Clay Bennett sat in his Washington Athletic Club hotel room in the early days of running the Seattle SuperSonics, circa 2006. The phone rang.
“This is Bill Russell.”
Yes. Bill Russell.
Russell had talked with NBA Commissioner David Stern and volunteered to help Bennett in trying to get an arena deal completed in Seattle, where Russell has lived since coaching the Sonics in the 1970s.
“We developed a very special friendship, well beyond our process in Seattle and the business of the team and the league,” Bennett said.
A few months ago, a phone call went the other way. Bennett called Russell. Bennett had his pitch all planned out. But barely before it started, Russell interrupted.
“Whatever it is, I'll do it,” Russell said.
What it is is the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, which inducts Bennett on Monday night at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The Thunder chairman, the man primarily responsible for bringing the NBA to town, will be introduced by sport's greatest champion.
Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles in a 13-season span, 1957-69. He became a basketball star, a societal icon and a hero to generations of fans, including a young Sam Presti, who grew up in Massachusetts and now runs the Thunder's basketball operations for Bennett.
Oklahomans never had heroes like Bill Russell. Oklahoma heroes were mostly stars of some other city, some other state. Mickey Mantle, Jim Thorpe. Even if they were collegians who had shined here; Barry Sanders, Lee Roy Selmon.
But now we have heroes of our own. That's the great thing about Bennett's induction Monday night. It represents what's to come. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Boomers not yet identified eventually will follow Bennett.
“I think it's exciting for the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame to now welcome our own NBA heroes,” Bennett said, “as certainly Kevin and Russ will lead the way for many Thunder players, coaches and management to be inducted in the future.”
* * *
Twenty years ago, Oklahoma City was a sleepy capital city. A home on the range. Nice place to live, especially if you were allergic to excitement, but you wouldn't want to visit there.
Stagnant population. Sluggish economy. Dead downtown.
Now, Oklahoma City has been transformed. Thriving economy. Rejuvenated downtown. Young people engaged in a variety of ventures.
A certain basketball team did not do all that by itself. But the Thunder has brought a spotlight to a city that now is wide-awake and bouncing off the walls. The Thunder was the vehicle for Oklahomans to express their bootstrap accomplishments.
“I think the team's impact on the city and state has been nothing short of transformational in terms of how it's brought people together and how it's connected so many from every demographic, every part of the city and state in a meaningful way,” Bennett said. “And for all the world to see. I'm very proud of our players, our coaches and our organization, for playing a role in that.”
Bennett's words are rare. For such a community leader, for a man who's been at the forefront of so many endeavors for so long, Bennett stays remarkably quiet.
Since the Thunder moved to OKC, Bennett has gone years at a time without talking to the media.
Scars in Seattle, where he was vilified when he began the process of moving the franchise, have made Bennett wary. But it's also his preferred management style; the Thunder is patterned after the San Antonio Spurs, who have one management voice (Gregg Popovich) and a chairman (Peter Holt) who seldom speaks. Bennett has Presti to talk of all things Thunder.
But Bennett agreed to speak to The Oklahoman in advance of the Hall of Fame induction. And it's clear he's thrilled with what has become of his hometown.
“I have always been proud of Oklahoma City,” Bennett said. “I have always been proud it's been my home, but there were those years when I knew we were an inferior place to live, compared to many other cities throughout the country. We did not have the assets and amenities that others had. And I had a desire to be impactful in terms of supporting our city and helping it develop and grow. And was fortunate with many, many others to have that opportunity and see some of these things come together.”
Ike Bennett, Clay's father, grew up in Oklahoma City and graduated from old Harding High School. Back then, NW 63rd Street was a gravel road; the city mostly ended around 39th and Penn.
“This city has really grown,” Ike Bennett said. “Especially the last 10 years. It's amazing. I can't walk down the street without someone stopping me and say something about it, knowing how proud I am of him.”
Clay was raised in Oklahoma City and attended Casady, the affluent private school in the north part of town. His family owned Public Supply, a door and window manufacturing company. Bennett married his high school sweetheart, Louise Gaylord, whose family owned The Oklahoma Publishing Company, which published The Oklahoman.
Clay Bennett became active in the Chamber of Commerce in his 20s; before he turned 30, Bennett had spearheaded the effort to bring the U.S. Olympic Festival to Oklahoma City, which seems rather quaint by today's OKC standard but was a huge deal for the city in 1989.
In the '90s, OPUBCO purchased 30 percent of the San Antonio Spurs; Bennett sat on the NBA franchise's board of directors and represented the Spurs at league meetings. And Bennett and former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick led an OKC bid for a National Hockey League franchise in the '90s.
