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Thunder city

The Thunder didn’t just make it to the NBA Finals this year — it changed the face of Oklahoma City.

Nicole Hill June 20th, 2012

For many years, Oklahoma City existed in shadows.

Credit: Shannon Cornman

It existed in the shadow of the boom-and-bust economy of Tulsa’s oil-rich gentility, whose development outpaced its sister down the turnpike for much of the last half-century.

It existed in the shadow of equidistant college rivals whose fan bases divided the city’s allegiance.

Most of all, it existed in the shadow of the rubble of what had been the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Oklahoma City’s identity, in some ways, has never been fully its own. And for much of the last two decades, it was shaped by the hell unleashed with a bomb in a Ryder truck.

But that changed with Hurricane Katrina, another state’s tragedy, which allowed Oklahomans to do what they do best: rally. That changed with the New Orleans Hornets, whose two-year residence proved that OKC had both the enthusiasm and acumen to support an NBA franchise.

And finally, that changed for good in 2008 with the arrival of the newly minted Oklahoma City Thunder and the “aw, shucks” marketability of Kevin Durant and company.

Now, four years later, the city’s moment in the sun has come with the NBA Finals, the significance of which can’t be summed up in television ratings, attendance, Charles Barkley horse rides or coins in local coffers — although all have been substantial.

The real impact is a little more nuanced.

Showcasing the city

“If you Google ‘Oklahoma City,’ the auto-finish is going to say ‘Thunder’ instead of ‘bombing,’” said Royce Young, proprietor of the Daily Thunder blog. “And to me, that means something.”

Credit: Shannon Cornman

Young is hardly alone. “This team — these 15 young men, and of course, the staff and coaches — in a lot of people’s minds, they kind of personify Oklahoma City,” said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

If the organization embodies the city, then the players’ on-the-court enthusiasm goes hand-in-hand with the blue-and-orange bonanza occurring in all quarters of town.

Downtown OKC Inc. has been leading the charge in “Thundering Up” downtown, including hanging lights in the Myriad Botanical Gardens and painting the sidewalk along Robinson Avenue. The nonprofit agency has also been busy sprucing up the city for the national and international spotlight, power-washing sidewalks and cleaning streets.

“It’s a good way to show the world how far we’ve come and how much we’ve overcome,” said Gentry McKeown, communications coordinator for Downtown OKC Inc.

“Just having Project 180 fixing up the downtown area, Devon tower, all the improvements we’ve made — I think it really shows the world that we are a big-league city.”

Big league as we may be, we’re still small fry in terms of media share. San Antonio’s last three championships drew dismal TV ratings, which raised questions about the bankability of little guys (figuratively, that is).

Proving that a small market can still get the lion’s share of national interest, however, Game 1 of the Thunder-Miami Heat series drew an 11.8 Nielsen rating, the highest ever for a Finals opener on ABC. Last year’s match-up between the Heat and the Dallas Mavericks elicited a 10.7. Game 2 also earned an equally impressive 11.8 rating.

The 22 international media outlets present for that first game broadcast the Thunder win in 47 different languages to more than 200 countries and territories.

“How do you measure that? You really can’t,” Williams said. “You don’t realize what comes out of that kind of exposure.”

Credit: Shannon Cornman

It is slightly easier to quantify the tangible boons of Finals exposure. For the championship brawl, out-of-towners didn’t just come in for one-night stays in hotels; they stayed for three or four days. Their economic impact nearly triples, and that’s not counting the price they paid for tickets, Williams said.

“And then there’s that other thing called media exposure,” he said.

Sweetheart image

Media narratives are good for a lot of things. Parsing complex or contradictory ideas is not one of them. This is why reconciling the Thunder’s sweetheart image with the prevailing caricature of Thunder CEO Clay Bennett and fellow owners as robber barons who stole the SuperSonics from Seattle has been a topic of heated conversation this playoffs season.

Among the critics is Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, who took to the web to encourage sports fans nationwide to — if not root for the Heat — root against the Thunder.

Why? A slippery slope, he argues. “It is about saying that a certain method of ownership that includes lying to the media and political officials when you buy a team becomes validated,” Zirin told Oklahoma Gazette. “It becomes acceptable. And the bar for the kind of responsibility and morality that we expect from sports owners, it devolves.”

A Thunder win would embolden owners like Zygi Wilf, of the Minnesota Vikings, and “every single place where owners are threatening to leave unless they get money,” he said.

For Oklahoma City, the challenge has been balancing both sympathy for Seattle fans and elation at having a team to call its own.

Credit: Mark Hancock

“I’ve always said I hate the way Oklahoma City got a team. I wish it could have been an expansion team,” said Young. “Franchises just move and people get hurt, and it’s really horrible. But I’m never going to apologize for it because it’s not my fault they’re here. Nobody in Oklahoma City, it’s not their fault.”

Zirin understands that sentiment. “If you live in Oklahoma City, and you’re not rooting for the Thunder right now, then I don’t know what you’re smoking,” he said, noting the squad’s excessive likeability.

The team has even won over — well, kinda — sportswriter Bill Simmons, who previously accused Bennett of “hijacking” the Sonics, and has obnoxiously spent four years calling the relocated team the “Zombie Sonics.”

Writing in last week, Simmons wrestled with his conflicted feelings.

Credit: Shannon Cornman

“With the possible exception of Portland, no NBA team means more to its city [than the OKC Thunder]. This goes beyond having the loudest fans. There’s genuine devotion here,” he wrote.

“The simple explanation: Oklahoma City has really good fans. The complicated explanation: They care a little bit more because the team matters more to them. Before Durant showed up, Oklahoma City was The City That Had The Bombing. Outsiders knew Oklahoma for football, the Nebraska rivalry and 1995’s terrorist attack, and maybe not even in that order.”

But Oklahoma City’s devotion to the Thunder appears to be more than reciprocated. From charity events and fundraisers, to just nights out on the town, the organization and its members have ingrained themselves in the community.

It’s done more than ingratiate civic pride, Williams said; it’s shown the world the city’s caliber.

“They have a visibility that is not part of their contract. They give us a reason to like them,” Williams said.

“[The Thunder] has a following that is totally across the community. It’s black, white. It’s rich, poor. It’s blue collar, white collar. And they’re all sitting together, rooting for the same thing.”

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