Kevin Durant bows his head, raises his hand, and a franchise circles him like a maypole: teammates, of course, but also coaches and trainers, the general manager and assistant general manager, the scouting coordinator and communications director, folks from the video room and the equipment room, guys from the Development League affiliate in Tulsa and undrafted free agents who won't even make it that far. They try to reach the 6'9" Durant's outstretched hand, but no one can, so they settle for the wrist or the elbow or the space around him. They are too tired to lift their arms for long. "One, two, three, family," Durant says, in a haggard breath. "Family," the group pants back, in unison. Then they walk together across the field, over the ditch and up the Hill for the last time.
The Hill, as it is known to the Thunder, is a misnomer. Central Oklahoma does not really have hills, but it does have floods, which require drainage basins the size of parking lots. Run up the side of a basin and you might as well be scaling a sand dune. Twice a week every September, when NBA teams are technically still on vacation, most of the Thunder meet early in the morning at the practice facility, pile into pickup trucks and roll into a brick subdivision alongside a creek in nearby Edmond, Okla. The basin that borders the creek has been covered with grass, lined with sycamore trees and turned into a neighborhood park. The smell of fertilizer hangs in the air. Residents walk their dogs and wonder if summer will ever give way to fall. They look down at their park and shrug at the sight of professional athletes racing each other 60 feet up steep inclines while tossing medicine balls in the sky. "They're just part of our backyard now," says Angela Vaughn, who lives in a house across from the park.
Durant was not supposed to run the Hill this year. Only 21, the silky small forward led the U.S. to its first gold medal in 16 years at the world championships in Turkey, took one day off and was back at the Oklahoma City practice facility before his bosses even knew he was in the country. When he woke on the final Wednesday before training camp—the last time the Thunder would head for the Hill—he only felt like shooting. "Then I thought about it for a minute, and I couldn't do that to my guys," Durant says. "It wouldn't have been fair to them." The Hill does not afford preferential treatment. Front-office executives drop their Blackberries, swap dress clothes for practice gear and run suicides. Entry-level assistants join them. When they are all sufficiently gassed, they head back to the pickup trucks, Durant sneaking a spot in a bed before coaches wisely point him to a passenger seat.
One superteam has been built in a Miami boardroom. Another is being built in a prairie basin. The Thunder plays in the smallest market in the league (the population is 560,000), has the sixth-lowest payroll in the league ($50.3 million) and less than two years ago was on pace for the worst record in the league's history. The team started 3--29 in 2008--09, losing five games in the last six seconds, and coach Scott Brooks would stay up until dawn trying to think of something positive to say. The best he could do sometimes? "We're not losers." He was proved right last season, when the Thunder leaped from 23 wins to 50. Durant became the youngest scoring champion ever, Brooks the coach of the year, Russell Westbrook the must-see point guard. The Thunder bore the unofficial title Most Fun Team, sold out 31 games at the 18,203-seat Ford Center, nearly doubled its local television ratings and did it with leading scorers who were 21, 21 and 23. Duke's were 22, 21 and 21 when it won the national championship last April.
Oklahoma City's style was up-tempo but down-home. During the first-round playoff series against the Lakers, the players would forgo their charter bus ride after practices at Santa Monica High and stroll down Pico Boulevard to their hotel, even the ones with ice packs on their knees. But their finest moment followed another excruciating loss, in Game 6 to L.A., when Durant grabbed his teammates before they could leave the Ford Center floor, huddled them at half-court and said, "This will make us better." Then, as a legion of his peers bailed on big cities for bigger ones, apparently great situations for greater ones, he signed a five-year, $85 million extension. The deal was completed while Durant was at the Orlando summer league, sitting on the bench to support Thunder rookies and second-year players.
"Things happen in Oklahoma City that don't happen anywhere else in the league," says Kevin Ollie, who played for 11 teams, most recently the Thunder last season, and is now an assistant coach at UConn. "I've never seen a group of guys who are more in love with each other. The only question is whether it can last."
Durant left Texas in 2007, after his freshman year, and shortly into his rookie season in Seattle he feared he had made a mistake. The Sonics were a veteran team, a divided team, and Durant did not even know where they all lived. "I wanted to go back to college," he says. When the franchise moved to Oklahoma City the following summer, he saw an opportunity to re-create college in the NBA, with a hoops-heavy schedule to match: Go to practice, go to Wing Stop, then go home and play video games with a half-dozen teammates until bedtime. The next day, do it all over again at somebody else's house. "You can get 100 wings here for less than 100 bucks," Durant says. "Good deal, huh?"
Some Thunder players resent that they are seen as a college team, given that they are widely projected to finish second in the Western Conference this season, that Kobe Bryant referred to them during last postseason as "bad mother-------," that one prominent basketball writer suggested they all be sent to the 2012 Olympics to represent the U.S. as a group. "It's time to move on," says forward Jeff Green, 24, but it would be easier to believe him if he were not wearing Georgetown sweats and still taking classes at the university via phone and e-mail. Preserving the Thunder's collegiate culture may be more important now than ever, to help maintain the players' camaraderie and humility despite increased acclaim.
"It might be harder in Miami, New York or L.A. because there are more temptations," says Durant, who, like most of his teammates, is single. "That's why, every day I wake up, I feel blessed to play here." Teams often leave their home base in training camp and head for smaller cities, to bond in relative seclusion. The Thunder essentially does that all season. Every day is a retreat. "You don't really have a social life here," says guard James Harden. "You don't go out a lot. You just focus on basketball and each other." In that way and more, Oklahoma City has done as much to develop the Thunder as the Thunder has done to develop Oklahoma City.
Seven players file into a dimly lit room with gray carpet and a low-slung ceiling on the third floor of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in late September. They squeeze on to a narrow bench pressed against the back wall. The space has been designed to replicate the hearing room in the basement of the Water Resources Board building that used to be across the street. On a table in the front of the room is a tape recorder, playing a hearing that began at 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995. A man is petitioning to bottle groundwater from his property and sell it. Two minutes into the hearing there's an explosion, followed by sounds of breaking glass and cries for help. Lights flicker, the room in the memorial goes dark, and the faces of the 168 who died in the bombing of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building are illuminated on the wall. Two of them, five-year-old Aaron Coverdale and his younger brother, Elijah, catch the eye of guard Eric Maynor. Later, Maynor stares at a glass case holding Aaron's Transformers and Elijah's toy cars, shaking his head.