OKLAHOMA CITY — Just east of Chesapeake Energy Arena, Bill Aldridge was minding a downtown parking lot, occasionally wiping sweat from underneath his crimson and white Oklahoma hat.
“This place is about ready to explode,” said Aldridge, who was about a block away from where the Oklahoma City Thunder play home games. “People aren’t going to know what hit ’em.”
A Sooner fan for life, Aldridge wears his allegiance proudly, no different from most everyone around here. It’s Oklahoma, and there are sides to be chosen. Until recently, it’s either Oklahoma State orange, or Oklahoma Crimson and deep red when it comes to the ballot box.
Then Aldridge smiled and pointed inside to the dashboard of his truck where his Thunder hat was on display.
“No need for Sooner Magic,” he said. “This team, the Thunder, have brought everybody together. We don’t do orange at my house, but we do blue.”
Equal parts football crazy and college mad, the Thunder have united the state in a way only previously done through tragedy.
The Thunder are in the NBA Finals and no one is choosing sides now. A collective mindset has taken over a landscape that has thrived on being split.
“It’s the first time the state has been united behind a team,” said Kelly Ogle, who anchors the news at KWTV in Oklahoma City and has been with the station more than 30 years. “I’ve never seen it like this. It’s awesome.”
Awesome, but maybe not in the way Ogle means it. Awesome, because of the literal meaning of the word. The NBA in Oklahoma City became a reality in 2008, but it was conceived from terror then tragedy.
The 1995 bombing of the federal building downtown, gave Oklahoma City national exposure. Locally, it united the community.
“Because we have been branded by tragedy, that was the reason of my initial interest in getting a franchise,” said mayor Mick Cornett. “Nothing would help our image and brand more than a professional team. To connect with something that is positive would give us an identity.”
Cornett wasn’t the mayor then. He was known instead as a TV sportscaster. But his idea was born. Cornett was elected to the city council in 2001 and then mayor in 2004. Still, the NBA wasn’t in the works, but community was.
Cornett was behind a number of initiatives that improved Oklahoma City, downtown and really made the idea of the NBA a possibility.
Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Because Oklahoma City had a downtown arena and because he had a relationship with David Stern, the New Orleans Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City. They played no less than 35 games downtown the next two seasons, yet still there was nothing permanent until Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics and moved them here in 2008.
The strange journey continues from there. Remember, it wasn’t long ago Oklahoma City was one of the worst teams in the NBA, known more for its 3-29 start than for star forward Kevin Durant.
But something happened. Scott Brooks went from interim coach to young coach, to this year’s coach of the NBA All-Star Game. Durant became one of the league’s best and the organization hit the trifecta thanks to the drafting and improvement of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
“This is a team of destiny, and I don’t mean winning or losing games,” Ogle said. “It just seemed that everything has aligned, even misfortune for other places to have Oklahoma City benefit. It’s come from nowhere to this point. A magical ride.”
From a college sports environment to, not just the favorite to win the NBA championship over the Miami Heat, but to the team people love to cheer for in a home arena with the best environment this side of Allen Fieldhouse.
Brooks regularly comments on the home crowd. The players are constantly thanking the fans. Opposing teams leave in awe. The Thunder are 8-0 at home this season in the playoffs and even the upper-bowl, called “Loud City,” has its own sense of community.
“I can feel that everywhere I go,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “I was stopped by five people at the gas station telling me good luck. When I was at Kansas, you felt like everyone was a Kansas fan and into what was going on with the team. It’s a similar feel to what’s happening here.”
But unlike Kansas and unlike Oklahoma until recently, the feel comes with the knowledge that everyone is on the same side. There’s no verbal warfare.
There’s no “Wait till we get ’em at our place,” kind of talk.
And it’s basketball, not football.
“It’s fun to see something in the state everyone can cheer for,” said Norman, Okla., resident David Quirk. “If you’re an OSU fan or an OU fan, everyone is behind it. That’s what makes it fun. It’s amazing. I wish I could describe how it happened. I’m blown away by it.”
Winning certainly helps, but even before the Thunder rapidly ascended, the fans were there. And this season, they have been immersed in the team concept that has been part of the rise of the Thunder and the resurrection of the city.
The Thunder marketing campaign of “Team is One,” is about inclusion, with its logo plastered all over downtown. “Team is One,” could be talking about its superstar Durant, not acting like one, or it could be about the fans treating this team like its child, now grown and mature.
Look to the NBA marketing. Its slick playoff campaign featured the Chicago Bulls’ defense, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and a number of different elements from different teams. The Oklahoma City commercial is about successes and failures. About fans being part of “One team,” about “Family.”
“There’s a certain amount of unity that exists in Oklahoma City that solidified in the bombing experience,” Cornett said. “That’s one of the reasons you’ve seen so many people in Oklahoma City pulling on the same rope. This city has been through so much, through financial catastrophes, to the bombing. This team reflects this new image. Those of us have been here so long are amazed and proud.”
Proud because of how the Thunder have become the team at the top. Amazed because its college atmosphere has translated to the pro arena.
“It’s amazing,” said Oklahoma football fanatic Nima Nabavi of the Thunder, admitting his love of the Sooners hasn’t diminished, but his love of the Thunder has flourished. “It feels like the Super Bowl. The sports world is revolving around Oklahoma City. I can take off my Sooner glasses and say that this is bigger than anything that’s happened at OU.”
About another block east of the parking Aldridge was watching over, business was brisk at The House of Bedlam, a store that has capitalized over the state’s divide between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
A Thunder flag was on display in the window. OKC shirts, hats and more were for sale.