10. Oklahoma City Thunder Run to the NBA Finals

On June 6, 2012, I walked into the Hooters in south Oklahoma City to what was apparently our designated table. My friend Mark greeted me with the curious phrase, “I’m surprised you’re here.”

Of course I was. How could I miss it? It was game 6 of the Western Conference finals between the hometown Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. OKC had won the previous three games to climb out of an 0-2 hole and into a series-clinching game.  There was no way I was going to catch a game of this magnitude at home.

When the Thunder were down by 18 in the second period, two things kept things even-keeled: 1) It was only game 6, although a victory in San Antonio wouldn’t be a sure thing; 2) I had seen OKC claw back within two points from a similar deficit a few weeks before at Chesapeake Arena against the same team. Yeah, it was a bad case of déjà vu, but the will of the team (and the arena) during that almost-comeback stayed with me. There’s no reason we couldn’t close the deal this time. Then KD drained a three to end the first half. The Thunder were down by 15.

Then it happened. With some beautiful basketball (the phrase writers galore used to describe San Antonio’s play during the series) and an active defense, the Oklahoma City Thunder fought back and entered the fourth quarter down by one point, 81-80. “Now it’s a game,” I thought. One quarter of hell separating us and the NBA Finals.

More than a Diversion

For the past two Top 10 list of entertainments, I’ve included Thunder playoff games. To some, the fact that sports is sometimes dubbed “entertainment” leads them to think it’s an insulting, dismissive term. That it invalidates all the personal investment they’ve made in the team.  What I would argue, and what is demonstrated in those top ten lists, is that entertainments, sometimes at their highest level, are much more than ways to spend leisure time. They speak to you and your aspirations.

I didn’t watch Manny Pacquiao fights so I could see two men beat each other. Roots didn’t become one of the seminal events in television history because it was a good time. I don’t love Sideways for its views of Santa Barbara or Man on Wire because I’m into wire-walking.

That’s why I have no shame discussing the Thunder as entertainment. That’s why the gallons of ink and gigabytes of space that have been dedicated to the Thunder often also mention Oklahoma City and its rise from a forgettable cowtown to an inspirational comeback story.

My Oklahoma City

I came to Oklahoma in 1980 as the seven-year-old son of a relocated GM worker.  Throughout the eighties, my Oklahoma City was, in hindsight, remarkably narrow. It consisted of school, church, Crossroads Mall, and centers of the metro OKC Filipino community — Tinker Air Force Base, Midwest City and Del City. That was pretty much it. While we did the theme parks and museums for out-of-towners, eating out at local establishments was limited to Applewoods. (My quarterlife conversion to local restaurants likely began when I found out my dad and others took a visiting Filipino consul general out to lunch — to Golden Corral.)

Other than some vague memories, I don’t remember going to downtown until our Filipino group performed a folk dance for Opening Night at Leadership Square maybe around 1988. The next memory was my high school band performing at the Myriad, and later that night, dining at this cool place called Spaghetti Warehouse in this district called Bricktown.

But I didn’t mind it. As a kid, your universe is limited to what you see, so unless you travel to other places, you don’t really know what you’re missing.

It took summer family vacations for me to realize what Oklahoma City lacked. My mother’s family then lived throughout North America: New Jersey, Toronto, Ottawa, Chicago and its suburb Wisconsin, not to mention my original hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. In my New Jersey uncle’s van, we would go to those places, plus, one time, to Washington, DC.

Of those places, Toronto was what really knocked my socks off. I can still remember flower beds designed in corporate logos,  curving highway overpasses ringed with red-lighted lampposts and surrounded by gorgeous foliage, gourmet food courts, the sleek CN Tower, and downtown trees, ice cream carts, plazas, and electronics stores.

And then there was the SkyDome, the first stadium to have a fully-retractable roof. Torontonians were awfully proud of the home of the Blue Jays. It even had a Hard Rock Café! I remember seeing in my uncle’s house a souvenir cup with a drawing of the Jays’ manager, and thinking, “It’s cool they have a major league sports team; too bad I have no idea who this guy is.”

So – throughout this period in the late eighties and nineties, I’d wonder, “Why doesn’t Oklahoma City have this?” Then OKC citizens passed MAPS in 1993, and I hung onto every development. By the time I left “The City” to work in Arkansas in 1997, only the beams of the ballpark were any evidence of the program. During my two years in the Natural State, I frequently spent evenings at the local community college’s computer lab, reading up on MAPS coverage provided by this guy, and participating in his newspaper’s MAPS forum, where other dreamers of Oklahoma City’s future talked about the possibilities. During one visit back home, I attended a Redhawks game and savored the momentary thrill of being one of thousands of people on the street leaving the ballpark. It was a sight I wouldn’t see until the Bricktown canal opened months later, after I had moved back.

A New Oklahoma City

Fast forward to 2008. After successfully hosting the Hornets, Oklahoma City gained the NBA Thunder, a development that most cities can only vaguely “plan” to have. From the ballpark completion to that moment, a few things had happened. More MAPS projects were completed, with every opening providing a boost of confidence in the city government and the city itself. The bombing had devastated downtown, but the resulting memorial and funds provided to nearby affected buildings greased some development north of the Central Business District.

Downtown had a new champion in Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc., which paved the way for the city’s first new downtown housing development, the Deep Deuce apartments. The city’s planning department gained traction in City Hall. MAPS II gave residents some taste of neighborhood redevelopment with school construction and reconstruction, as did mechanisms such as the Main Street program. Fortune 500 corporations that were not very citizen-like fled, but were replaced in the local imagination by those (Devon, Chesapeake) that made corporate citizenship a hallmark of operation. With those two companies leading the way, Oklahoma City’s economy blossomed to become a national pacesetter.

