Family Culture, Brotherly Environment Years in the Making
The rest of the state of Oklahoma notwithstanding, Oklahoma City is mostly flatlands. When a new player comes into town to join the Thunder, however, the organization “moves mountains”.
Starting with General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti to the Thunder’s basketball and business staffs to the coaches and the players, there is a unique culture in Oklahoma City. It’s an environment that is both welcoming and committed to performing roles, large or small, at the highest level.
“A lot of places, people say, ‘Family, family, family. This organization is all about family. This is our approach’,” said veteran guard Randy Foye, who relocated to Oklahoma City after being traded in February. “But here, they practice what they preach.”
Regardless of whether a player has been with the Thunder since 2008, just arrived recently or has left and come back, there’s an indelible mark made during their time in Oklahoma City. There’s a closeness, a connectivity and a togetherness that exists amongst the players in the locker room. That starts with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, who have been the team’s core since the first days in Oklahoma City.
Those bonds can get tested through tragedy, and it is the teams that truly, as Foye mentioned, practice what they preach that withstand those gusts of adversity. When a trio of unexpected and heartbreaking deaths rocked the Thunder family in early 2016, the organization was devastated. There was deep pain when Monty Williams’ wife Ingrid, Thunder part-own Aubrey McClendon and Dion Waiters’ brother Demetrius Pinckney passed away. But no one broke, and neither did the team.
“We're certainly an organization of high standards, but we're also an organization of compassion, and that really was surfaced through the things we had to encounter this year,” Presti said. “There are certain things that come your way that are unforeseen and unexpected and unfortunate at different times, and we worked ourselves through those things the best we know how. Over time we've demonstrated that it's a special group of people here.”
Players like Anthony Morrow, in his second season with the team, recognized that the people internally stayed strong for one another while the fans in Oklahoma City also rallied behind the organization.
Watch Video: The Culture in OKC
“It's a family here. But what even more so impressed me was that the whole city and the community embraced the team as well,” Morrow said. “It really says a lot about what this team means to the community and what the community means to us as an organization.”
“I watched some of my guys really go through some tough times, and with the support of the community and the organization, I think that really kind of helped a lot of guys out,” Morrow added.
Part of the reason for those ties between the players, the staff and the city is the culture that has been set up in Oklahoma City. No one is elevated above the group, every person is responsible for executing their role to the best of their ability – no matter the task they’re being asked to complete.
“We always say we hire people, not positions,” Presti said. “We're looking for high potential individuals in everything we do, whether it's the head coach, the starting point guard, or the intern that's starting with us for the first time.”
The proof can be seen every night in the arena and each day at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center. Players hug the ushers as they walk in the building, gear up for the game with staffers in the hallways and go through their personalized, individual pregame dance routines. That electricity zips through everyone and creates the atmosphere known as Loud City.
“The organization, the way things are run, the communication, everyone is held accountable, no matter who you are, from the first guy to the 15th guy,” Foye explained. “Everybody here is held accountable. You walk in that arena and it seems like everyone is in the battle with you.”
“You walk through the hallways, everyone is slapping your hand. ‘You ready? You ready? We got this tonight.’ Seems like everyone is in battle with you.”
The Thunder is eight years in. There have been different iterations of the team each season but a core group of players and staff who have helped sustain success over that time, resulting in five Northwest Division titles, four Western Conference Finals appearances and one berth to the NBA Finals. In such a limited time, perspective is important, and that’s where an 18-year NBA veteran like Nazr Mohammed, who has played for eight teams, can weigh in.
Mohammed, training to perhaps one day work in an NBA front office, described an experience at a leadership seminar a couple years ago. The fundamental question that was asked was, “What is more important: talent or culture?” Resoundingly, Mohammed answered that it is culture, and that is something that the Thunder has in spades.
“If you have the right culture, the right people, they will work hard enough and improve, and who knows where that will lead,” Mohammed explained. “The culture here is just unbelievable. The people here have just made it amazing and continued to grow, and I believe it's going to result in a championship at one point.”
“It fits the personality of the city,” Mohammed added. “It all starts with the people.”