Tre Mann, Jaylin Williams, Josh Giddey and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Fueling Connections in the Community

By Paris Lawson | Broadcast and Digital Reporter | okcthunder.com

Thunder Players Deliver Surprise and Delight

Two and a half years ago, Thunder rookie Jaylin Williams was still a senior in high school. Two and a half years ago, Josh Giddey was just 17 years old living in Australia. Tom Brady was still with the Patriots two and a half years ago. In two and a half years, you could’ve flown to Mars and back. Twice. 

That’s how long it had been since Thunder players were last able to have face-to-face interactions with their community. On Wednesday, Thunder players Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Giddey and Williams all stopped by a local Love’s Travel Stop and surprised patrons with gift cards. The long hiatus from the in-person connection made Wednesday’s event all the more special. 

“Two and a half years ago, I would probably be the one pulling into the gas station wanting to get those gift cards from my favorite players,” said Giddey. “It's crazy how fast time goes by and to be in a position that I am now to be able to give back to the community, it's a blessing and that's something I've always wanted to be in a position to do and I'm grateful that I can do that now.”    

Neither Mann, Giddey, Robinson-Earl or Williams were on the team two and a half years ago, but they understood clearly just how critical community is to the Thunder – it’s a core pillar of the organization. They’d been told just how special the fans in Oklahoma City are and even got a taste of it last season during their time on the floor. 

“Just how nice they are and how much they support their teams and their sports here,” said Mann. “I got a little glimpse of that this year, but I'm starting to see it more and more every day.”

Wednesday’s surprise appearance gave the players an even closer glimpse of Oklahoma City’s unique fanbase. 

One lifelong OKC resident, Robert Adams was on his way home from a doctor’s appointment when he stopped by Love’s to fill up the air in his tires. Adams was completely surprised to see Tre Mann appear from the other side of his black pick-up truck with a smile and a gift card.

“I've never met a professional basketball player in my life. That is absolutely fantastic,” said Adams. “I think as professional athletes, they need to get out into community. We need to know who they are. We need to know more about them than just playing basketball and they need to see the community in which they play basketball and live in. It builds unity.”

In addition to taking a photo with Mann, Adams asked if Mann could sign his doctor’s note – a simple picture wouldn’t be enough to convince his family that he actually met Tre Mann.

“He said his family won't believe him with a picture,” Mann laughed. “He was funny and he had a lot of energy. It's nice to meet people like that and give back.”

Back at the gas pumps, Giddey strolled up to a woman in a white SUV named Tashana Nesbitt. Giddey introduced himself and passed the gift card through the car window. Nesbitt’s mouth dropped. She couldn’t contain her disbelief and gratitude for the surprise gift card because it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“My mom just passed away on Monday. I'm unemployed right now. I'm just trying to make it and trying to figure it out,” Nesbitt said. “This will really help.”

“It means a lot because you don't know what someone's going through. Even if it's $25, that can really make an impact on somebody's life,” said Giddey. “I had no idea what [Nesbitt] was going through, but to be able to help her in the way that we did makes me feel a lot better about myself and hopefully can make her day a bit better.”

It’s these sorts of interactions that the Thunder missed over the last two and a half years. The hugs, the high-fives and the handshakes couldn’t be accomplished through computer screens but were all present Wednesday afternoon. It had been a long time coming for the players to experience this level of connection in the community, and they’re only getting started.  

“I think it's really easy to take for granted those very intimate conversations and just being able to have opportunities just to interact with people in the community,” said Robinson-Earl. “It's just great finally being able to get back into that flow of things and be able to hang out with the community and give back.”

“To be able to have the players back, it feels like we're back home. It feels like we're back at it and it's just such a great feeling,” said Christine Berney, vice president of community engagement for the Thunder. “We’re grateful to be here, grateful to have them and super excited about the season.”