A week ago Sunday, I woke up on a lovely morning in Oklahoma City. As I opened the curtains of my hotel room window, I noticed a stadium in the Bricktown neighborhood – a district of renovated warehouses on the outskirts of downtown – and came to understand why The Sporting News recently ranked Oklahoma City as the 37th best sports market in the U.S. and Canada.
(Seattle placed 52nd on the list, between Green Bay and Edmonton. Tacoma checked in at No. 295, between Bismarck, N.D. and Uncasville, Conn.)
Looking at the stadium, I envisioned fans gathering in nearby brew pubs for pregame drinks and postgame meals, and festive tailgaters firing up their portable grills in the parking lot, and a line forming in front of the box-office window on a warm spring evening. Constructing a sports stadium – or even refurbishing one – rarely is done without a lot of loud civic squabbling and political arm-pulling. But the benefits of the finished product are impossible to deny.
Oklahoma City built a stadium that’s done more than create electricity in Bricktown. Oklahoma City built a stadium that’s a civic treasure, to be enjoyed by several generations of fans.
Which is my way of saying: I’m sorry, Oklahoma City. When the SuperSonics relocated to the American Heartland after 40 years in Seattle, I put the place down with all the knee-jerk stereotypes. You know, a dusty, boring, smelly cowtown in the middle of nowhere, full of tobacco-spitting hicks unworthy of appreciating any sporting event that didn’t include ropes and horses.
This is nonsense. Oklahoma City is an agreeably thriving metropolis more than capable of supporting an NBA franchise. Because it’s difficult to escape for a weekend in the mountains, or a day trip to the ocean, the Oklahoma fan’s affection only figures to intensify for a basketball team mired in Year Four of a rebuilding project that’s produced minimal improvement.
They finished 20-62 in their final season as the Sonics, in 2008. Last season, as the Thunder, the team finished 23-59. In a league where the Haves are beefing up (Ron Artest to the Lakers; Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavaliers; Rasheed Wallace to the Celtics; Vince Carter to the Magic; Richard Jefferson to the Spurs) such Have Nots as the Thunder must be content to measure progress in bite-sized increments.
Kevin Durant, only 21, remains the franchise’s shooting star – he averaged 25.3 points a game last season – but he’s yet to become the megastar Sonics scouts thought they were drafting after one year of college. Power forward Jeff Green has developed into a problematic matchup for big men a step slower than he is, and Russell Westbrook, acquired as Seattle’s first-round draft choice in 2008 but who never played in Seattle, is continuing his point-guard education on the job.
Rookie James Harden likely will start alongside Westbrook in the backcourt – the Thunder’s youth movement seems to be permanent, but with Harden, at least they’ll look older – and the eternal search for a center has identified Nenad Krstic as the successor to Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene.
All things considered, it will be a surprise if the Thunder wins more than 30 games, and a miracle if it beats out the Suns, Clippers or Warriors for the eighth playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Be honest: Would you buy a 41-game season-ticket package to watch this team? If not, would you buy a ticket to see it five times? Three times? Once?
When the Sonics bolted for Oklahoma, some presumed a season without NBA basketball would make for a hollow fall, a bleak winter and an empty spring. That’s not how I remember it. When the Sonics bolted, football was on the TV menu several nights a week, through the conclusion of the college bowls. After the Super Bowl, college basketball filled the void, and almost before we knew it, the baseball season arrived.
Sure, there was the standard post-Super Bowl, mid-February malaise. It happens before every spring, but it won’t happen in 2010 – not with the Winter Olympics coming to Vancouver.
A season without the NBA in Seattle has taught me this much: Place the blame on the Sonics’ relocation on the usual suspects, but keep the good folks of Oklahoma out of the discussion. They’re proud of their city and proud of their state, and if they’ve got the temerity to be proud of the Thunder, more power to them.
By the way, that stadium I saw in Bricktown the other day? I wasn’t referring to the Ford Center, home of the Thunder. The Ford Center is not unlike any other NBA arena. It’s serviceable for basketball games, monster truck shows and rock concerts. It’s easily accessible from two interstate highways. There’s plenty of parking. It works.
The stadium I was referring to was the Bricktown baseball park, home of the Pacific Coast League’s Oklahoma City RedHawks. Built in 1999, it’s got luxury boxes in the second deck, an outfield berm for general admission fans, and a statue of the Oklahoma-born Mickey Mantle adorning the third-base entrance.
Oklahoma City’s sports fans have a gem on their hands. I’m envious.