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"You all are a part of this story," the tour guide, Joanne Riley, tells the players. "You are a testimony to how this whole city can rise like a phoenix from the ashes."
When the team moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City, general manager Sam Presti wanted all his players to tour the memorial before their first open practice. Now every new player is taken to the memorial, usually in the weeks leading up to training camp, and sometimes more than once. When guard Royal Ivey came to Oklahoma City for his free-agent visit this summer, he asked Presti about the crowd at the Ford Center, how such a small market generates the most noise in the NBA. The fans have become a source of curiosity around the league, for painting their chests like frat boys, standing for long stretches and commencing a 20-minute ovation for the team three seconds after the season-ending loss to the Lakers. Presti ushered Ivey to the memorial. "It took my breath away," Ivey says. "After that I called my agent. I wanted to be a part of this."
The Ford Center is only a mile from the memorial, but it is more closely connected than that. In the years following the bombing, the political landscape in Oklahoma City underwent a radical shift. A traditionally conservative constituency voted for every tax initiative put on the ballot. It didn't matter whether the initiative was for parks or sidewalks or an arena, Oklahoma City always voted to tax itself. "Every time," says Mayor Mick Cornett. "It was unprecedented." In March 2008, with the Sonics' move hanging on the outcome, 62% of voters passed an initiative to extend a 1% sales tax that would pay for a $100 million renovation of the Ford Center and a $21 million practice facility. A month later they had their team, a chance to tell the nation they were back, in full throat. "The genesis of it all is still April 19, 1995," says Steven Taylor, vice chief justice of the Oklahoma state supreme court, who sentenced Terry Nichols to 161 consecutive life terms for his role in the bombing. "The Thunder is just the latest building block." In the doorway to his chambers Taylor keeps a framed photo of Durant and Green, staggering off the court to a raucous ovation after Game 6 last April. They appear to be leaning on each other.
The Thunder has been built according to what Taylor calls "the Oklahoma model," the opposite of the quick fix. Durant, Westbrook and Harden were top five draft choices. Green was another top five pick who came from the Celtics for Ray Allen. But Presti's masterstroke was sending forward Rashard Lewis to the Magic in a sign-and-trade in July 2007 that brought back an $8 million trade exception and a second-round draft choice. It did not sound like much at the time, but Presti sent the exception and the draft choice to the Suns for two future first-round picks and Kurt Thomas, whom he then flipped to the Spurs for another future first-rounder. One of those picks was traded to the Bulls for defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha, another was spent on budding power forward Serge Ibaka, the third on rookie center Cole Aldrich of Kansas. The cap space helped in acquiring center Nenad Krstic and Maynor.
Presti is 33, wears glasses and comes from Concord, Mass., but he was not hatched from the same laptop as many of baseball's wonder-boy G.M.'s. He researches backgrounds and personalities as much as advanced metrics. Most Thunder players fit a similar profile—or, as Harden puts it, "It's kind of weird that we're all the same." They tend to come from highly successful college programs, or at least programs that were highly successful when they were there. They are devoted to defense. And they don't think too highly of themselves. The front office fell for Westbrook when he reported 30 minutes early to a predraft workout. They liked Harden in part because he did not mind deferring to Durant. This year they spent a second-round pick on Ryan Reid, who scored only 6.8 points per game as a senior at Florida State. But the Seminoles allowed the lowest field goal percentage in the country, and Reid was their best post defender. The Thunder had to have him, even though no other team so much as worked him out.
Players like Reid are a crucial part of the Oklahoma model, which values hard labor in the face of long odds. For a franchise to succeed in a minuscule market, it cannot appeal only to hoops junkies; it must also resonate with the most casual fans. The Thunder has to remain a civic cause the way the Hornets were in 2006--07, when they fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and found a temporary home in front of sellout crowds at the Ford Center. So far the Thunder has unified a sports scene that was forever divided between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State fans, selling more than 13,000 season-ticket packages this year, among the top five in the NBA.
The Thunder might need one more spot-up shooter and defensive-minded post player to win the West, but that does not mean Presti will be pursuing either. After all, he was $12 million under the cap heading into the summer, and the team didn't pursue a single big-name free agent. The franchise thinks in terms of development more than destination. Bringing in another shooter could have stunted Harden's development, as another big man could have stunted Ibaka's and Aldrich's. Besides, the team will need the cash later, when it is time to extend Westbrook or Green or both. The Thunder must hope that the loyalty it has shown will be reciprocated, the way it was with Durant, and the way it was not with so many other stars this summer.
Why is there so much venom toward them?" asks one Thunder player, and it is obvious whom he is talking about. Perhaps the answer is just old-fashioned jealousy, the player speculates, because why should LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh get to win big and live in Miami? Or perhaps it is something else old-fashioned, the notion that true champions lose before they win, and genuine friendships are forged through struggle. There is a reason that Justice Taylor hung in his chambers a portrait of defeat and the defiance that followed. "I think the average fan can relate to us," Durant says, "because we were at the bottom."
They are the organic superteam, farm to table, with 24 appearances coming up on national television, after being scheduled for only three the past two years combined. Durant was MVP of the world championships and is the emerging MVP of the NBA, but when he walks into the Thunder practice facility, you'd swear he is still 3--29. He has come to view that mark as a badge more than a blemish, and should he win his championship, the experience will surely be more intense because he had to suffer for it.
Durant is interested not in being pitted as a counterpoint to the Heat, or to his peers, only in playing ball and running hills and eating wings and firing up another video game in a house full of noisy teammates. He ponders how his carefully crafted lifestyle will change if they all ever get married and have children. "Lots of uncles," he says.