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Monday, October 27, 2008

How the SuperSonics became Oklahoma City’s 1st big-time team

Where the Thunder Comes Dribbling Down the Plain

Matthias Clamer for The New York Times

Hoop dreams, realized: Oklahoma City goes major-league.

On the far northern edge of Oklahoma City, in a converted fitness center off a desolate road past a lumberyard, the National Basketball Association’s newest team has been holding its practices. One morning earlier this month, Clay Bennett, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s controlling owner, was standing beside a stack of free weights, his elbow resting on a chest-high dividing wall, watching a preseason workout. Despite his size — 6-foot-5, close to 300 pounds — he seemed to cast almost no presence. Later that day, the Thunder would fly to Billings, Mont., for its first exhibition game and make history, after a fashion: no sports franchise permanently based in Oklahoma had ever competed in one of North America’s four major leagues. Bennett stayed quiet as he pondered these high-priced athletes in their cornflower blue jerseys who were now representing his state and his city. “There’s a word for this, and it’s an overused word and not quite the right word,” he told me, “but the word is ‘surreal.’ ”

I’d been thinking exactly the same thing. For more than 40 seasons, the Thunder played in Seattle as the SuperSonics. The team captured an N.B.A. title in 1979, reached the finals on two other occasions and, at one point in the 1990s, sold out every home game for more than three consecutive seasons. With Seattle on a roll — it’s home to Microsoft,, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom — it is difficult to fathom why any team (or business, for that matter) would leave the city and its famous quality of life for a metropolitan area one-third its size. And why Oklahoma City? Even in its own state, Tulsa would seem to have greater national prospects, with its rolling hills, mansion-filled neighborhoods and cultural accouterments of a serious place, as opposed to flat, brown, insular Oklahoma City, where unseemly oil wells blight even the Capitol grounds. Farther afield, metropolitan areas without N.B.A. teams include San Diego, St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville, Tampa and Anaheim, big-league markets all. So it’s not surprising that Oklahoma City wasn’t even on the N.B.A.’s list of potential candidates for expansion or relocation three years ago. It is, as Bennett admits, almost the archetype of the minor-league place: “When they first started looking at this, and the idea of the team moving from Seattle, a lot of the other owners said to me: ‘I like you, Clay. But when I hear Oklahoma City, I think Des Moines and Omaha.’ ”

Perhaps nobody finds the metamorphosis of the SuperSonics into the Thunder harder to accept than many of the citizens of Seattle. Every relocation of a big-league franchise begets a certain amount of hand-wringing and recrimination, but this one unfolded with remarkable acrimony. It ended in July, at least officially, when a suit brought by the city of Seattle seeking to keep the Sonics in town until 2010 was settled for $75 million. (The payment will be substantially reduced if Seattle gets a replacement team within five years.) But the emotions invested in keeping the Sonics appeared to be less about a consuming interest in professional basketball than the humiliation of a smart, sophisticated city losing a franchise to a perceived cow town. “There wasn’t much excitement about the Sonics, to be honest,” Nick Collison, who is beginning his fifth season as one of the team’s players, told me. But the idea of the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City, he adds, “said something about Seattle that people there didn’t want to believe.”

The same attitude manifested itself in antipathy toward Bennett, one of four principal partners and several minor investors who together paid $350 million to buy the team from Howard Schultz, the Starbucks chief executive, and his partners in July 2006 and then tried in vain to get public financing for a new arena. With his brush cut and beefy build, his lifelong Republicanism and partners made rich by fossil fuels, Bennett pushed all the wrong buttons in liberal, urbane, health-conscious, ecologically sensitive Seattle. In fact Bennett is substantially more nuanced than his image suggests. He is polite almost to the point of courtliness. He and his wife, Louise, own a literary bookstore outside Aspen, Colo. His office is decorated with glossy books featuring the work of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Far from being a stereotypical cowboy from the plains — “I don’t even own a pair of cowboy boots,” he says — he was raised by a Jewish mother and celebrated a bar mitzvah, though he now attends his wife’s Presbyterian church. But Bennett didn’t show any of that worldliness, and Seattle wasn’t looking to see it. “Everybody there but me knew I was heading down the wrong path,” he says. “Hindsight suggests I was not going to be successful.”

Yet given the way professional basketball has evolved, the Sonics’ move may have been inevitable. As I spent time in both Seattle and Oklahoma City, it became evident that the intense passions on both sides — Oklahoma City has been as feverish about the team’s arrival as Seattle was about its departure — were obscuring a larger issue facing the N.B.A. It may be that a midsize market like Seattle, with its big-league baseball and football teams and a wealth of recreational and entertainment options, has outgrown professional basketball, or at least the desire to fight terribly hard to keep it. A more appropriate home for a franchise these days seems to be a smaller city on the rise, with maybe a million to a million and a half people, plenty of money, local and regional art museums and a few ambitious restaurants but not too much else for its population to do, and an excess of civic pride ready to be harnessed. A place, in other words, exactly like Oklahoma City........

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