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Cover: Thunderous decade

How the Thunder grew from inauspicious beginnings to becoming one of the NBA’s most successful franchises.

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The crowd during Oklahoma City Thunder’s first regular season game. - PROVIDED
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  • The crowd during Oklahoma City Thunder’s first regular season game.

By April of 2008, Oklahoma City’s fully fledged dreams for a National Basketball Association (NBA) team became a reality as the league’s board of governors approved the relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma, but its exact arrival time was unclear, as Key Arena’s lease called for the NBA to remain in Seattle through 2010.

The ownership group led by Clay Bennett agreed to pay the city a total of $75 million in July after a federal trial litigated Seattle’s Key Arena lease, and the team arrived in Oklahoma earlier than expected.

The organization began to slowly move into the offices of what was formerly known as Ford Center, which hosted the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets for two seasons (2005-2006, 2006-2007) following Hurricane Katrina.

On July 2, 2008, the team began a telemarketing drive that resulted in 30,000 people interested in ticket information within days. A relatively small crew ran the operation. A handful of employees moved from Seattle to OKC while others were hired in the months leading up to the season.

Oklahoma Gazette spoke with four Thunder executives who, like the team, are in their 10th year in OKC. Brian Byrnes, current vice president of sales and marketing,  worked for the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns before going to Seattle and jumped at the opportunity that came with moving to OKC.

“The move was chaotic in an exhilarating way,” Byrnes said. “Anyone that was going to be here at that time came with the expectation that we are going to build something from scratch. When you have a blank canvas and you have experience to bring with that, there is an exhilaration of optimism that encapsulated the culture in 2008. As employees were joining the organization, there was a sense you were building something, and as chaotic as it was, it was really rewarding to see a straight line between ideation to the execution.”

The Thunder logo and team name were officially unveiled in September 2008 in Leadership Square. - PROVIDED
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  • The Thunder logo and team name were officially unveiled in September 2008 in Leadership Square.

John Leach is the organization’s director of events and entertainment and worked in similar capacity with the Houston Rockets and the Charlotte Bobcats before going to Seattle. Leach said he was encouraged to move to OKC after hearing from people around the league how the city supported the Hornets.

“When I got into town, I walked to Leadership Square and there was nobody on the sidewalk,” Leach said. “Having come from Seattle, where there is so much pedestrian traffic, to come here and it was like, ‘Where is everybody?’ that was the first shock. The people here are awesome and we’ve had nothing short of a great experience. The fan base was already here and were knowledgeable fans.”

On September 3, 2008, team officials unveiled a poorly kept secret: Thunder was chosen for the team name. In mid-July, KOCO reported Thunder would be the team name, and registered website addresses tipped the team’s hand, according to The New York Times.

The team also applied for the trademarks for six names: Wind, Barons, Marshals, Energy and Bison. At the same announcement, the Thunder logo and color scheme were unveiled, which were designed to represent the state.

“I can remember Clay [Bennett’s] influence in that being the beautiful sunsets he’s seen for a lifetime in Oklahoma has always resonated as something unique about where we are in the topography and the location in Oklahoma,” Byrnes said. “The red dirt is in the air and creates these beautiful sunsets, something he has often referred to as unique and special with this part of the country. When people ask us about the color schematic, there really is a purpose being the sunset blend, the yellow for the sun and wheat and indigenous things to Oklahoma, and of course the blue is the state color and was intentional to try and unite the state behind this thing called the NBA in Oklahoma City.”

It didn’t take long for the Oklahoma City crowd to make an impression on Leach. In the first exhibition game played at the Ford Center, Leach prompted the public address announcer to get the crowd on its feet entering the fourth quarter.

“I got about my business,” he said. “Three or four minutes go by, and everyone is still standing. ‘What is going on?’ With my time with the Rockets in game seven of the [1995 NBA] Finals against the Knicks, that might’ve been hard to do, and it was just a preseason game in Oklahoma City.”

The loyalty of the crowd was tested with the team’s rough start. In the midst of 1-11 start (head coach PJ Carlesimo would be fired after starting 1-13 and replaced by Scott Brooks, who would go onto to coach the team through 2015), the first boos rang down from the crowd and elicited a column from John Rohde in The Oklahoman.

The young corps of second-year player Kevin Durant and rookie Russell Westbrook was still in its infancy. Westbrook came off the bench behind veteran Earl Watson the first 18 games of the season. The Thunder entered a New Year’s Eve game against the Golden State Warriors with the worst record in the league at 3-28. 

Oklahoma City Thunder’s first regular season game against the Milwaukee Bucks October 29, 2008. - PROVIDED
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  • Oklahoma City Thunder’s first regular season game against the Milwaukee Bucks October 29, 2008.

“There was all kinds of commentary on the national level about , ‘Could this be the worst team in NBA history?’ and ‘Would they win 10 games, much less 20 games?’” Byrnes said. “You’re walking into New Year’s Eve and thinking about the variety of things you can do on New Year’s Eve, all of the parities, social events dinners, and in a cold and frigid night in downtown Oklahoma City, to have your team at 3-28 playing basketball that night, and yet we walk in and the building is sold out. The team won the game, which was icing on the cake. Being downtown in OKC in 2008 on that night really felt like a tipping point for the organization, a sense of real significance. That was our moment when everything came together.”

The Thunder defeated the Warriors 107-100 that evening and played better basketball in the New Year, winning 19 of its final 50 games. So far, it is the only losing season in OKC, and it set the tone for an arrival on the national stage the next season.

