — the Thunder is still drawing more than 18,000 a night to Chesapeake Arena. They still have the pregame prayer and they still stand until the team scores its first basket, and they’re still really polite.

“This is the greatest thing that’s happened to Oklahoma,” Connie Scott, up in the rafters, said. “It’s been really great for us. And Kevin was great for us. He really was. It was unexpected the way he left, you know?”

Hence the booing shirt.

But they still have Westbrook, who signed an extension last summer when few thought he would, that keeps him in OKC at least until 2018, or 2019 if he doesn’t opt out. And with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement — designed to help teams like the Thunder keep its remaining superstar — OKC can give Westbrook the new Designated Player Exception, a five-year deal that would exceed $200 million.

If he wants it.

“This is an easy place for him to stay,” Gary Scott said. “Everything is his way. It is. He got paid as much as he would anywhere else for playing. I’m sure he could get other endorsements and stuff. But I also think he’s a basketball player. They want to win championships. There’s a possibility to go somewhere else. Golden State’s got like, a team full of stars. I applaud him for staying, but if he left, I could understand it.”

Connie: “I mean, he’s got a home in California, and he’s from UCLA. I expect him to leave, eventually, yes.”

Did you think that before Durant left?

“No,” Connie Scott said, more in sadness than in anger. “I thought they were ours forever.”

More Morning Tip: DA’s Top 15 rankings | Korver adjusts to playing with LeBron | Q&A: Michele Roberts

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

Latest