Cleat Geeks

Kevin Durant is OKC basketball, but will that keep him around?

If you read no more than the first 100 words of this essay, here’s the point: Kevin Durant is Oklahoma City basketball. His name and his team’s heartbeat are interwoven as much as any athlete in modern times, and that’s been the case since the Oklahoma City Thunder relocated from Seattle. The man, the team, the city itself, all have grown together in these last eight years.

And that’s going to be a huge part of what decides his NBA future for next year and going forward.

 

A 16-year old Kevin Durant spends countless hours in the gym, or the playgrounds of Washington, D.C., or in tournaments and games with his teammates from AAU and high school basketball, working on his game and becoming one of the nation’s most highly-regarded high school players. Across the country, a late summer hurricane sweeps across New Orleans and devastates that city, leading to nearly a half-million evacuations and tens of thousands who never return.

Strange as it sounds, this was the birth of NBA basketball in Oklahoma City. The New Orleans Hornets would be unable to start their 2005 training camp in the next few weeks in their ravaged city, nor play games anytime soon in the New Orleans Arena, located across the street from the Superdome, where countless stories of awful human treatment happened as people sought refuge from the flooding.new_orleans_oklahoma_city_hornets_by_devildog360-d58l18a

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett struck up talks with the NBA on what at first seemed a far-fetched idea. What if the Hornets came to Oklahoma for a year or two while New Orleans got back on its feet? One thing led to another and that fall, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets tipped off the first of two seasons of play.

The response was exciting. Fans turned out in droves, moreso than had been for Hornets games in New Orleans before or even after. There was talk of Hornet ownership wanting to just move the team to OKC permanently, but NBA Commissioner David Stern would have none of that, not wanting to hurt recovery in New Orleans. So after the 2006-07 season, the Hornets returned. But it had become clear to Stern and everyone around the NBA community that Oklahoma City could handle being an NBA market.

Then more steps, as OKC businessman Clay Bennett and several investors bought a big share in the Seattle SuperSonics. A storied NBA city for decades, Seattle had a terrific fan base of its own but an outdated arena. When a vote on a new arena failed, the writing was on the wall for the team to relocate.

(Note: Seattle fans will debate whether the new arena would have mattered, as the group of OKC owners seemed determined to get a team into its city regardless. And one doesn’t have to look far online to find examples of jilted Sonic fans who will forever loathe the name Clay Bennett and whose favorite team is anyone playing against the Thunder that night. That’s a deep story to be told another time.)

That relocation happened after the 2007-08 season, with the Sonics bringing the organization to Oklahoma. Their roster happened to include a rookie sensation named Kevin Durant.Seattle-SupersonicsKevinDurant

 

David West and Chris Paul, stars from the Hornets’ two seasons in Oklahoma City, were tearing it up on the floor in OKC again. Only this time, on this late November night in 2008, they were playing for the visiting team, as the home-standing Thunder were on their way to another lopsided defeat at the hands of the team the city’s fans previously cheered for.

Thunder Coach P.J. Carlesimo walked out of the building unemployed that night, as the Thunder dropped to 1-12 in their first season playing in central Oklahoma. Enter Scott Brooks, a backup on the Houston Rockets’ “Clutch City” champs from the mid-90s, to take over as the head coach.

Things didn’t improve immediately, but Durant was always there to be held accountable.

“If they got a win, everyone had something to say,” a reporting colleague who covered the team regularly told me. “But if they had a bad night, you’d have Kevin Durant and Nick Collison answering all the questions. Nobody else was anywhere to be found.”

Brooks guided the team to modest improvement the rest of the way in a 23-win season, but the development of his young players, namely Durant and rookie point guard Russell Westbrook gave the team great hope. In fact, they found themselves in the playoffs just a year later.

