In a sports-crazy part of the country usually concerned only with football at this time of year, Oklahoma City is embracing its first major professional franchise, the NBA's Thunder.
Unlike last season in Seattle, the Thunder will have a huge home-court advantage Oct. 29 when the team opens its inaugural season in Oklahoma City's Ford Center against Milwaukee.
|Kevin Durant, a former Big 12 star, will have the Ford Center crowd behind him this season. (Getty Images)|
"Without a major league sports component, this city had a huge cavity for high-level sports that was not being filled," Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett told the Oklahoman. "And you could argue, based on the season-ticket sales, that there's more capacity that hasn't been filled."
Oklahoma City got a taste of the NBA when the city served as the temporary home of the New Orleans Hornets for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons while the Crescent City recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Oklahoma City sold out half of the games, and the facility was near full capacity for the rest.
A local ownership group purchased the Seattle SuperSonics from Starbucks head man Howard Schultz in July 2006 and eventually relocated the team to Oklahoma City. Without a new arena deal in place in Seattle, the city and franchise agreed -- after a court battle -- to a settlement that allowed the ownership group to buy its way out of the final two years of its lease agreement at KeyArena.
Now the Dust Bowl finally has a pro team to call its own.
"This time it's much more matter of fact," Cornett told the Oklahoman. "Last time I had to help the ownership land on its feet. This time the ownership group knows as much about the city as I do, so they don't need my help."
The franchise averaged only 13,335 spectators a game last season in 17,072-seat KeyArena, third worst in the league, as fans stayed away because of the knowledge the team would most likely move at season's end.
Although the players are in a new town, Oklahoma City head coach P.J. Carlesimo wants them to adhere to the same philosophy he preached during his first year in Seattle -- share the ball, defend, run and rebound. But Carlesimo is pleased that they will be working to get better in front of packed crowds for a change.
"Clearly now, the sense of permanence here is welcome," Carlesimo told the Oklahoman. "Some of it didn't dawn on me until (tickets went on sale). Seeing people around town wearing our colors, wearing our shirt and hats, wearing 'the blue,' it's a significant step for us to be doing something in Oklahoma City."
The Thunder have one of the best young scorers in the game in second-year swingman Kevin Durant. But if the team is to improve on last year's dismal 20-62 performance, it will need to vastly improve in all four of the aforementioned areas Carlesimo specified.
"It just takes time to get used to what we're trying to do," power forward Nick Collison said. "This year it was a lot easier to come in right away, know the game plan and just get into trying to get better instead of trying to learn everything. I think we'll be a step ahead. But we still have to be consistent with our effort. That will be the key."
Durant again will be the focus of the team. He led all rookies last season in minutes played per contest (34.6), points per game (20.3), and free throw shooting (87.3 percent), becoming only the third teenager in NBA history (joining LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony) to average 20 points per game. Even more impressive, the Rookie of the Year put up those numbers even though, as the main scoring option, he often was double- and triple-teamed.
Like Carlesimo, Durant said playing in front of a full house should give the team energy.
"It's been unbelievable," Durant said. "It's going to help us out this year, and I'm happy the fans are going to be here supporting us every game."
Just as Durant needs to grow as a basketball player, so must this team that averages 25 years of age -- one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
This team is still built for the future, not the present. Last season the franchise finished with 15 losses of 20 points or more. The Thunder will be more competitive this season, but Oklahoma City will be fortunate to win even a few more games.
However, with four first-round picks over the next two years and $18 million in salary coming off the books at the end of the 2008-09 season, general manager Sam Presti is in good position to add a high-impact free agent to go along with Durant and forward Jeff Green in the effort to build the Thunder into a winner.
"We know we've got a lot of work to do," Carlesimo said. "But we've made a lot of progress."