The Oklahoma City Thunder returned home from the NBA Finals in Miami, Fla., about the same time one of its biggest fans returned home from the hospital.
His beloved basketball team was eliminated, but Bricktown shooting victim Norman Richards II appears to have won his fight to stay alive.
“Glad to be going home,” the 22-year-old said while waiting Friday to be discharged from Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital. “Sometimes I think about it like, ‘Why me?', but then everybody including my mom was like, ‘Stuff happens for a reason.' They say I'm a testimonial, I guess you would say.”
It was after dark on May 21, when Richards and his best friend, Xavier Rivers, headed to their car in Bricktown after leaving a watch party in Thunder Alley outside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The two had just witnessed another triumph in the Oklahoma City Thunder's storied 2012 playoff run — a 16-point routing of the Los Angeles Lakers — and were eager to beat traffic.
Richards, who lives with his father and grandfather in Del City, does not remember being targeted by the shooter, but he recognizes now he must have felt something. When the bullet, fired by a stranger with a .22-caliber pistol, barreled into Richards, it came through the middle of his back because he was already running away.
“My friend was like, ‘They look like they're getting into some trouble.' That's when he looked to the right, and they started shooting,” he said Friday. “I remember looking down there, but after that I don't remember nothing else.”
Eight people were shot, including six teenagers, and all of them apparently at random. Most escaped serious injury, but Richards' bullet ricocheted around his rib cage and punctured several organs, including his heart twice.
Avery Myers, 16, of Oklahoma City, remains in custody at the Oklahoma County jail, charged with eight felony counts of shooting with intent to kill. Police say the dispute started days earlier and had nothing to do with the game or the watch party.
The Thunder Alley watch parties, nevertheless, have been a thing of the past ever since.
“I got a sense of it when I left the house — nothing felt right the whole time I was down there,” Richards said of that night. “Then as we were walking to the car, you could just sense it in the air.”
He remembers coming to on Reno Avenue and jumping to his feet, as though he had tripped, only to crash back to the concrete a couple steps later. That's when he knew he had been shot, he said.
“I pretty much knew as soon as it happened,” he said. “Xavier ran over to me and said, ‘Get up.' I said, ‘No, I'm shot.'”
Over the course of four surgeries, Richards lost a kidney and portions of his liver, stomach and small intestine. He doesn't remember most of his hospital stay, but he caught a glimpse of every subsequent game the Thunder played.
To survive the ordeal Richards said he drew on skills picked up at the gym and on the baseball diamond. A center fielder and shortstop, Richards was an All-City baseball player his senior year at Del City High School and later went to Rose State College on a baseball scholarship.
“Whenever you're an athlete, you try to hit the wall and keep going,” he said. “Almost every day they pushed me hard, but they had me walking every day, and it just got easier.”
The support also helped, he said. Six dozen or so of his friends lined the hallway outside the emergency room at OU Medical Center several hours after the shooting, and even strangers offered a helping hand. Many more donated blood on his behalf during a drive in early June.
And twice representatives from the Thunder made hospital room visits. General Manager Sam Presti brought him a pair of Kevin Durant sneakers the first time; reserve guard Reggie Jackson came by just to chat a few weeks later.
“He's a military brat, too, and so we just talked about that,” Richards said of Jackson's visit. “It was nice that they cared enough to come. It's crazy — they're in the middle of the playoffs, and they took the time to come see me, hang out with me for a little while.”
His son's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open when Jackson entered the room, Norman Richards Sr. said. It was a small gesture, but it meant everything to the family.
“To me that just symbolizes everything Oklahoma City and Oklahoma is about,” the elder Richards said. “It doesn't matter what the problem is, in times of need people rally together.”
Father and son both said they are not angry at the alleged gunman, though they have a hard time understanding why he made the decision to start shooting people at random.
The elder Richards said the family prays for Myers and his family, but that if he indeed is responsible for the attack, he should be held responsible.
“I think certifying him as a juvenile would send the wrong message to a lot of kids out there,” Richards Sr. said. “He should do time; he injured eight people. But do I feel like he should be locked up for life? No.”
The younger Richards, for his part, said he would like to keep the message positive. Most of all, he'd like life to return to normal.
“Don't take it for granted,” he said. “You can be gone at the drop of a hat. I'm doing a lot of stuff differently — I won't go out as much to party and stuff, but I will go back to Thunder Alley.”