 

A dejected Thunder team stood in a huddle near the free throw line in front of its bench. In the middle of that huddle, one of the team’s youngest players implored them to remember the moment, to believe in what they were doing, to keep working hard, and last of all, to acknowledge the 18,000 fans who began to cheer their approval of the young team’s effort within seconds of the final buzzer of a defeat – unheard of in the NBA ranks. It was clear there were no “moral victories” to be talked about.

kobe-vs-kdThat playoff run ended in the first round as the L.A. Lakers took down the Thunder in six games. A series many thought to be a mismatch was entertaining and competitive, with Kobe Bryant remarking after the final game of KD and Westbrook “they’re incredible basketball players.” The Lakers went on to win the championship that year and a respect was built between the Mamba and the young Thunder stars. Fittingly, Bryant’s last away game in his NBA career this April came in Oklahoma City.

Durant, who would have just been finishing college at the University of Texas had he stayed all four years, had officially arrived in this 2010 series, not just from his play but moments of leadership, none bigger than when he was the one taking control of that postgame huddle. But he was just getting started.

 

OKC fans, particularly those lifelong basketball fans, were pinching themselves. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is beinging played in Oklahoma City. OKLAHOMA CITY! And it got a lot better. After trailing most of the first three quarters, Durant and the Thunder took control down the stretch and won that Game 1, 105-94 against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Durant finished with a monster game of 36 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, and OKC was three wins from a title.

Just two years later, led by KD, Westbrook and third-year guard James Harden, OKC dispatched of the mighty San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and won game one of those NBA Finals at home against Miami. The city was in a frenzy, with people planning parade routes and championship parties. People were talking dynasty already.

Then reality came back, as James and Dwyane Wade took over, Miami won the second game and then swept three straight at home to win it. The next fall, Harden was traded to Houston amid concerns the Thunder wouldn’t be able to re-sign him. Things changed in a hurry and OKC was unable to make another deep run in postseason that next season.

 

The weather alerts had been sounded for days, a way of life in central Oklahoma. High probability for severe storms, damaging winds, large hail and possible long-track tornadoes. Many of these days it wasn’t a case of “if” but “where.” Moore, Oklahoma, is the first suburb directly south of Oklahoma City. It’s the unofficial tornado capital of the world, as in the past 17 years, two of the largest tornadoes every recorded have torn through the heart of the city. 

Days after the Thunder’s elimination in the second round of the 2013 playoffs, one of the tornadoes hit, devastating the city of 55,000. Seven children were killed while huddled at one of two schools completely destroyed by the storm, among 24 who ultimately died from the storms that day. More than 1,100 homes and buildings were leveled and another 2,500 more significantly damaged, including the city’s hospital, which had to be torn down. (Author’s note: the number also included the home of this writer, who was forced to live elsewhere for about six months.)

kd-tornadoDurant, like everyone else, was stunned and shocked by what he saw.

Unlike a lot of others, he took action.

He donated $1 million for relief efforts, an amount matched by his team shortly thereafter. He was on the ground in Moore the next day with many teammates, walking the streets to just offer encouragement or a hug to people who had lost everything. He led a great effort from the Thunder organization both in finances and donations.

These were some of his people, people who had lifted him up, and now he was trying in some small way to do the same.

The two destroyed schools have been rebuilt. Those, and a third school that suffered heavy damage, all now have Thunder-blue painted outdoor basketball courts complete with top-flight backboards, thanks to the Thunder organization.

What KD and his team did may not have seemed like much help to some, but as someone affected, it meant something.

 

The odds were stacked against us – A single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here. You kept us off the street, put clothes on our back, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry, you sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”

Particularly while weathering a stretch where Westbrook was injured, Durant was sensational in 2013-14. He finished averaging a career-best 32 points a game and carried the Thunder through stretches, ultimately being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

Durant named every teammate, coach and seemingly half the Thunder staff members in his passionate acceptance speech for the award. But we all remember and love the praise he had for his mother Wanda, a fixture courtside at Thunder games across from the OKC bench.

kevinandWandaDurantAnd Wanda has become a big part of this community also, hosting a yearly event in the city for single mothers, as well as working closely with KD’s charity foundation and numerous other causes that are focused on the family. Oklahoma City is better not just for what KD has done but because of his mother as well. The standing ovation she received that day her son said the words above was well deserved and another example of how the family is woven tightly into what the city is about.

