David Holt spent only four years at City Hall as aide to Mayor Mick Cornett, but what he witnessed in that era of 2006 to 2010 was nothing less than the crowning of Oklahoma City as a “big league city.”
“Big League City” is also the name of Holt's new book, in which the attorney, also a state legislator, shares his account of how Cornett, City Manager Jim Couch and others at City Hall worked behind the scenes with a group of local business leaders led by Clay Bennett in courting the NBA to Oklahoma City.
It's a tale that begins with a refreshingly frank admission by Holt that before passage of the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative in 1993, “living in Oklahoma City kind of sucked.” Holt then credits former Mayor Andy Coats with introducing the idea of investing in the city in the 1980s, followed by successor Ron Norick's successful launch of the MAPS effort, which created the funding and plan for a ballpark, canal, library, renovated convention center and music hall, and yes, an arena.
Yet another key leader, Mayor Kirk Humphreys, rallied the city in getting additional funding to build the arena, which was in doubt in the late 1990s because of cost-overruns on other MAPS projects. Rivals suggested shelving construction of the arena until the city secured a major league tenant. But Humphreys insisted the arena be built as promised, with or without the guarantee of a major league tenant.
It was that successful move that, in turn, led to Humphreys' successor, Cornett, having an arena with which to court major league basketball in the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans. And it's at this moment in Holt's book that the story gets very interesting.
Oklahoma City, once considered too small a market to be a serious contender for an NBA team, was at first seen as the good guy in this story as it came to the rescue of the New Orleans Hornets. But Oklahoma City was quickly cast into a two-act play that pit it as the aggressor with NBA fans in New Orleans, to where the Hornets eventually returned, and in Seattle, where fans of the Sonics remain bitter over the loss of their team.
“Big League City” is, without a doubt, Oklahoma City's side of the story as much as the “Sonicsgate” documentary was told from Seattle's point of view in the tug-of-war that led to the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City — where they are now the Thunder, a contender for the 2012 NBA championship.
In assisting Cornett, Holt enjoyed a fly-on-the-wall view as Bennett first danced with Hornets owner George Shinn and then ultimately bought the Sonics.
Holt describes a City Hall that carefully sought to prepare the way for a move of the Sonics and yet avoided acting overtly in a way that would betray Bennett's promise to attempt to come to an arrangement with Seattle that would keep the team in place.
Quiet coincidences lead to much bigger consequences throughout Holt's story. He details how Cornett's contacts with NBA Commissioner David Stern, before the hurricane in New Orleans, gave Oklahoma City an edge in hosting the displaced Hornets. He even recalls how family connections led to a cordial greeting for one of the NBA's board members as league officials arrived in Oklahoma City to deliberate whether to approve the Sonics' move.
The tidbits and observations are as intriguing as the bigger story. Who knew that Russell Westbrook, shortly after being drafted, was the last NBA player to wear the Sonics garb? Holt also wonders in this book whether the arrival of a permanent basketball court for the relocated team, mistakenly designed for college hoops, may have been the result of manufacturers assuming a glitch had occurred in the order specifying a three-point line for a city long associated with college sports.
“Big League City” might not get a lot of buyers in Seattle, but for Thunder fans, it's a great inside look at how the city went from hosting the rare NBA exhibition game with 9,000 in attendance to a season where home games routinely see sellout crowds of more than 18,000.
If you go
David Holt will be signing copies of “Big League City” from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place, 1900 Northwest Expressway.