JOY IS IN THE JOURNEY
PRESTI ‘GRATEFUL’ AS FORWARD-LEANING THUNDER
EMBARKS ON 14TH SEASON IN OKC
By Royce Young
Sept. 24, 2021
FOR 14 YEARS, Sam Presti has sat down a few days before media day and held a press conference to open the season, and in all 14 years he has made it a point to say how many seasons it’s been for the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
“I always am extremely grateful for the fact that this will be now our 14th year in Oklahoma City playing basketball in our community and in our state,” he opened. “Since 2008, it's been an incredible, incredible journey, something that we've all been benefited from and extremely grateful for, so having another year is super special.”
All 14 of these had a different tone and a different theme. Different points of emphasis, different questions, different answers. But this one, the 14th one, felt like the blank-canvassing of a new Thunder journey.
The Thunder have spent the last couple seasons transitioning the roster, acquiring assets and repositioning to set up for another run at sustained success. This is a franchise that has been in the postseason 11 of the 13 years in Oklahoma City, amassing one of the best overall winning percentages in all of professional sports. All-Stars, MVPs, future Hall of Famers have all spent extended time with the Thunder, laying an almost unprecedented foundation in the decade-plus the team has been here. It’s mind-boggling to think back 13 years ago to what the Thunder were then, to what they are now.
But as the program moves forward, with young players and a war chest full of future draft picks, it’s easy to imagine the previous era echoing throughout the organization, setting the direction for the journey ahead. As Presti said, though, the Thunder aren’t competing against their own past. They are using it to build their future.
“That portion of Thunder history has just been remarkable, and quite frankly, the group of players we have now are certainly standing on the shoulders of the last 10 years and the people that have been here and the traditions that have been established,” Presti said. “But the beauty of where we are right now is that we're really in an opportunity to craft our own future and start to write our own history knowing that it's going to take time.”
THE FIRST GAME the Thunder ever played in Oklahoma City was Oct. 14, 2008 against the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a preseason game and the starting lineup featured players like Chris Wilcox, Earl Watson and Johan Petro.
I was at that game with my best friend Andy, and we sat near the top row of Loud City, perched like gargoyles looking down on the floor. We fantasized about implausible scenarios, like what it would be like to see an NBA playoff game one day in OKC, or heck, something as grandiose as a Western Conference finals game. And what we kept coming back to, was the inescapable weirdness of feeling like we were somewhere else. This didn’t feel like Oklahoma City. We had to be somewhere bigger, somewhere where pro sports teams called home.
The motto for that Thunder team, and the ones that followed for a few years, was “Rise Together.” It was on T-shirts and rally towels and car flags and billboards -- two words in bubbly block lettering meant to signal a shift in mentality not just for this new pro sports organization, but for the city itself. It was a call to civic action, a unifying slogan that reflected the hopes and dreams and optimism of a team and city searching for its breakthrough.
If you’re reading this, you probably have a pretty good idea of what happened. The rapid ascension, the eruption of state and city pride, the unification of warring college fanbases, the arrival to the big leagues not just as an attendee, but as a force.
In the 14 seasons together, the Thunder have become distinctly Oklahoma, and Oklahoma has become distinctly Thunder. They are inextricably connected. It’s not a professional basketball team operating in Oklahoma City. It’s not a separate entity that has its own ecosystem that’s merely here to try to capitalize on good tax incentives or cheap land prices. The Thunder are in the bones of the city now, part of the core fabric. It is the people’s team, the community club. They reflect the values Oklahomans know well: resiliency, togetherness, kindness, community.
The Thunder are in an obvious state of transition, and it might be easy to assume there is a formula to follow. That it’s simply Rise Together again, like you can flip back to the first page in the book and recite it all over. But this is a different organization, just like it’s a different city.
“We're going through a cycle that every team in pro sports, for the most part, enters and I don't think that we're ever going to be able to go back in time and recreate what has taken place in 2008 because that was over 10 years ago,” Presti said. “The city itself was in a totally different place and had aspirations of their own, many of which have been reached, and the team had aspirations of their own.”
It will be a challenging process, one that may test patience or force doubt. But that’s where the backbone of the city should stand them up. Oklahomans know hard things. Oklahomans do hard things.
“Some people may make the argument that it's harder, but that's not going to stop our commitment,” Presti said. “It's not going to stop our aspiration. We know what's possible, but we also know that you have to earn your way and pay the price.
“That's one thing about our city and our community. I don't think Oklahomans expect things to be given to them,” he said. “I don't think they expect things to be handed to them. I never really heard Oklahomans talk about taking the easy way or shortcutting things or not putting in a hard day's work or not earning what you get. And they're definitely not about acting like they're doing one thing and doing another.”
CONSTRUCTION ON THE DEVON TOWER, or as it’s formally known, Devon Energy Center, began on Oct. 9, 2009. The building, with its stunning verticality and glorious reflecting sky blue-ish glass, is some 1,800,000 square feet with 52 floors and stands 844 feet tall. It’s the tallest building in Oklahoma -- almost comically so, as it towers, literally, over the OKC skyline.
