So much has been written about the Oklahoma City Thunder throughout these NBA playoffs that it’s difficult to find any new nuggets of information about the team and its city that aren’t already in cyberspace.
But I’m going to give it a shot.
I had the good fortune of working for the Thunder as its Web site writer from 2008 up until last season’s All-Star break, so I have my share of memories and experiences, both first-hand and from the reporting I did for both thunder.nba.com, its quarterly magazine, Thunder Magazine, and the game night programs found in the arena.
Most of this might not be news to Okies, who know their Thunder inside-out, but since the nation’s 44th largest media market is about to go global for these NBA Finals – they’ll be broadcast in hundreds of countries – I figured I’d take a stab at listing 10 things you might not have known about the Thunder and Oklahoma City. Or rather, these are just 10 of my favorite things about the Thunder – facts, memories, stories, stuff you might find interesting.
Here you go:
1. Kevin Durant is who he appears to be. The young man does not put on an act in front of cameras or fans. I’ve never seen a more gifted athlete with such a cool demeanor and selflessness about him than I have with Durant. He’s as genuine as they come. Anyone who’s spent time around him can surely attest to that, so this really isn’t news. (Now, the bond Durant has forged with the home fans, especially those he visits with before games, and how accessible he is, is a whole other story.) But it still impresses me that someone of his stature, who has been on a meteoric rise, can remain so humble and down to earth. I’ve seen it behind closed doors, whether it’s during a break at one of his summer camps in Oklahoma City or in a van after a Foot Locker event in Harlem, or even on the loading dock of US Airways Center in Phoenix during All-Star Weekend in 2009, after Durant set a Rookie-Sophomore Game record with 46 points. He wasn’t on Cloud Nine nor was he trying to downplay the feat. He was just….collected. One of my favorite Durant stories came from his college coach, Texas’ Rick Barnes, who told me a few years ago about the summer of 2010, when Durant came back to campus for summer classes and to work out with fellow Longhorns. Barnes recalled how Durant spent that summer sleeping on two air mattresses on the floor of his old college roommate’s apartment because he thought that staying in a hotel would be a waste of money. As renowned trainer Idan Ravin, also known as the Hoops Whisperer, once told me about Durant, “He is the most unassuming superstar I’ve ever met – and I’ve had a chance to work with many of them.”
2. Russell Westrook might have the best offseason workout partner in the league. Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t, but ever since he entered the league Westbrook has spent each offseason working out with Chicago Bulls point guard and former MVP Derrick Rose back home in California. Westbrook, from Lawndale, and Rose work out together in Santa Monica. While in-season practices, games and a stable of coaches who have been there, done that (See: former point guards Scott Brooks and Maurice Cheeks) have certainly helped Westbrook’s maturity and development as a player, working out against and alongside another insane talent in Rose on a daily basis has only helped the Thunder point guard.
3. Speaking of offseason workouts….I remember the early mornings of the first few days of training camp back in 2009 and 2010, how the entire Thunder basketball operations staff – video coordinators, coaching staff, players, media relations people, even GM Sam Presti – would carpool over to strength coach Dwight Daub’s home, just a short drive from the Thunder’s former practice facility in Edmond. Daub lived in a nice community and had one helluva hill in his backyard that plateaued into some neighbor’s yards. Every member of the team would line up and run sprints, up and down that hill, non-stop, until they were gassed. To see the looks on the faces of anyone who was hanging at the nearby neighborhood park and pool was priceless: six foot-plus tall men coming out of SUVs and working out in someone’s backyard doesn’t happen anywhere else in America. But what impressed me the most wasn’t the size of the hill or the number of repetitions but how everyone from the front office partook in the exercise. When they left, their work day had only begun. Now, I would have asked to join the run but I wasn’t the most coordinated guy back then.
4. Serge Ibaka is one fast learner. The third-year forward from the Congo has been on a rapid ascent to becoming the league’s premier shot blocker. The Thunder probably saw this kind of potential in Ibaka from Day One. Not only will the organization praise him for his work ethic, but his ability to adapt might be more impressive. Consider this: by the age of 19, Ibaka had lived on three different continents, learned three different languages and adapted to the NBA game to where he led the league in blocks this season. After leaving the Congo for Spain, Ibaka’s coach at the time, Jaume Ponsarnau, said he became fluent in Spanish within three months without any formal language lessons. “I remember his eyes, they were of an intelligent person,” Ponsarnau told me a few years ago. “He was trustworthy, and I really wanted to work with him. He had the intelligence and the virtue to understand things.” When Ibaka got to the Thunder, he barely spoke a lick of English. The team had an English teacher, who was from his native country, come to the practice facility for English lessons in the media workroom after reporters had left for the day. To the media, Ibaka spoke broken English during his rookie year, and while he wasn’t comfortable in front of cameras, I can’t recall him turning down an interview. If he was insecure, he never showed it. A year later, his confidence, both on the court and with a new language, shot up tenfold. Ibaka’s got an amazing story.