As a teenager, Bennett dreamed of owning the Dallas Cowboys. In the '80s, Bennett even looked into that very prospect one of the two times the Cowboys were for sale.
But the Cowboys never were leaving Dallas. What Bennett has wanted most was a franchise for his hometown.
“It's always been a big deal to Clay, since he became a young adult, that Oklahoma City got some kind of major league franchise,” Ike Bennett said. “Always felt like that's what Oklahoma City needed to get put on the map.”
Consider Oklahoma City on the map. From Bricktown to the Devon Tower, from the Oklahoma River to Film Row, Oklahoma City is a changed place. And the Thunder is the validation of that change.
* * *
Clay Bennett went out for basketball as a Casady seventh-grader. His coach was Virgil Grantham, a man of some note in Oklahoma hoops circles.
On the first day of practice, Grantham was trying to quickly identify who could and couldn't play, so he had everyone shoot two foul shots and would disperse the players accordingly.
Bennett shot one foul shot and was told to report to the wrestling room.
He eventually became a solid heavyweight wrestler and, at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, an effective offensive lineman.
“Clay was a pretty good athlete,” Ike Bennett said. “Always a big guy. He could have played some college football. He was pretty fast off the ball.”
Clay Bennett had a football scholarship offer from Boston University and an invitation to join the OSU squad as a non-scholarship player.
Instead, Bennett went to OU and left his athletic playing career behind. But now sports are his business.
“It's a privilege, it's exhilarating and it's demanding,” Bennett said of running the Thunder. “We operate in a very competitive landscape. All 30 teams have outstanding ownerships, gifted management and front office talent. The best athletes and coaches in the world. All at the same time, every minute of every day, on every front, doing all they can to gain any advantage.
“And that is exhilarating, because it's so dynamic. So many moving parts. Ever changing. I have found it to be the most challenging yet enjoyable professional experience of my career.”
Bennett sits courtside at most games, along the baseline near the Thunder bench. Truthfully, he'd feel more comfortable up in the suites, where the television cameras couldn't find him so easily and his emotions wouldn't be on such display.
But the intensity of NBA games, the wonder of feats by the likes of Durant and Westbrook, make the attraction too strong. The seat's too good.
In that way, Bennett's not so different from the rest of us. Seems like every Oklahoman has made a connection with the Thunder.
“I don't think it can be overstated,” Bennett said. “And it gets back to what we need most in this country and this world, and that is bringing people together, for a common purpose, for a common good, for a positive experience, where people from every walk of life can gather, in one location, and have a common objective of enjoying themselves, rooting for their favorite team and their favorite players in such a positive environment.
“I don't know where else in our culture we gather in such a way. So I think the value of that experience is virtually priceless, and it extends to not just the live environment in the arena. It extends to the community of fans and friends of the team who are watching games on television, listening on the radio, reading the newspaper, hearing about it, thinking about it, hearing a friend talk about it, but having a connection to it.”
Bennett thinks often of that connection and impact. When he gets a letter from a senior citizen, maybe who lives alone and whose winter nights are not so long when the Thunder is on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
Or when the tornadoes struck Oklahoma in May, and the Thunder responded with a variety of community efforts, including visits to the disaster sites.
“The connection the players clearly had with so many that were hurting and displaced was palpable,” Bennett said. “They brought smiles and reactions of true joy when meeting people who had just lost everything. They were thanking our players and wishing them well. Very humbling.”
* * *
NBA royalty comes to town Monday night. The stately Russell, 79, arrives to honor the man most responsible for making Oklahoma major league.
That initial phone call spawned a dinner. Russell eventually became an ally and confidant as Bennett politicked for a Seattle arena, even testifying with Bennett before the Washington state senate.
At one point, when Seattle life for Bennett was getting rough, Russell invited Bennett over for breakfast.
Russell was raised in Oakland, starred in Boston and retired to Seattle. But he's got a little of Middle America in him.
Russell's wife, Marilyn, was from Kansas. Bennett felt an immediate kinship with the woman who in 2009 would die at age 59. She cooked what felt like an Oklahoma country breakfast.
“Felt like home,” Bennett said. “It was an important time, it helped me feel better emotionally. From that time, we (he and Russell) have maintained our communication and have seen each other often. It's been a real joy to get to know him. He is a loyal and highly principled person.”
And so Bill Russell comes to Oklahoma City for an event that not only honors what Clay Bennett has accomplished, but celebrates what's to come.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.