It passed the previous tallest building in Oklahoma City -- formerly known as the Chase Center -- a full year before it was completed. It’s tied with Park Tower in Chicago for the 62nd tallest building in the country.
The first crane was installed in Feb. 2010, the second came four months later. In July 2010, the building peeked through, rising above street level. Two months after that, it was 10 stories tall.
Two blocks south, on the corner of Ron Norick Blvd. and Reno, the Thunder were rising. They had crawled out of the demolition of a 3-29 start to season one to pop their heads above street level themselves, winning 50 games and earning a spot in the Western Conference playoffs, officially arriving as a team of the future. They kept ascending, story by story, to the Western Conference finals in 2011, then the NBA finals in 2012. The tower completed construction in Oct. 2012.
It became the de facto landmark of OKC, the signal to the scoffers and jokers about the city that yes, indeed, this place was Big League now. There was a championship level pro sports team here, and a shimmering metropolis skyscraper to go with it.
“The visual impact it has on the city is so striking and so identifiable,” former mayor Mick Cornett said when it completed construction. “It took just over three years to complete the building that has quickly become a staple in our city's skyline."
The original plans for the tower included a data center, but because of security reasons and space issues, it was added to a different facility. Which would’ve made the tower 54 stories and 925 feet tall.
It was always meant to go higher.
IT WAS DEC. 26, 2020, which, unbelievably, was opening night for the Thunder last season. After a breakneck offseason, the Thunder took the floor with a remade roster and undetermined expectations.
Their opener was in Charlotte against the Hornets, and after 46 really quality minutes of basketball, the young Thunder started to let a lead slip. The Thunder led by 13 with 2:13 left in the game. After a flurry of 3s, the game was tied 107-107 with 10.3 seconds left.
After the offseason moves, the game would now be in the hands of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, now in his second season and still just 22 years old. With no timeouts remaining, the Thunder quickly inbounded and Gilgeous-Alexander walked the ball up the floor, hitting the accelerator to attack his defender with a sharp in-and-out dribble right past halfcourt. He turned the hips of his defender, Cody Martin, and rocked him back on his heels. Feeling the space opening, Gilgeous-Alexander hit the air break to pull immediately into a jumper. All net, Thunder lead, Thunder win.
It was a moment Presti recognized on Friday, the kind in a mostly unmemorable season full of weirdness and injuries and protocols, that has staying power. Thunder fans that were there for Rise Together can think about Jeff Green’s game-winner against the Warriors. They can think about the enduring plays, the poster dunks, the glimpses of greatness -- even the heartbreaking losses -- that set a stage of what was to come.
Moments become memories, the building blocks linking the past to the present to the future. Development and growth are exhilarating, to watch the incremental steps that show signs of what might be to come. You want to be there for those moments.
“We have a saying in the organization that people celebrate the breakthrough, but what really gets honored is the path,” Presti said. “As a result of that, I think ultimately when we are playing really high-level basketball in Oklahoma City and the arena is on fire and we're in the postseason and fans have witnessed the come up and understand the time, they're going to look back on a few things.”
"The beauty of where we are right now is an opportunity to craft our own future and start to write our own history."
Anybody that’s played a sports video game knows it: It’s no fun to pick the 95 overall team and start stacking titles from the get-go. So you go with the third division team with limited resources and that is trying to climb, and you set a path toward building a winner organically to compete with the big clubs. The fun is in the progress.
Oklahoma City continues onward itself, diversifying its people, honoring the past more respectfully and holistically, and addressing social needs that were long ignored or missed. We’re on the fourth iteration of MAPS, with a slate of new projects and enhancements to the city, far different than they were in the 1990s, or 2000s, or 2010s. We aren’t trying to build a new skyscraper to stand alongside the Devon Tower; we are focusing our energy in other areas. Look at a picture of OKC just as recent as 2012 and compare it to what you see now. Scissortail Park, the new convention center, the new hotels, the new community spaces. It’s a city reinvented and revitalized, thriving on the mission to never settle.
Every Oklahoman I know over the age of 35 talks of the times of a dilapidated downtown, where Spaghetti Warehouse was the only place to eat. They chuckle at the thought of the first Bricktown canal rides, where you optimistically toured glamorous patches of unmowed grass and piles of dirt, with the guide speaking of things that would one day fill these spaces. They think of daily miracles that happened on the downtown I-40 bridges, remarkably holding together while literally crumbling as cars and trucks and semis rumbled over them.
And now they see a vibrant, diverse, evolving city, with things like world-famous restaurants and Olympic and Paralympic training sites and brand new first-class museums and art and music and film and culture. To drive through OKC now is to experience a city on the cusp of something. And that experience is fueled by the overwhelming sense of pride knowing where we are, versus where we’ve been. The joy is in the journey and only the real ones will know.