Gone, But Unforgettable

The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't the Seattle SuperSonics, for better or for worse.
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As the seconds ticked away, the dread slowly seeped in. The Thunder were going to win the Western Conference Finals. Really, it felt a fait accompli early in the third quarter when OKC erased an 18-point deficit with stunning ease. During the time between that surge and the final round of mid-court high-fives and trophy dandling, my Twitter feed started filling up with disbelief from fellow Seattleites. San Antonio’s three-pointers rimmed out and fell short, despite my best psychic efforts. Kendrick Perkins slammed home the points that sealed it; Kevin Durant hugged his parents with 14 seconds still on the clock. I looked down at my phone and saw I had an email from a friend, someone not prone to profanity. It read, in its entirety, “FUCK.”

There are a lot of people in Seattle who feel that this is their Western Conference title, something stolen from them as surely as was the team that won it. As someone who lived and died with, and later worked for, the Seattle SuperSonics, I understand this impulse to think that they should be the ones celebrating and Oklahomans should be waiting patiently for college football to start; we had earned this, that they hadn’t. Many of these Seattleites are, in fact, probably thinking much nastier thoughts than those about Oklahomans, and maybe in weaker moments blurting them out in bars or from couches or on the social networking platforms of their choice. However, as bitter and terrible as I felt watching Clay Bennett lift the trophy that night—does it make me a bad person that I noticed he’s got fatter, or that noticing it made me happy?—I had to remind myself that this is not the Sonics, this is not our team, this is not our trophy.

***

This Thunder franchise is, spiritually and philosophically, a spawn of the Spurs much more than it is a Sonics team in podunk exile. Clay Bennett’s entrée into sports ownership was his stake in San Antonio in the ‘90s. And when he took over the Sonics, he looked to an R.C. Buford protégé to construct his franchise. When Presti emerged from his lair on the night of the clinch to gather his riches, he wasn’t just passing his mentor and bringing some hardware to OKC, although he did do all that.

Bennett also reminded fans that without him, this wouldn’t have been possible. Which means that without Bennett, there might be no Thunder, but there would also be no Sam Presti. Sonics fans might still have their team, but that team would not be this one. It would be one consisting of Kevin Durant and whatever stiffs and terrified Euro-bigs and other misshapes and humps that Wally Walker plugged in around Durant.

I said as much on Twitter that night and some people disagreed. They said this wasn’t about Presti, it was about Durant and Presti just lucked into it. Very true, in much the same way Pop and Buford lucked into the No. 1 pick that landed them Tim Duncan. Championship teams, by and large, need generational players, which means that franchises aspiring to win championships require either some serious draft-night luck or a geographic location where the average temperature is above 72 degrees and there are beaches nearby. But LeBron and Cleveland taught us that a generational player alone isn’t enough.

Presti could have stitched together a 45-50 win team with Durant and Ray Allen. But he knew that having the 10th pick in the draft is to have not very much, and to be someplace like nowhere. It’s reductive, but not untrue, to write that teams looking to build a champion in a small market must be willing to suck and hope he ping-pong balls bouncing in their favor. Presti, to his credit, had the guts to trade Allen as his first move. He passed on re-signing Rashard Lewis (who I think old Sonics ownership would have signed) and then got a trade exemption out of it. He drafted James Harden with the third pick when many commentators thought he should have taken Stephen Curry. He wasn’t too proud to cut bait with one of his first draft picks, Jeff Green. He traded him to the Celtics for the guy whose dunk sealed the Thunder’s Western Conference championship.

And so on, and on it went one savvy and resolutely grown-up decision after another, and the team got better and better. The Thunder did all this faster than a lot of franchises, but they did familiar things. Things that, if I’m being honest, would most likely not have been done if Schultz and Walker were still running the team, if only because they were things neither ever showed any tendency or inclination towards doing during their time at the helm.

So OKC fans got to feel what I felt when the Sonics beat the Jazz back in ’96 to claim the West and I can’t begrudge them their happiness. Certainly, I’ve tried. But what did they do wrong? Sure, there were a few loudmouths who were horrible asses about the move, who didn’t think about or try to understand what had happened in Seattle before they opened their loud mouths, the better to let some ignorant-ass anti-Seattle bile escape. But, also, we were calling them inbred, backwater hicks; they had a reason to be upset. We shouldn’t have said that shit, because it’s unfair and unkind, because it made us look petty and because it was petty. All OKC fans ever did was pack their building when Hurricane Katrina made the New Orleans Hornets the OKC Hornets. They brought so much enthusiasm that the NBA had to look long and hard at bringing a franchise to that particular smaller market. As far as I know, they didn’t have to be told to “fan up” and to get in their seats at a reasonable time to spare themselves embarrassment. They embraced this team even when P.J. Carlesimo was the coach. Think about that.

So when I sat there and watched the team and the coach and the owner celebrate, something weird happened. After Clay mercifully shuffled his hammy girth out of the frame and the camera focused in on Durant talking about the team, I smiled. I caught myself and wondered why. It’s because I LIKE this team. Not the owners (let’s not even get into Aubrey McClendon’s questionable character) or the league that disingenously fast-tracked their move out of Seattle, but the guys themselves, the ones who are endlessly endearing and brilliantly fun to watch. The bitterness is difficult to stave off, though. The rational part of my brain tells me that in different circumstances I wouldn’t be celebrating a Seattle win at that moment. The emotional part of me just wishes that we Seattleites had the chance to experience it—in our town, and at a distance closer than arm’s length.


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