 

On this night in November 2014, Durant and the Thunder had more guys on the bench in suits than uniforms, including Durant, out with a bad foot. In fact, OKC had only eight players suited up to play – that is, until Perry Jones went down in the second quarter, leaving the Thunder with just two backups in a 12-point loss at Toronto. “It feels like a nightmare and I’m ready to wake up,” then-point guard Reggie Jackson said.

The 2014-15 season was the toughest of Durant’s career. His right foot was suffering from a Jones fracture, a seemingly small injury that causes a great amount of discomfort. By the time he returned 17 games into the season, OKC was only 3-14 and in serious trouble in the standings.

In one of his first games back, ironically against the Golden State Warriors, Durant was going off in the first half, having hit six three-pointers already. But he landed awkwardly after a basket just before halftime and was ruled out with an ankle injury.

Durant came back from that a week later only to later sprain his big toe. A few weeks after that he had a procedure on the original injury, the right foot, which apparently never really healed correctly, and he never played again that season.

Without KD and having already started slow when so many guys were out, OKC finished one spot out of the playoffs. Despite a strong effort guiding such a beat-up team, Brooks was fired, and longtime Florida coach Billy Donovan hired to make the jump from the college ranks.

 

“There are no moral victories in our locker room after the game. We’re all upset. We wanted to get a chance to play for a championship in The Finals, so that hurts. But when you sit down and look back at what happened throughout the season, you can be proud of not just the players, but everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”

DonovanDurantWestbrookAnd we all saw what happened in Donovan’s first season on the bench. OKC sputtered through the season, looking like world beaters at times and other times like a sieve defensively. But they saved their best for the playoffs, dispatching a historically strong Spurs team and having the all-time winningest single season squad from Golden State on the ropes before losing three straight in a bitter end to the year.

But many positives emerged. Steven Adams was to this year’s playoffs what the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson was to last year’s, coming forth as a quality option at center, especially when paired with fellow big man Enes Kanter in a “twin towers” set. Serge Ibaka looked more like his old self in postseason after an uneven regular season. Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters played their most consistent basketball in Thunder uniforms, and Durant and Westbrook had many nights they were pretty much unstoppable.

But it all could change radically, as Durant’s contract with OKC is up, and the July 1 date for free agency in the NBA looms.

The summer of 2017 brings a huge bump in team salary caps due to massively increased television revenue. It essentially means almost any team in the NBA will have the money available to add a max-level salary if they so choose, plus it means the max level per player will increase quite a bit. That leads many to theorize Durant will sign a one-year deal with OKC this summer, so he can go back into next summer’s lucrative free agent market.

In any case, KD still can get a higher salary from the Thunder for whatever deal he signs, whether it’s for a year or 10, than he can from any other team.

Also a fact: Durant’s shoe deal far exceeds the amount he would get from any playing salary, anywhere. And with what he’s made to this point, money likely isn’t the option to him it might seem to us. His mindset would seem to be much more on winning a ring.

That could be both a curse and a blessing for the Thunder. On one hand, Durant could say he just wants to win and wants the Thunder together, so he could go ahead and sign a long-term deal this summer that wouldn’t be as lucrative as if he waited until 2017 but would be great encouragement for teammates, especially Westbrook, who will have this same decision to make after next season.

KevinDurantSlamOr, it could mean Durant isn’t worried that OKC could pay him more salary, so he would be more willing to jump somewhere else. Plenty of money will be there no matter what, and out of 30 teams in the NBA, there are exactly 30 that would benefit greatly from Durant, not just for what he brings in talent for the game but leadership for a team and a community.

Here’s what KD said about the Thunder in exit interviews with the media last week.

“The brand Oklahoma City is just so world-known now, I think that just shows how much the organization put the players first and put basketball first, but also with the community and this whole atmosphere. We grouped it all into our organization and made it one, and that kind of drove us to where we wanted to go. Just knowing that, I think that’s what I’m so proud of and proud to be part of something that started really from something.”

Take away KD, then maybe Westbrook, then who knows who else, and the Oklahoma City Thunder could become the Philadelphia 76ers in a hurry.

To be sure, fans in OKC will be holding their collective breath the next few weeks. And then it’s possible they’ll go through the whole same exercise next summer. They’ve never known Thunder basketball without Durant, and nobody is much interested in finding out what that would look like.

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