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OKC Thunder: Outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern's impact felt strongly in Oklahoma City

David Stern frequently has known the answer long before the question was even asked. Such was the case for Oklahoma City not once, but twice — with the Hornets and the Thunder. Mayor Mick Cornett and former Hornets owner George Shinn talked with The Oklahoman about Stern's impact.
BY JOHN ROHDE Published: October 27, 2012

There are many things Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett respects about NBA Commissioner David Stern, but one incident stands above the rest.

In August of 2005, Stern and Cornett were exploring the possibility of the New Orleans Hornets potentially relocating to OKC after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

That's when Stern shared with Cornett the story of now former Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley wanting to look around the country for the most suitable place to relocate his Vancouver Grizzlies following the 2000-01 season.

“The commissioner said to him (Heisley), ‘Well, you can look all over, but at the end of the day you're going to be in Memphis,' ” Cornett explained. “That wasn't an edict from Stern. He just knew the landscape through due diligence and knew Memphis was going to be the place to go.”

Therein lies the intelligence and power of Stern, who last week announced he will step down as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, the 30-year anniversary of the day he took the job.

The 70-year-old Stern frequently has known the answer long before the question was even asked. Such was the case for OKC, not once, but twice.

Stern knew this town would be the best fit for the Hornets before Katrina even hit shore. Stern knew thanks to due diligence and because of his previous dealings with Cornett.

When Cornett stepped into the commissioner's New York City office in April of 2005, he was trying to convince Stern that OKC was ready to become an NBA city.

“He had no reason to be nice to me,” Cornett explained, “but he went through every league, every TV deal. He and I spent over an hour together and he was just trying to help me figure out a way to get a major league sports team to Oklahoma. He told me he didn't have a team for me. There was no if ands or buts.

“He agreed an NHL franchise was possible and said, ‘Pursue that and I'll help if I can.' He didn't have to do that, but that's what established our relationship. He could see how much I wanted it and he wanted to be helpful.

“That's just being a nice guy. I mean, think how busy he is and to spend time with me?”

The timing of that meeting could not have been better because OKC was still fresh in Stern's mind when Katrina devastated New Orleans four months later.

“I was getting calls from folks all over the country to come there and to play at their arena,” recalled George Shinn, the Hornets' owner at the time. “David was the one who recommended Oklahoma City. When he did and I got to visit, I said, ‘Hey, he's right.' ”

The Hornets relocated to OKC for two seasons and enjoyed unimaginable success, selling out 18 of 36 “home” games at the Ford Center during the 2005-06 season with a record of 38-44, and then selling out 12 more games the following season while going 39-43.

A local ownership group chaired by Clay Bennett made overtures to purchase the Hornets after their first season in OKC. Shinn rebuffed offers and returned his team to New Orleans.

Stern attended the Hornets' finale in OKC and said: “I'm not going to steal a line from General MacArthur and use the word ‘shall.' Instead, we'll use the words ‘expect to.' We expect to return to Oklahoma City.”

Stern also had previous dealings with Bennett, who served on the league's Board of Governors as one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs in the mid-1990s.

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