Personally, during this interregnum, I earned a degree in planning and urban economic development. I started thinking about what events would be benchmarks for Oklahoma City’s arrival as a top tier city, if not a “good enough” location to call home. Key among them was no longer being a place those of my generation and older had previously left in droves because the life and opportunities here sucked.

Over the past few years, Oklahoma City has rapidly been checking off items on that list, to my delight, pride, and amazement. The Skirvin was redeveloped as a Hilton hotel in 2007. A couple of thousand people live downtown, though thousands more are needed to form a self-sustaining neighborhood. Several cities are choosing Oklahoma City for their aspirational intercity visits. (!!) The Paseo neighborhood was named in 2010 by the American Planning Association as one of its Great Places in America. (!!!) Oklahoma City is commonly seen as a national leader (second only to Houston) in energy, and indeed the capital in natural gas. One of the reasons for that last point, Devon Energy, erected a shimmering blade of a headquarters downtown.

And in terms of scene for those aforementioned young (and often creative) workers…there’s been a sea change.  From great and noted local restaurants, to a flourishing visual arts scene and world-class performing arts, to nationally-recognized and off-the-wall events, vibrant urban districts, Oklahoma City is becoming a place graduates aren’t desperate to leave. And those younger movers and shakers are celebrated and courted.

From Entertainment to Identity

None of these benchmarks involved major league sports. I have always thought there were things more important for the city’s development and economy – like building a strong second private sector job-creating driver industry to lessen our dependence on oil and gas. Major league sports was gravy, an aspiration for many cities, but in reality only a few could have, and even if then, support well. A championship? Come on, come back down to Earth. Cleveland taught me that. And its urban affairs school taught me that economically, you should really just hope for a competitive team that packs the house — and contends in the playoffs to keep ‘em coming.

When the Thunder started coming to life the 2009 – 2010 season, that mindset began to change. When a team grows before your eyes to become a national contender, you can’t help but become invested. The Thunder blogger Royce Young made a great analogy when he likened that season to Seinfeld during its third season – to be fans before and as it exploded into the national consciousness was immensely thrilling. And not only were the players decent people and good, they were exceptionally good, fun to watch, sported lovable personalities and reflected the city’s character uncommonly well. They may have been entertainment, but because they were part of my city, they were a part of me.

They started beating NBA mainstays like the Lakers and Celtics during the regular season. Then they challenged the Lakers for six games in the first round of the playoffs. Then they went to the Western Conference finals the next year, ultimately decimated by that German bombardier, Dirk Nowitzki.

In 2012, the stage was set for an epic run. The Thunder avenged the previous series defeat by eliminating Dallas in four games. Next, the Thunder avenged their 2010 first round loss to the Lakers in five games, with the last game providing TNT producers killer shots of some 7,000 Thunder fans packing Thunder Alley on Reno.

Now it was time for the Spurs, the four-championship, small-market team the Thunder modeled themselves after. It was like Obi Wan Kenobi versus Darth Vader without all that dark side baggage.

The Fourth Quarter

The fourth quarter was about as steady as basketball could be, with neither team leading by more than two possessions’ points. The Thunder was showing life, but I was tense throughout. (But then again, I’m barely satisfied with a ten point lead in an important game such as this.)  In the final minutes of a playoff game, sometimes Mark will smile, essentially saying “Don’t worry, we got this.” He tried pulling it again this game, but followed the expression with a shake of the head. “I don’t know, man.” Adding to the tension, a small but strident contingent of Spurs fans (naturally, right next to our table) increasingly turned obnoxious.

Somewhere under three minutes, I couldn’t constrain myself anymore. I stood up to watch. Whether a crushing disappointment or a rousing victory, my reaction to the game would be full-body.

It was close, but the Thunder players were responding with huge plays. Derek Fisher stole a pass and hit big shots. So did James Harden. Russell Westbrook fought for a rebound off his own free throw miss. Durant was Durant, imperceptibly racking up points.

With 56 seconds remaining, the Thunder still had only a four point lead. After a Harden miss, San Antonio took possession. What happened next sent Oklahoma City to a place it’s never been before.

Tim Duncan drove to the basket, and was blocked by Kendrick Perkins. Duncan recovered the ball and passed it to Stephen Jackson, who’d been hot all night from downtown. His three-point shot clanged off the rim, bouncing to Duncan and then Tony Parker. Parker put up a corner three shot, and it caromed off the rim, sailing again into the air.

Until, in one fell swoop, Harden corralled the ball and avoided contact with a San Antonio player. I pumped my fist. That possession took 18 seconds off the clock. 38 seconds were left.  I knew we were in the catbird seat now. By this time, everybody in the joint was standing. And the Chesapeake Arena crowd, which was reportedly rocking long before tipoff, began to sense the moment. This time was ours.

What a moment. I felt an exhilaration and pride I couldn’t remember last feeling. The best I can describe that moment would be to say I felt like a Shaker ­– a member of the religious sect that would shake in ecstasy when intensely experiencing the grace of God (they made great furniture by the way). I leaned forward, pressed my fingers on the table, and thought, “Oh, my God.”

The meaning of game’s outcome flooded my head. Seven years earlier, before Katrina, an NBA team was nary a possibility in most Oklahomans’ imagination. Now, we were on our way to the championship. It’s one thing to have a major league team, but to have a good one, and a championship-contending one at that – it was the crest of a wave of good fortune following three decades of a busted economy, a generation of lost leadership, and tragedies of terrorism and tornadoes.

We’d lose to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in the Finals. And Oklahoma City still has issues as an urban metropolis. But to think of the time when I was frustrated with Oklahoma’s plainness and resulting brain drain –and now to hear Reggie Miller say the words, “This is a great atmosphere…I hope America and the nation embraces this team”–  gratifies and validates in a way only sports as mass entertainment can.

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