Growing up

Durant made his first all-star team in the Thunder’s second season, and the team won 50 games as Durant, Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha started all 82 regular season games and James Harden pitched in nearly 10 points per game off the bench. The Thunder’s first playoff appearance resulted in a matchup against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. In game six of the series, the Thunder led 94-93 in the final seconds. Kobe Bryant missed a jump shot, but Pau Gasol put back the offensive rebound with half a second remaining and the Thunder were eliminated in shocking fashion.

“We were just excited to be there, but then the game and season ended so abruptly,” Leach said. “Instead of being angry, upset or mad, the fans all of a sudden stood up and began giving the team a standing ovation. That was a coming-of-age moment where you saw the fans react like proud parents. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. The next year at media day, I saw heard Russell talking to a rookie about how much that moment meant to him.”

Steady attendance has become a hallmark for Chesapeake Energy Arena, which surpassed 300 consecutive sellouts in the 2017-2018 season, and the Thunder fanbase was ranked second overall in the league by Forbes in 2015.

Thunder fans have been there through the highs (2012’s Western Conference championship) and the lows (Russell Westbrook’s injury in the 2013 playoffs that derailed the team when they had the regular season’s best record). Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State after nearly defeating the 73-win Warriors in the previous Western Conference finals. The fans stayed committed as Westbrook won the league’s most valuable player award in Durant’s absence. After signing All-Star Paul George to a contract extension this offseason, the Thunder once again enter the season as one of the NBA’s top teams.

“The transition of Kevin Durant leaving this organization in many respects would be one of the signature periods of time for this organization, our brand and this community,” Byrnes said. “We instilled a sense of understanding within our organization that at some point, Durant will not play for us, but the lens we were looking at was that he’d play forever, retire here. We had a to build a foundation that will last for generations. That meant working through fan connection, whether that is through game experience or a youth clinic or court unveiling. Between 2008 and 2016, you pay attention to all of those things, but you don’t know how well it’s working because the team is playing so well.

Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka hold the 2012 Western Conference Championship trophy in 2012. - PROVIDED
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  • Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka hold the 2012 Western Conference Championship trophy in 2012.

“We’re two years removed from [Durant leaving], and the business is healthier today in every category — television ratings are up, season tickets, attendance metrics, local sponsorship revenue and merchandise sales is top six in the NBA, social media following is top six,” he said. “It is a reflection on the market and the values we stand for and the face we’ve been remarkably consistent in how we approach our business day to day in that we’ve built something of real value beyond the outcome of a game or a player playing for us.”

Thunder outreach

The Thunder Cares Foundation is the team’s philanthropic arm, which works with players to make public appearances with a focus on youth outreach for fitness and literacy. The Rolling Thunder Book Bus has given away over 155,000 books to children across the state since it debuted in 2009, according to Community Relations vice president Christine Berney, who was based in OKC when she started with the team in 2008. The Thunder Reading Challenge reaches 55,000 kinder- garten through third-grade students across the state. Thunder Cares has helped build 20 public basketball courts across the state, including courts at the three schools affected by the 2013 Moore tornado.

“As soon as players, staff and everyone knew what was happening in Moore, we had players coming back to town because they wanted to help,” Berney said. “Russell was out there, Kevin [Durant] was out there, Nick [Collison] was out there, Serge [Ibaka] was out there. We worked with the Red Cross and United Way and did things staffwide with Habitat for Humanity and clean-up efforts in the aftermath. We also wanted to make sure we helped rebuild. We funneled those efforts through the three basketball courts at the three schools that were hit in addition to some bigger monetary gifts to United Way of Central Oklahoma, Red Cross and Salvation Army.”

Thunder Cares works with sponsors for programs like a food giveaway from Homeland during the holidays and works in conjunction with player’s personal foundations to hold events. Berney still remembers the impact of Kyle Weaver, who only played for the Thunder for its first two seasons, at the Memorial Park Boys & Girls Club following a team-sponsored event there.

“About halfway through the season, Kyle had been stopping there after practice just for fun because he grew up in the Boys & Girls Club and that was comfort for him and he was new to town,” Berney said. “He would just stop by and hang out with the kids, shoot some hoops. By the end of the year, there was a group of kids that rallied around Weaver’s Achievers, and we didn’t tell him to do that. It is one of my favorite stories because it is so serendipitous. With our guys, it happens quite a bit.”

Abby Morgan is a native Oklahoman who is partnership activation director in the business development office. She worked for the Dallas Mavericks and followed the Hornets from Oklahoma City back to New Orleans. She jumped at the opportunity to return to her home state and joined the Thunder in 2008. Morgan is responsible for developing corporate sponsor relationships locally and nationally and watched as the Thunder brand has reached international markets, selling a few deals to Chinese companies. Morgan felt the growth of the brand firsthand during a trip to the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, where the group’s tour guide was an overeager Thunder fan, likely because of former team center Enes Kanter.

“I told him I worked for the team, and the entire tour group thought it was awful because that’s all he wanted to talk about as we were going through the mosque,” Morgan said. “As an Oklahoman, that’s something I take a lot of pride in because the first thing a lot of people think of was either the bombing or [Oklahoma State] Cowboys or just [Oklahoma] Sooners. Over the past 10 years, you’ve seen more of a shift to the Thunder. Obviously, the Sooner and Cowboys are very popular still, but it’s interesting to being [Oklahomans] together and that they aren’t divided. The pride I feel from watching the state grow and the construction around us is something you watch daily and say, ‘That is amazing.’ I think we had a part in spurring economic growth.”

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