Thunder Makes Big Night Even Bigger for High School Rivals
In the world of high school sports, there are big games, and there are really big games. This week's scheduled basketball games at Putnam City West High School were already pretty big – and that was before the Thunder showed up.
The PC West Patriots battled the Panthers of PC North in a girls and boys varsity double-header on Friday night. In between those two games, the Thunder took the gym floor for its annual Blue & White Game, a preseason scrimmage that gives fans a close-up look at their team.
"PC West playing PC North is big," said West Principal Buster Meeks. "But having the Thunder here – it makes everybody just a little bit more excited about the whole evening … It's a big thing to our kids."
Normally archrivals, fans from the two schools put their fiery competitiveness on hold when the Thunder took the floor, covering their school colors with Thunder blue T-shirts.
The team didn't enter the gym with a lot of pomp and circumstance. Instead, just like any other visiting team would, the Thunder walked down the sidelines as the girls' game played.
"Our players loved it," said Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks. "When we walked into the gym, that reminded all of our players – including our coaches – of their high school experiences."
Meeks appreciated that special moment.
"They came in respectful, they came in quiet – they just walked by … they weren't trying to take away from the girls' basketball," he said.
Fans in attendance – teachers, students and parents alike – expressed their excitement for the game as the team took the court for warm-ups, but almost to a person, they were struck by one fundamental aspect of the team.
"They're big," said fan Phil Martin. "They're really tall when you see them in person."
After the first few glimpses of the players, fans began to realize what a very special event this was shaping up to be.
"I'm like freaking out right now," said North student Kassidy Kingsley after shaking one player's hand.
"For the Thunder to come out and support them (the basketball teams) and give back as much as they can, I think that's an awesome thing. It really touches my heart," she added.
The players seemed just as excited as the fans to be taking part in the night's festivities.
"It made me feel like I was back in high school," said Thunder forward Kevin Durant. "It was also fun playing in a smaller gym."
Brooks added, "I beat my high school rival nine times in my high school career … It's a great environment … great crowd."
Durant understood what it meant to be cheered on by both of the strong rivals.
"Rivalries coming together and just enjoying Thunder Basketball – it means we're doing something pretty special right here."
The Putnam City community agreed it was special, but as surprised and grateful as they were over the Thunder's visit, they couldn't help but note that their kids, staff and community are all pretty special, too.
"I've got a lot of really good kids, but I've got a heck of a good little basketball team, too. And so does PC North – we're both good," said Meeks.
Those who know PC West know it's a school with a lot of challenges. About 85 percent of students are on free and reduced lunches. The ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic makeup of the school is incredibly diverse – something that can pose a serious challenge to a school trying to educate a broad range of students and create a sense of wholeness to the school.
But in talking to staff and fans alike, and in seeing the strength of the school's spirit, none of the challenges are anything they can't overcome.
"It's a real diverse community, so we have a very diverse student body – but that plays into our strengths because that's who we are and that's what we're proud of," Meeks stated.
"They're a student body. They're a team; they're a group. They work together, they care about each other and they care about this school."
Rather than give in to some of the challenges, teachers and staff have worked harder to face them. They put in longer hours and give extra help. The athletic director even started a food pantry on site to give kids access to the food they need.
And, as Meeks pointed out, PC West is more than its own community – it's part of the larger community, one that includes Thunder players and staff.
West staff is made up of former classmates and longtime friends of Thunder staffers. Meeks himself was the principal at schools that some of the Thunder staff attended. And one of the West teachers has a daughter on the Thunder Girls squad.
"These are people we know, and that's why I think it's so cool to have it here," Meeks said.
In the spirit of the night and to get the most out of the scrimmage, players switched teams throughout the night, so who exactly won and who exactly lost made no difference to the pros or their fans.
"The crowd was great – both teams," Brooks added. "We won tonight … They players loved it. We really appreciated the support we got out here."
Durant knows what it means to students to get this close to a team that they usually admire only from afar.
"In high school, I didn't think I could be in the NBA until I met an NBA player," he said.
He hopes the students took something more than excitement away from the team's visit. His goal was "just giving them hope and inspiration, and just letting them know we all came from the same upbringing and we all came from the same path. And if we made it, you guys can make it, as well."