Thunder on brink of bringing playoffs to OK City
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Growing up in Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett was accustomed to living in a place where a major pro sports team wasn’t part of the landscape and wasn’t thought to be a possibility.
Still, he held out hope. He was optimistic that someday the city could move into the major leagues, and did what he could to help. When Oklahoma City made a move to get an NHL franchise, he signed up for tickets to games that never actually happened.
Then, after being elected mayor, he helped jump start the process that has his hometown on the verge of its first entry into a big league postseason.
Led by Kevin Durant’s MVP-caliber season, the Oklahoma City Thunder (46-28) are on the brink of making the playoffs and could clinch a berth as early as Friday, if Memphis were to lose to New Orleans. It would cap a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that won only three of its first 30 games after relocating from Seattle and finished last season 23-59.
“To me, that’s an incredible bonus that I didn’t see coming,” Cornett said. “Before the year started, I thought 30-35 wins was about all realistically anyone should expect.”
Durant has continued to develop since being named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2008, and now finds himself right behind LeBron James in the NBA scoring race. More importantly, the Thunder have dramatically improved on the defensive end after being one of the league’s least stingy teams a season ago.
The postseason started to become a real possibility after a nine-game winning streak that lasted from late January until late February, and Oklahoma City has sustained its success long-term while doubling its win total from last season.
“I never put expectations on them. I focused on getting better,” coach Scott Brooks said. “Over the summer, we focused on getting better defensively and that has happened. … I like what we’ve done during the year.”
The Thunder’s exploits mark the latest development in Oklahoma City’s rise as an NBA city.
Earlier this decade, Cornett visited NBA commissioner David Stern in New York and was sent away with best wishes for the city to land an NHL team. But that visit stuck with Stern enough that he came calling on Cornett when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005 and forced the relocation of the Hornets.
Oklahoma City took in the team and ranked in the top half of the league in attendance, selling out 30 of the 71 Hornets games played at the Ford Center over two seasons. That provided enough evidence to convince NBA owners to approve Oklahoma City-based owner Clay Bennett’s proposal to move the SuperSonics from a larger market in Seattle after he was unable to garner support for a new, half-billion dollar arena.
Now, the franchise is prepared to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05 in Seattle.
“It feels good to be one of the first guys to experience that … and be a part of a new organization,” Durant said. “The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have much history. I’d like to be the guy who makes that history, so it feels good to come and play here.”
Durant was the first piece in a massive overhaul of the franchise following the hiring of general manager Sam Presti. He was soon joined by fellow top 5 pick Jeff Green in a trade that sent Ray Allen, the former face of the franchise, to Boston.
Since then, the Thunder have drafted two more top 5 draft picks – point guard Russell Westbrook and top reserve James Harden – and added key cogs in defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha, center Nenad Krstic, forward Serge Ibaka and backup point guard Eric Maynor.
The end result has been a practically new team that Oklahoma City can call its own. The Thunder have sold out 24 of their 37 home games and rank 11th in the league with average attendance of 17,972 – or 98.7 percent capacity at the Ford Center, where about 1,000 seats were removed as part of an upgrade last offseason that added luxury suites.
“The Hornets was the first time this community ever found something that was for everybody. We didn’t necessarily see that coming, but that’s what happened,” said Cornett, a season-ticket holder. “No longer were we an OU or an OSU town. We had something, and that’s what this team represents.
“If you like Oklahoma City, you have a way to illustrate that by supporting the team.”
The turnaround even has Durant talking about having a goal of staying long-term in Oklahoma City, if he’s offered a max contract when he becomes eligible to sign one this summer.
“I could see myself staying here,” Durant said. “I like this group of guys. I like this organization. It’s a blessing to be here. They care so much about us as people as well … but it is a business.”
That’s exactly what the mayor wants to hear after he backed the tax to remodel the Ford Center as a way to make the town a “Big League City” and as he tries to build on it with efforts to revitalize the downtown area immediately south of the arena.
“I think there’s a sense from Kevin’s age group that Oklahoma City’s a pretty cool place to be,” Cornett said. “I know a lot of people around the country may not think that too, but they haven’t been here. And if you’re here, you kind of feel the sense of vitality and the kind of dismal outlook on the future that a lot of cities are going through right now because of higher unemployment.”
And there’s no question in his mind that the NBA is part of the city’s “dynamic feeling” and provides a window to the world of what’s going on.
“This city has really supported us. We have great fans, and we’re really appreciative of that,” said forward Nick Collison, the last player left from the Sonics’ final playoff run in Seattle. “We realize that we’re very fortunate to be able to play professional basketball. It can’t happen without people in the city supporting us.”