COVER STORY

'A GREAT SENSE OF PURPOSE'

THE THUNDER'S MEANINGFUL CONNECTION IN TULSA


Paris Lawson

By Paris Lawson
okcthunder.com
Oct. 15, 2021


THERE WERE A FEW SPECIAL GUESTS inside the BOK Center for the Thunder’s preseason matchup against Denver. A group of 9th- and 10th-grade students sat among the crowd of Tulsans sporting matching black t-shirts, holding signed mini-basketballs and even passing around a signed pair of electric blue basketball shoes. They watched with added excitement as an overtime battle unfolded on the floor in front of them knowing that they had a special tie to the home team. Those high schoolers represented the inaugural cohort of the Thunder Fellows Program and the shoes belonged to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The scene illustrated the meaningful connection made during the Thunder’s time in Tulsa on Thursday – a connection that extended beyond the basketball court.

The team’s trip to Tulsa began well before its scheduled 7 p.m. tip off against Denver at the BOK Center. The Thunder’s annual preseason trip up the Turnpike was a welcomed return to normalcy after missing last season’s due to the pandemic and condensed preseason. However, much has transpired in the city since the Thunder’s last game in front of the Tulsa crowd back in the fall of 2019 and on Thursday, the team used the opportunity to delve into the city and its history.

In May, Tulsa recognized the centennial of the 1921 Race Massacre which was the deadliest act of racial violence in American history that destroyed one of the nation’s most affluent and self-sufficient Black neighborhoods known as Black Wall Street. The summer prior, the Thunder announced its partnership with CAA Sports to create the Thunder Fellows Program – a pipeline for Black youth in Tulsa to careers in sports, entertainment, and tech through a curriculum based in data and analytics. Since then, the program has officially opened its doors and welcomed is first cohort of students into its building.

Before arriving to the BOK Center for its game, the Thunder took a small detour a mile north of the arena to go on a guided tour through the Greenwood District to see and learn about Black Wall Street’s storied history.

Growing up, Thunder two-way rookie Aaron Wiggins had been told about the story of Black Wall Street by his mother. After driving through the area on Thursday and seeing the historical landmarks for himself, he had a whole new perspective on the historical event.

“Hearing about the story of what transpired in that time, it's just kind of surreal to go through it all and get a first-hand experience and just look at it all for yourself,” Wiggins said. “So it's definitely an experience that I'll be able to after this game tonight, I'll call my mom and tell her like ‘Mom, I went through Black Wall Street. I saw that firsthand.’”

The tour of Black Wall Street came to a close at one of the newest establishments up and running in Greenwood - the Thunder Fellows office. Players and coaches filed into the building for the first time to see the new space, meet the staff and learn about how the program came to be.

Thunder General Manager Sam Presti met the team at the building along with Thunder Fellows Executive Director Cedric Ikpo to explain the program’s origins and purpose. During the summer of 2020 and the nationwide calls for social justice following the death of George Floyd, it was Presti who made a phone call to his childhood friend Mike Johnson of CAA Sports. The two discussed what meaningful change could look like in the fight for racial equality and from that phone call, the idea of Thunder Fellows was born.

“It's a great sense of purpose for us. It was great idea,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “We're obviously a long-sighted program in a lot of ways, but I think the response to the unrest in the summer of 2020 was a long-sighted response, which fits the way that we respond to everything here. And so, we're proud of it and can't wait to see it get scaled over time.”

After a dive into the history of Tulsa’s Greenwood District and a stop at Thunder Fellows, the time finally came for the team to make their way to the BOK Center for its final preseason game of Training Camp.

While the team laced up their shoes and donned their uniforms in the locker room, a mile away the Thunder Fellows cohort loaded up their newly branded van and also made their way to the BOK Center. The group settled into a few rows of seats behind the Thunder’s bench to get a good view of the team’s pregame warm-ups. Throughout pregame, Presti, Daigneault and Thunder players Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all stopped by to meet the cohort in person and say hello. With each visitor, the students’ faces lit up with excitement.

“They worked so hard to be in Thunder Fellows,” said Thunder guard Lu Dort. “So I want to congratulate them and I’m so happy they’re here to enjoy the game.”


Conversations, photos and autographs ensued. Gilgeous-Alexander walked up to the students in a pair of eye-catching blue and pink sneakers and when he left, he was barefoot. As he walked away, the students were passing the signed shoes around and snapping selfies as the Thunder’s fourth-year guard thought back to when he was once a high school underclassman with big dreams just like them.

“It's nice to see the younger ages and to know that I was there once upon a time. It feels so long ago but it's really not,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It'll be cool to see them grow throughout the years and see them become young men and young women in this world.”

While the team’s time in Tulsa came to an end following the final buzzer, the connection made between the players and Fellows on Thursday will last much longer. As the students return to their regular classes and programming at school and Thunder Fellows, they’ll have the memories from Thursday’s experience to take with them – as well as a pair of SGA’s sneakers.



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