Two months before an NBA team arrived in Oklahoma City, and nearly four months before that team became known as the Thunder, an unforeseen set of events would shape the franchise for the foreseeable future.
It happened on May 22, 2008. The NBA Draft Lottery's ping-pong balls had dealt a devastating blow to the then-Seattle SuperSonics.
Or so we thought.
The Sonics were slated to land the No. 2 overall pick in that year's draft. They had a 19.9 percent chance of grabbing the top selection and choosing between prized point guard Derrick Rose and scoring machine Michael Beasley.
The team fell to fourth.
Chicago, with just a 1.7 percent chance of winning the top pick, beat the odds — and eight teams ahead of it — for the No. 1 selection. The Bulls took Rose.
In Oklahoma City, where fans waited on a soon-to-be-relocated franchise, disappointment set in. Halfhearted debates about consolation prizes like Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo took center stage at water coolers, in sports bars and on local radio.
The name Russell Westbrook was never mentioned — until NBA Commissioner David Stern called it with the fourth pick in the June draft.
Two years later, Westbrook has narrowed both the popularity and performance gaps. As Westbrook and the Thunder open the regular season against Rose and the Bulls tonight inside the Oklahoma City Arena, it will be the first time in their head-to-head meetings that a legitimate debate has emerged over which of the third-year guards is the better player.
Thunder fans no longer are questioning Westbrook as the team's floor leader. And when Rose is opposite Westbrook, Thunder fans probably no longer wish they had Chicago's exciting young playmaker to pair with Kevin Durant.
"It's definitely a good accomplishment," Westbrook said of making believers out of fans.
Rose, in all likelihood, sent droves of Thunder fans home wondering "what if" on March 18, 2009, when he scored 20 of his team-high 25 points in a perfect-shooting second half to defeat the Thunder and give the impression he was in a class all his own. Last season, Rose again stole the show in Oklahoma City with a 26-point, seven-assist showing in a 96-86 win.
Westbrook, however, outclassed Rose at the United Center last season with a 29-point, seven-rebound, six-assist performance in a 13-point Thunder win. Westbrook, despite a poor shooting night, also scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in an 11-point win inside the United Center on Jan. 10, 2009.
Round five finally arrives tonight.
"It's going to be a competitive, fun game," said Durant, the reigning scoring champ. "I guess you can just sit back and grab you some popcorn."
After two seasons, Westbrook has proved to be a better rebounder, playmaker and all-around defender. Rose is the better scorer and is more efficient. Both have incredible size and quickness that few other point guards possess.
"They're two dynamic point guards that do so many great things for their teams on both ends of the floor," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Westbrook, though, didn't begin to turn heads until he averaged 18.8 points, 10 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals in 11 February games last season. Westbrook went on to become the Thunder's most reliable player against the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, finishing with averages of 20.5 points, six rebounds and six assists while shooting 47.3 percent. And when Westbrook earned what many viewed as an improbable selection on the Team USA roster that won gold in this summer's FIBA World Championship, eventually stealing crunch-time minutes from Rose, the Thunder guard's star shot up.
Only now are the comparisons beginning between Westbrook and Rose. But two major factors prevent the young stars from forming a rivalry. Westbrook and Rose compete in different conferences, meaning their regular-season meetings are limited to two per year. Additionally, the two actually like each other.
Since they were drafted, Rose and Westbrook have spent summers working out together in a small high school gym in Santa Monica, Calif. Renowned trainer Rob McClanaghan conducts intense workouts that include tons of conditioning and shooting drills. Rose credits Westbrook for helping to improve his shooting. Westbrook said Rose has passed along tips on how to be craftier around the rim with layups.
"We're definitely cool and close," Westbrook said.
Don't even call them rivals on the court.
"I wouldn't call it a rivalry," Westbrook said. "I would just say both guards are trying to make their teams better... I go out every night and try to compete and try to win. I'm not trying to make it a one-on-one battle. It's my team against his team. So we're going to go out there and try to compete."
Westbrook flashed back to the draft process. He remembered not knowing where he would wind up. But after a moment of silence, Westbrook admitted where he wanted to go.
"Honestly, I was trying to be No. 1," Westbrook said.
You won't find too many folks still disappointed with how it all worked out.