OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The date April 22 long has been a big deal in Oklahoma City. On that day in 1889, the city was established as part of the Land Run, when American Indian lands in what is present-day central Oklahoma were opened for settlement.
This year, the date has special significance to the local sports fan: The Oklahoma City Thunder game against the Los Angeles Lakers was the first time in Oklahoma City’s four years as an NBA city — two with the New Orleans Hornets, two with the Thunder — that it has hosted a playoff game.
“It’s exciting and different and unlike anything else that’s ever been in the city,” said 43-year-old Thunder season-ticket holder J.T. Johnson of Norman. “When the (television) announcers say ‘Oklahoma City,’ that’s my town.”
The Thunder have become such a big deal that in the middle of football country, on a day when six players from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were hoping to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft, it’s a legitimate matter for debate who is the bigger story — Sam Bradford or Kevin Durant?
Mayor Mick Cornett noted that five years ago, Oklahoma City would have been thrilled with the Lakers coming to town for a meaningless preseason game. That changed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced the Hornets to search for a temporary home. Oklahoma City welcomed them with open arms for two seasons, putting the city on the NBA map.
Before last season, the Seattle SuperSonics’ Oklahoma City-based ownership group, led by Clay Bennett, moved the team to the Sooner State with the support of NBA commissioner David Stern, who was scheduled to attend Thursday’s game and present Thunder coach Scott Brooks with the league’s coach of the year award.
The Thunder lost 29 of their first 32 games in Oklahoma City and finished last season at 23-59, but still often drew sellout crowds. This season, Oklahoma City finished 50-32 and the bandwagon grew. As the playoffs approached, “Let’s Go Thunder” banners were hung from high atop one of downtown’s tallest buildings, the headquarters of SandRidge Energy Inc. A regional grocery store chain began a promotion that included Thunder window flags, which now are seen on many a vehicle.
“Wherever you go around and have lunch or dinner or if you go to the grocery store, there is excitement,” Brooks said. “They love our guys and that’s what it’s about. You want to put a team on the floor that your city can be proud of and I can say this, we have a team that our city should be proud of, and they are, because they give everything they have and they’re going to get better.”
Outside the arena before the game, the team held a block party of sorts, with performers including “America’s Got Talent” runner-up Cas Haley. Massive Thunder and NBA playoff banners hung from the outside of the Cox Center — across the street from the Ford Center — as kids shot baskets and played on inflatables.
The Thunder raffled 200 tickets before the game and encouraged fans to be in their seats a half-hour before game time.
Rich Basile, 46, and his son, 13-year-old Caleb, soaked in the ambiance before the game. Basile wore a Thunder cap and a UCLA shirt, which he said was a nod to Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who played collegiately for the Bruins.
Basile moved from Southern California to Oklahoma City in March 2009 and immediately adopted the hometown team.
“I’m all Thunder,” Basile said. “I will spit and scream and bleed for the Thunder tonight. … This is the biggest stage, the biggest team to play. People in New York and Chicago are watching this. LA is watching this.”
Levi Patrick, a 26-year-old Oklahoma City man who also had tickets to the game, said he never imagined that the city ever would have its own NBA team.
“What it says is that we’re finally finding some kind of identity in being this little place with a bigger heart,” Patrick said. “We can handle bigger things. … We’re more on the map. Finally people are like, we have something other than an oil boom or the bombing as an identity that defines us.”
And, apparently, a whole lot of confidence.
Cornett, a former sportscaster, said before the series that he expected the Thunder to beat the Lakers in six games. Even after Los Angeles won the series’ first two games, Cornett remained confident enough in their chances that he called his Los Angeles counterpart, Antonio Villaraigosa, on Wednesday to make a friendly wager on the series.
Should the Thunder win, Cornett says the two mayors will take a picture together with Villaraigosa wearing an Oklahoma City jersey during the United States Conference of Mayors, which Oklahoma City will host in June. If the Lakers win, Cornett would wear a Los Angeles jersey for the picture.
Cornett is out of town on business and will miss Games 3 and 4. But he thinks he’ll see at least one more game this season inside the Ford Center.
“I’ll be back for Game 6,” he said.