5. Cliche alert: Nick Collison is a true student of the game. I hate cliches more than the next guy, but there’s no other way to describe Collison, who is the son of one of Iowa’s most respected high school basketball coaches. Collison grew up in the gym. As a first grader he studied high school game film alongside his dad. Collison’s college coach, Roy Williams, told me for a story that Collison is the most fundamentally sound player he’s ever coached. And before he got to the NBA, all Collison ever did was win. His high school basketball team went 74-1 throughout his career, and Collison experienced so much success at such a young age that his father, Dave, wanted to teach him some humility. So he had Nick run on the junior varsity track team, which put him in the third heat of the 4 x 100 meter relay. Out of 37 other runners, Nick said he was probably the 36th fastest. Needless to say, he hated it. His father, Dave, told me this for a story, “I think it was really good for him because it was something he wasn’t good at. He was pretty good at everything else he did….There were times he complained about it and I said, ‘Well, now you know what it’s like for those other kids who play basketball and struggle a little bit. You keep that in mind when they miss a shot or throw the ball away and you realize that they’re doing their best.’”
6. Thabo Sefolosha found his niche early in his career. Julien Guerineau, the editor and chief of Basketball Magazine, the official publication of the French Federation, saw Sefolosha at the onset of his pro career in 2002. Guerineau told me for a magazine story I wrote on Sefolosha that the Thunder guard played maybe three minutes total during his first season with the elite Chalon-Sur-Saone club in France. Sefolosha’s coach at the time told him that if he wanted to earn playing time he’d have to carve himself a niche. Sefolosha said he put all of his effort into becoming a lockdown defender, and by the following season he earned a rotation spot for his ability to defend four positions, leading to the nickname Swiss Knife.
7. Presti is a consummate leader. I’ve never been around someone with Presti’s work ethic. And I’ve never worked for anyone who’s been so confident in a plan of action that he stays the course no matter how rocky the road might get (remember that 3-29 start?). That’s obviously a huge reason why the Thunder has developed at this pace; Presti never deviated from his plan. Of course, it’s been just as important to have an ownership group that allows the basketball minds to make basketball decisions. I’ve never seen Presti address the team but every once in a while he would gather the business office for a meeting, whether it was to explain why the team made a certain transaction or to make sure everyone was on the same page. Making sure everyone was on the same page seemed important to him. I’ll always remember this one time he brought in a guest speaker for the entire organization at a meeting in the downtown library. The speaker was Jon Gordon, author of The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work and Team With Positive Energy. Enough said.
8. Rob Hennigan. Remember that name. If I was a betting man – and I’m not – I would place money on Hennigan one day running an NBA front office. When you have a successful organization like the Thunder it’s only a matter of time before your front office gets poached. Rich Cho, a former Thunder assistant GM, is already on his second GM post, this time with the Charlotte Bobcats. I’m sure that Troy Weaver (who as an assistant coach at Syracuse was responsible for recruiting Carmelo Anthony) and Hennigan will get their chances soon enough. I bring this up in large part because of Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, who reported last week that the Orlando Magic had interest in the two. While I’m not sure how strong there interest is in Hennigan, I can see why he would land on someone’s radar. He’s quietly worked his way up the ladder. When I first met him he was the team’s Director of College and International Player Personnel. And to think, he could have been an ink-stained wretch like myself and my media brethren. Hennigan got his degree in broadcast journalism from Emerson College – the same alma mater as Presti – where he also became the basketball program’s all-time leading scorer.
9. Oklahoma City has a crazy local fan base. You’ve seen the way the entire Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd wears those white or blue playoffs t-shirts in unison. You’ve seen the way they stand until the Thunder scores its first basket of every game. And you might recall how they gave the Thunder a rousing standing ovation a split second after its season ended at home in Game 6 of a first-round playoff loss to the Lakers back in 2010. But those aren’t the first thoughts that come to mind when I think of how prideful Okies are. What comes to mind is something that only occurred during the Thunder’s inaugural season, back in 2008-09. Before every home game, a local (presumably a season ticket holder) would stand atop a platform off the corner of the court, waving this giant Oklahoma state flag as the state song blared from the arena’s sound system while players were about to take the court. Everyone in the building would be standing and clapping to the beat of the song. At first, I didn’t understand it, but over time it became my favorite part of the in-game entertainment. It’s more than just team pride for Oklahomans; it’s a civic pride. How many people have that for their state?
10. Cheever’s Cafe. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, you must eat here. It’s billed as contemporary comfort food and in my opinion it’s the best place in town. Whenever friends, family or out of town writers came to Oklahoma City this is where I’d take them. It’s a pretty nice walk from downtown Oklahoma City, right on the other side of the historic Heritage Hills neighborhood. Sunday brunch is a must. The fried chicken and waffles and croissant french toast do not disappoint, as does the queso chihuahua appetizer. If you’re headed there for dinner, the chicken fried steak will fill you up. It’s a rather small joint, a former flower shop, with a homey atmosphere and local artwork adorning the walls. You’ll likely need reservations. The place is owned by A Good Egg Dining Group, which has a handful of other stellar restaurants and even a gastro pub, and this is the same company that caters all of the Thunder’s meals at its practice facility.
Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.