Many, many moons ago, Oklahoma City stole away a basketball team. But a couple of moons before that, they borrowed one for awhile. The New Orleans Hornets, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, needed a temporary home and a temporary fan base. So they went local, traveled to the nearby (relatively) OKC, and set up shop.
No one would have blamed the citizens of Oklahoma for showing lukewarm support for a team just looking to crash for the night. There was never an illusion of anything permanent, and OKC had every reason to enjoy the NBA distraction while it lasted, but without making much of a clamor. But not only did Oklahomans show up in droves, but they were loud. They were an absolutely tremendous fan base, so much so that they couldn’t be pegged as a rental based on the energy in the arena and the decibel level emanating outward.
That city and that market wanted and needed an NBA team. At first they wanted the Hornets, the only NBA franchise Oklahoma has ever known, to use OKC as a permanent home. But it wasn’t meant to be, and the city that had just lost everything to a hurricane wasn’t about to lose a primary source of escapism and hope as well.
When the Hornets returned to New Orleans, it wasn’t necessarily a bright day for the NBA fans in Oklahoma City. They lost their team, even if it was only lended to them temporarily. It didn’t mean that the support was anything less than authentic, or that the bond between the city and the Hornets was anything less than genuine. OKC had the taste for professional basketball, and so Clay Bennett, team owner and businessman, did for Oklahoma what any person would do for a city that had their team “stolen” away.
He “stole” another team for them.
And that stolen team, the then-Sonics, now-Thunder, is that much better. It’s that much more fitting for the city and that much more promising for the future. From Mike Baldwin of the Oklahoman:
Two years ago, the Hornets’ first season removed from the Ford Center, they won 56 games, earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and weren’t eliminated until Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Sonics finished a franchise-worst 20-62 in what proved to be a lame duck year in Seattle before moving that summer to Oklahoma City.
Two years later, the Thunder is viewed as the NBA’s on-the-rise team, a lock to make the playoffs and on pace to win 50 games. In contrast, the Hornets are one game below .500 with almost no chance of making the playoffs, their future in question because owner George Shinn continues to slash payroll.
The people of Oklahoma may have begged for the Hornets to stay, but it’s indisputable that they’ve found themslves a better deal and a better fit in the Thunder. Chris Paul is Chris Paul (and I suppose he always will be), but the Hornets have gone into a tailspin. Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton have renewed their hope, but what looked like a team on the cusp of contending then looks like little more than a fringe playoff contender now.
The Thunder are different. They’re better. They’re shooting up the Western Conference standings at an absurdly early juncture, when common sense says that such a young team should endure a slower and steadier progression. The Thunder’s rise has been anything but slow and steady, and their meteoric ascent has helped to wipe the memory, however fond, of the Hornets from OKC’s basketball consciousness.