Let’s face it: Oklahoma is an underdog story.
To many, we are a people defined by the dehumanizing Trail of Tears, the scrappy optimism of the Land Run, the shock of the OKC Bombing and the devastation of F5 tornados.
To Oklahomans, we are defined by the pride of a people, the building of families and communities, turning attacks into memorials and coming alongside each other to rebuild.
Oklahoma is marked as a people who rise up. We have to be. We aren’t Texas. We aren’t New York or L.A. We have miles of coastline, but it’s more adequate for fishing than sunbathing. Whatever Oklahoma is, it has been made by its own two hands.
This is why 2008 was such a pinnacle year for many in our state.
For many like myself, having been born and raised in Oklahoma, the arrival of the Oklahoma City Thunder meant much more than simply a new logo on a jersey. It was a benchmark. It was a degree of validation. However, like many things in our state history, had it not been for a natural disaster (the New Orleans Hornets temporary housing post-Katrina), we likely never would have received a look from the powers that be.
Nevertheless, we did get that look. We didn’t get the NBA by being good enough or big enough. We earned it by proving ourselves. It was the recognition Oklahoma never seeks, but has certainly earned.
We welcomed a rag-tag group of young men, seeking to find their own way in a new world where they may have felt overwhelmed but were ready to accept the challenge. The team went an abysmal 23-59 its inaugural season – and sold out every game – gaining a reputation as one of the rowdiest home courts in the league.
We cheered through playoff losses, statistical slumps, and stuck up for our players (perhaps to a fault) because we understand what it’s like to struggle. And when you struggle as an Oklahoman, it’s the other Oklahomans who come alongside and pick you up. That’s what we do. And we’re good at it.
For many, this is why Kevin Durant’s decision to bail on OKC for the coast was such a slap in the face. Oklahomans don’t do that to each other. Granted, KD was brought here for business. He’s not an Oklahoman, but he carried more than his fair share of our hopeful projections on his shoulders.
Durant’s decision was not painful simply because it meant our team likely would suffer in the win column. It’s never been about that for us. For many in Oklahoma, it was a signal that perhaps we were wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes the whole time we had been paraded down the NBA red carpet. Our invitation to the ball was amazing, but midnight was striking, and the reality of our place was beginning to re-emerge.
What we were left with is something we as Oklahomans are all too familiar with: the question of “What’s Next?”
How will we rebuild?
For this reason, the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder is the most Oklahoman team yet. Not because they’re building up – they’ve done that before. Not because we have a superstar at the helm – we’ve had that before. This team epitomizes Oklahoma not because we got down or have to get back up. This team is Oklahoma to the core because they took the supposed deathblow and have been found still standing amidst the rubble. Not only are they standing, they are fighting forward.
Sports are symbolic. They are an escape. But one reason they are so popular is because they have a way of espousing identity and social commonality in a language no one can fully speak, but everyone understands. This year’s team is so exciting not because of its playoff chances or potential to stack up the Ws. This team is winning fans and attracting eyes because of one reason: they are going to work…hard…and no one knows quite what they’re going to accomplish.
OKC is not the sexy pick. While they aren’t the bottom of the barrel, few would say they are upper echelon. What has the attention of the sports world, however, is the determination, the bounce-back, and the scrap of a team that refuses to pout or look back.
After years of boom, we’ve hit a bust. That’s old news for Oklahoma. But as Oklahomans, we have learned not to place our hopes in the booms or fall apart in the busts. We do the work and fight forward.
As Thunder fans, we come alongside this team at this time not just because we’re fans, but because we’re Oklahomans. We fight forward together.
It’s what we do.