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Thunder's success helps alter perception of OKC



Rise together.

Not exactly a battle cry unique to Oklahoma City's still-infant NBA franchise, but one that certainly seems to be a good fit these days, especially with the Thunder rolling into the playoffs on the heels of a 50-win regular season.

Even if the season ended today, the Thunder has already reached a level of accomplishment in its first two full seasons here that many believed might take much longer. They have risen, if you will, to heights normally reserved for more established, veteran-laden teams.

Remember it was just a season ago " the franchise's first in Oklahoma City after moving from Seattle " the Thunder won only 23 games and finished so far out of the postseason race that the road to success seemed paved with more than a few speed bumps.

Entering the 2009-10 season, most NBA prognosticators looked at the potential of young players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, and penciled the Thunder in for 30-35 wins, figuring the team was at least another year away from becoming a playoff contender.

But by mid-January, coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder had surpassed their win total from a season earlier, and then came a nine-game winning streak that served notice to the rest of the NBA that the little team from Oklahoma City had most definitely arrived.

"The Thunder are the best thing to happen to the NBA in a long time," said Brian Schmitz, sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel. "There's a refreshing college atmosphere there, and I'm always reminded of that Midwestern appreciation. You can't help but root for Oklahoma City, the Butler University of the NBA tournament."

With Durant becoming the youngest player in league history to win the NBA scoring title " edging out the superstar trio of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant " the Thunder injected an added level of excitement to the regular-season chase. OKC plays hard and plays together, and it really does seem to bring a bit of the college mentality to the court every night.

Credit general manager Sam Presti for building the team, and Brooks for getting his players to check their egos at the bench and buy into his system. Their refreshing style of play and overall success has captured the imagination of basketball fans across the country, putting Oklahoma City in the national spotlight on a regular basis.

The perception of Oklahoma City " and the state as a whole " has been permanently altered. And not by football, but by basketball.

"Let's face it, most people think there's only two things in Oklahoma: Sooner football and tumbleweeds. But there's more to Orlando than Mickey Mouse," said Schmitz. "The (NBA's) Magic lifted Orlando's profile, so now people know there's more to Okie City."

During a recent segment on the national sports show "Jim Rome Is Burning," Rome and his panelists " including Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated " raved about not only the Thunder and their success, but the city itself and how it has become one of "the" places to be.

"To me, there's no question that the NBA's arrival validates Oklahoma City. I can speak from being there in March for the NCAA Tournament and feeling that the Ford Center was more of a big-time venue, just because the Thunder plays there," said Kurt Kragthorpe, who covers the Utah Jazz. "It's really similar to Salt Lake City in that respect. The Jazz have been here 31 years now, and the Jazz have given the town a worldwide identity it would not otherwise have."

While the Oklahoma City All Sports Association has done a marvelous job in recent years of bringing in high-profile amateur sporting events, which have helped generate plenty of outside interest in the metro area, the Thunder's success has provided an even greater impact.

Until recently, the current generation of non-Okies has more than likely thought of the 1995 bombing when Oklahoma City is mentioned.

But the times, they are a-changing.

"I think Oklahoma City's perception outside the bombing was not that people got us wrong; it was more like they really didn't have a notion of what Oklahoma City is all about. They just didn't think about us that much, really," said Berry Tramel, award-winning sports columnist for The Oklahoman. "The NBA coming here has changed that to some degree. I don't think it necessarily validates Oklahoma City, but I do think it elevates Oklahoma City " just people knowing we have a pretty good thing going here. I'm not trying to say it's Chicago or anything like that, but it's pretty darn nice. It's done a lot for the city's national perception."

photo A "Let's Go Thunder" banner hangs atop the SandRidge Energy tower in the downtown Oklahoma City skyline. photo/Mark Hancock

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