Undergoing COVID testing at least twice and sometimes three times a day during the 2020-21 season, with a mask compliance officer on duty, the Thunder navigated new, unwanted norms just like the rest of the country. Players sat in chilly cars waiting their turn to get nasal swabs outside of the Thunder ION, just to have the privilege to hop on mealless flights to road cities where they stayed isolated in hotel rooms.
There was a limit of a dozen people per bus on the road, meaning that team personnel were separated and distanced across four busses as opposed to the normal two. Only at the very end of the season were the players, coaches and staff afforded the opportunity to take two walks per day, an opportunity to stretch legs and minds in between the most rigorous schedule in NBA history. In the second half of the season, teams played an average of four games per week.
“It was really as volatile a season as you could have probably drawn up, especially if you trace it back all the way to last year and the bubble,” said Head Coach Mark Daigneault, who completed his first year at the Thunder’s helm. “Yet everybody here was so consistent with their approach, so focused on their craft, so willing to pour into each other and into the environment.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 18, 2021
Reflecting on the lessons and experiences gained from the 2020-21 season. pic.twitter.com/DPqVUbQKDm
Through it all, Thunder players kept smiles on their faces, positive thoughts in their minds and gratitude in their hearts. Walking into arenas, players hyped up each other’s outfits and teased each other’s fashion choices too. At the end of each day, they huddled up and reflected on what made them feel grateful. Teammates supported one another through the moments in life that carried on uninterrupted – child births, milestones, illnesses, birthdays – all of the events that cared not for the necessary safety restrictions put in place by the NBA and Thunder organization.
Veterans cheered on rookies. The Thunder’s bench stood in support for nearly all 48 minutes of each game. Guys on 10-day contracts were treated with the same respect as any other. Teammates welcomed in and accommodated newcomers who spoke a variety of languages. A late-season arrival like Gabriel Deck, whose English is limited, were pointed in the right direction and brought up to speed. A team of players that hailed from seven different countries bonded through their differences.
“That just speaks to the character of guys we've got in our locker room and in our building,” said point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “We've got a team full of leaders and guys that do the right thing, day in and day out, guys with great attitudes. I ultimately think we have guys that are grateful to be here.”
At 3 a.m. on April 20 as the team waited on their luggage in Indianapolis, Thunder rookies gathered around Lu Dort and serenaded him with the birthday song to commemorate his 22nd trip around the sun. The next night, Thunder players were afforded the opportunity to rent out a private room in the hotel and stayed there for hours on end just to be in one another’s presence.
One last HBD Luguentz pic.twitter.com/FyvMSOPLJI— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 20, 2021
After games, Gilgeous-Alexander often had pizzas delivered, providing slices to his teammates, the staff and the COVID testers who traveled along with the team. On one magical afternoon when protocols permitted, the team took a walk down the beach in Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey, where the guys soaked up some sunshine as Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby tossed the football around. It was that day that the team learned that Roby was a high school standout on the gridiron in addition to the hardwood.
“I don’t think this is common in the NBA,” said second-year guard Ty Jerome. “I felt like I was back in college with how close we were.”
What made the Thunder’s internal connection even more impressive considering how their interactions were limited was the lack of continuity. Out of the 22 players who hit the court for the Thunder in the 2020-21 season, only six were on the roster in the previous season. After mid-March, every Thunder player had joined the organization in the summer of 2019 or later. Despite that, the team exhibited the type of cultural values that have existed in Oklahoma City since 2008, a sign that those Thunder principles of gratitude and brotherhood have staying power.
“We were extremely fortunate to play basketball this year,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. “We're not trying to be all things to all people, but there are going to be people that really thrive in this environment and enjoy it, and those are also the people that really help make it what it is.”
On those masked flights, Thunder players joked, laughed and played games together – getting to know each other in the minimized opportunities they could. When possible, they tried to watch basketball games, share meals and play video games together. When they finally got that precious time on the floor in practices and shootarounds, they got after each other with fire and competitive spirit on the court. During games, they pulled one another aside to offer encouragement and advice. Thunder players made no excuses, even when a February snowstorm delayed the team’s arrival in Memphis to just a few hours before tip-off, walking into the arena after coming straight from the airport.
“The vibe around here, everyone is happy to get there and ready to work,” said rookie Théo Maledon. “Everyone is together and focused on giving their best and doing as much as possible.”
After the All-Star Break, Thunder veteran center Mike Muscala only played in one game, for 12 minutes and 14 seconds. He was in the midst of the highest scoring season of his career, averaging 9.7 points while shooting 37.0 percent from three-point range. After Gilgeous-Alexander went down with an injury and it became clear the right thing to do was to invest in playing time for younger frontcourt players like Roby and Moses Brown, Muscala spent much of his time on the bench, standing and cheering, leading and teaching.
After a couple of months of humbling his own ambitions for the sake of the organization’s goals, Muscala wasn’t ready to ship off for the summer. Instead, the 29-year-old got emotional as he talked about his plan to spend time in Oklahoma City this offseason and how much he’ll miss his teammates and the bonds they built within the Thunder’s walls this past season.
“I'm grateful for it. It helped me a lot as a man and as a player,” said Muscala, holding back tears. “I just feel like the organization's values and the fans here and everything, it just aligns with what I feel. It made it just really gratifying to come in every day and go to work -- even this season, to have that to do when so many people were struggling with COVID and all that. Just even the opportunity to play basketball meant a lot to me.”
Towards the end of the year, when the COVID vaccinations arrived, Thunder players went together to get their shots, leaning on one another in that highly anticipated moment. In a year of discomfort, one that challenged families, businesses and communities to stay connected, Thunder players and staff remained grateful and kept their minds in the present. They did all they could to truly be a team.
“We've got a team full of leaders and guys that do the right thing, day in and day out, guys with great attitudes. I ultimately think we have guys that are grateful to be here.”