In today’s paper, I wrote about the distinguished alumni of Thunder U.
Due to space constraints, everything couldn’t fit in the paper. So here’s the rest of what Malik Rose, Kevin Ollie, Joe Smith, Desmond Mason and Ryan Bowen had to say about their time with the Thunder and where the franchise is today as it prepares for its first NBA Finals.
When did you know this franchise was on the right track: I was always in awe of how talented those guys were. But in particular Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, how down to earth they were and how cool they were to be superstars. Sometimes superstars can have an air about them or an attitude all the time. But those guys didn’t have it. They were just as personable as the 12th man on the team.
What do you think when you see how far they’ve come in such a short time: When I got there, those guys were 18, 19 years old. I saw some immature ways in certain guys. I would talk to them during the huddles or whatever and tell them it’s a long season or it’s a long game and that’s not the way you want to handle yourself. You always want to be competing and fighting no matter what. And you fast forward three or four years down the line and you see that growth in the young guys.
When did you know this franchise was on the right track: My first day meeting Sam. Just seeing how they treated their players. And I’m nobody. It wasn’t like I was a big free agent or the No. 1 draft pick. I had been pretty much a journeyman my whole career. But just the way they treated me I knew it was something special about this group. Their outlook on things was great. It was based on that accountability and everybody having the right attitude and buying into team and not just yourself. And then when I got around the talent and I got around the coaching staff and saw how they pushed their guys each and every day and how they always stressed that it’s profit in hard work, I knew this team was going to be successful.
What do you think when you see how far they’ve come in such a short time: I just see the enthusiasm. I see the hard work. I know it’s not easy. A lot of people think it’s easy. They see Kevin Durant, the three-time scoring champion, and think it’s easy. But I’ve seen that guy work. I’ve seen how humble he is. I’ve seen him coming back at night after scoring 40 points in a game and getting his 30 minutes in working with a coach. I see Russell and his passion. Yeah, they have amazing athletic ability, but they also have a passion to win and win the right way. They accept their roles. James Harden comes off the bench when he could be a starter. I remember Serge Ibaka coming in an hour and a half before practice working with coach (Mark) Bryant. It’s just those seeds of greatness. And the only way you can grow those seeds of greatness is by the sweat of hard work, and that’s what they did and they did it the right way.
What do you remember about your time with the franchise: I was there just a short time. But I did come in and come through training camp and actually make the team, and I was with the team for a while before we had a rash of injuries at the point guard position before I got released. I had a great experience. I was on the fence deciding whether I wanted to give it another go or not…and I’m so glad that I decided to give it another shot and ended up making the team and being around those guys even if it was just for a couple of months. You could definitely feel something special building there. You could definitely sense that all the pieces were in place at every level for something special to happen.
When did you know this franchise was on the right track: It wasn’t really until I got there and saw how they were doing things. I was there probably two weeks before training camp started and just saw how hard the guys worked and saw how excited they were to be around each other; how much they wanted to compete. And this was two weeks before camp. Some of the things that they were doing, you could just sense that everything was together. Everybody understood their roles, from management all the way down, everybody understood what they had to do to come together to make this thing successful.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: …I just tried to lead by the way I played and came to practice every day and played. I think only dressed in one game, but just sitting there on the bench with some of those guys that weren’t playing a whole lot and just kind of being that guy on the bench to show them things I think was one of the things I really tried to do. I tried to talk through the game with them and make sure they’re paying attention in timeouts and coming out of timeouts asking them what play we were running to make sure they were engaged in the game. Just trying to let them know that at any time something could happen and you guys could get thrown into the fire.
What do you remember about your time with the franchise: I remember the way the organization treated the players. I’ve played for some very good organizations but I can honestly say, and not just because I live here, that Oklahoma was, if not the best, one of the top two organizations that I’ve ever dealt with in my tenure as a player. I think that creates a great atmosphere, from the ownership to Sam to the VPs, to Dwight and Marc St. Yves and all those guys, the way they treat the players is pretty impressive.
What impressed you about the roster then: I would just say the talent. The amount of young talent that we had. Even when I came in, James and Serge weren’t on the team but we still were really talented. Guys were just still trying to find their way. I mean, Jeff (Green) was an extremely talented guy. D.J. (White) was just raw but he had so many really good skills. So I thought our young talent level was pretty high.
What do you remember about your time with the franchise: My time there was good. It was our first year there from Seattle. We were a young team. We had a lot of young talent and a team that obviously if you watch today you see what the talent has done. But I saw then, at that moment, that it was a team that was about to be a tough team to be messed with in the future.
What do you think when you see how far they’ve come in such a short time: I’m going to enjoy watching them play. I call them my youngins. I’m so proud of my youngins. They’ve come a long way in such a short time. I kind of knew it could happen, but you really don’t expect it to happen like that. But they put the work in and I’m real proud to see my youngins out there doing work.