Nick Collison didn't exactly celebrate after the Thunder clinched the Western Conference Finals.
Truth be told, the Thunder forward nearly left the floor before the trophy and the speeches.
“I had kind of forgotten they do all that,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “I was just ready to get on to the next series.”
Who could blame him?
Collison has played for this franchise for eight years, and during that time, he's been through challenges that no other player in Thunder blue has. Watching things disintegrate in Seattle. Being uprooted from a place he called home. Sticking with a franchise that flirted with NBA futility.
But now, he will play in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
No wonder he was ready to get on with it as soon as the Thunder dispatched of the Spurs.
“To be able to be here through it all and from the beginning ... is very rewarding,” he said. “I really appreciate it because I do remember when things weren't so good.”
Things were at their worst when the franchise moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City. And truth be told, the way it ended in the Pacific Northwest was all the more difficult for Collison because of the way it started there for him.
After shoulder surgery forced him to sit out his first year in the league, he became a reserve on a Sonics team that won the Northwest Division and went to the playoffs. He was playing alongside the likes of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.
Life was good.
Collison had found a place he wanted to call home. So often, NBA players return to their hometowns during the offseason, but he decided that Seattle was the place for him and his family.
Then a few months before the 2006-07 season started, the Sonics were sold to Clay Bennett and his group of Oklahoma City-based investors.
“I pretty much knew we were going to leave despite what was said to us by everyone,” Collison said. “I think everyone in the city knew that, too.
“So that was a rough, tough two years.”
Making matters worse, the Sonics were losing. A lot. They managed only 31 wins in 2006-07, then fell to 20 wins in 2007-08.
But when Sam Presti took over before that 20-win season, the new general manager made a point of meeting as often as possible with Collison. Presti liked the way that Collison played — his preparation, his mentality and his toughness — and he wanted Collison to understand his vision for the franchise.
“He knew where he wanted to get to,” Collison said, “but he knew how hard it was going to be. He just kept saying, ‘We're gonna get there, we're gonna get there.'”
Emphasis on we.
Presti wanted Collison on board for the long haul, and there's no doubt that Presti knew that if the team moved to Oklahoma City, no player within the franchise would have it harder than Collison.
Uprooting the family? Moving somewhere new?
Just because these guys are professional basketball players doesn't mean they're immune to every-day difficulties.
And when the Thunder's first year in Oklahoma City got off to a 3-29 start, it only made matters worse.
“There were definitely times where if I would've gotten traded to a playoff team ... ” Collison said, cutting himself short.
“I wasn't going to ask for (a trade), but there were times where you start to look around and think the grass is greener somewhere else. It's just human nature.”
Who doesn't want to be successful at their job?
Collison sure does, and there for awhile, the results were not good.
“The good thing about it was I still understood where we were going,” he said. “Despite the losing, the decisions made sense. The way we approached practice every day was good.”
Keep your head down, keep working and things will get better.
That resonated with Collison.
“He could've played out his contract,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, “but he chose not to. He stayed to become part of what we're doing, and we're all thankful for it.”
That's because Collison's approach, the one that Presti recognized in Seattle and knew he wanted on his team in Oklahoma City, hasn't changed. Even though Collison has been in the league nearly a decade, he still wears the blue collar, still carries the lunch pail.
“It rubs off on our guys,” Brooks said.
And more than anything, Collison wants to win. He had that much-talked-about Thunder DNA before the boys in blue, much less the NBA Finals were even a glimmer in Oklahoma City's eye.
It seems only fitting, then, that his first trip to The Finals is in this city with this team.
“To be able to stick through it all and slowly kind of build our team ... has been great,” Collison said. “It's been a lot of fun.”
You can bet if there is celebration for the Thunder at the end of this series, Collison won't make a beeline for the locker room. He'll relish it. He'll enjoy it.
He'll deserve it.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT NICK COLLISON
Thunder reserve forward Nick Collison isn't the focus of these NBA Finals, but talk to those inside this Thunder team, and you'll hear just how important he is:
Scott Brooks, Thunder coach
“It's nice to see him (in The Finals) because a big part of the success that we're having is his lunch-pail mentality. He does his work every day. You can have a team full of veterans that are not good veterans, and your young guys see that and they're not going to be good professionals.”
Kevin Durant, Thunder forward
“Nick has been through it all — his first year not playing, having shoulder surgery, coming back that next year and being on a playoff team, then missing it for the next three or four years. We wanna win it for guys like Nick, Perk, Fish. We wanna do it for them.”
“He's the heart and soul of our team.”