Mick Cornett’s most surreal moment came during a most surreal time for his city.
It was March 2008, and the NBA had dispatched a small army of decision-makers to Oklahoma City, a place long seen as a minor-league town. The question they sought to answer: was the city ready to have a big-league team of its own?
Cornett remembers it as the biggest dog and pony show ever — and why wouldn’t it be? — but amid all the hubbub, one moment is forever frozen in the Oklahoma City mayor’s mind.
Introducing Bob Stoops to David Stern.
“Have you met my friend David?” Cornett quipped recently as he recalled his role of go-between for the Oklahoma football coach and the NBA commissioner.
He laughed a never-thought-I’d-do-that laugh.
But as someone who’s long understood the power and the impact of sport, he couldn’t be prouder of all that he’s helped do for his hometown.
Being inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame next week, Cornett will be recognized for his contributions to the state’s sports scene. Of course, one of the main reasons he’s going into the hall is because he created the hall, a feel-good idea that sprouted when the state was a bit down on its luck in 1986 when Cornett was still a sportscaster at Channel 5 and now has roots in a stand-alone facility on Lincoln Boulevard.
But more significant than that is the stamp that Cornett has left on the sports landscape in this city.
Cornett was born and raised in the Coronado Heights neighborhood. His house wasn’t far from the busy intersection of Lake Hefner Parkway and Northwest Expressway, but nestled amid tree-lined streets, he felt safe and secure. He could run and play, and that’s what he did every chance he had.
His love of sports only grew as he started school in the Putnam City district. In those days, it was the place to be.
“That was the high-achieving suburban district of its day,” Cornett remembered. “It felt to us like when it came to academic awards and athletic achievements that Putnam City was doing really, really well.”
That wasn’t just an internal feeling. Putnam City High School was a juggernaut in just about every sport. There were state titles and all-staters and college signees everywhere you turned.
The Class of ’72 alone produced Steve Largent, Alvan Adams and Bob Shirley. Largent became one of the greatest pass catchers in NFL history, Adams became an NBA All-Star and Shirley became a Major League pitcher who spent a decade-plus in the big leagues.
That excellence rubbed off on the next generation of Putnam City kids, including Cornett.
“There was an expectation of doing well and winning and all those things,” said Cornett, who was a member of Putnam City’s state championship golf team as a junior, then was an All-Stater on a runner-up team as a senior in 1976.
But as much as that, Cornett also saw the way that sports brought people together. He remembers vividly being at Taft Stadium when Putnam City and Midwest City played in front of what was then the largest crowd to watch a high school football game in Oklahoma history. His older brother, Don, was on the team when so many people packed the stadium that they spilled onto the track around the field.
There was an undeniable power in sport.
Still, when Cornett left behind his TV career in 1999 and eventually got into politics, he never intended for sports to be such a big part of his new career. But they have been. Whether the growth of the Women’s College World Series or the development of the Oklahoma River or the luring of events like the NCAA Wrestling Championships and the Big 12 basketball tournaments, sports have been a constant of Cornett’s decade-plus in the mayor’s office.
The biggest crossroads, of course, was the NBA’s arrival in OKC. It put the city not only on a national stage but also an international pedestal. No doubt Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co. have had a big hand in that, but it wouldn’t have happened without Cornett and others leading the charge.
The significance of the NBA coming to OKC is reflected in the mementos on the walls and shelves of Cornett’s city hall office. Durant wearing his “OKLAHOMA CITY” jersey on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Chris Paul and Desmond Mason bobblehead dolls from the Hornet days. Cornett in a photo with Hornets dignitaries George Shinn, Willis Reed and Byron Scott on the day that it became official the franchise was relocating from New Orleans to Oklahoma City.
“To just have Willis Reed and Byron Scott in town would’ve been a big deal,” Cornett said of days before the Hornets’ arrival.
Less than a decade later, folks in Oklahoma City can hardly remember what life was like without an NBA team.
How did we fill the winter months without games at The Peake?
What did we do every spring without the Thunder in the playoffs?
Cornett will forever be linked to OKC’s big-league transformation, and frankly, it’s a bit ironic that he is the Putnam City alum with the biggest sports impact on this city. The school’s best athletes were legends elsewhere. Largent was Mr. Seattle before the Seahawks became a current-day power. Adams was Mr. Phoenix playing his entire career with the Suns. And Shirley had his longest big-league stint in Gotham with the Yankees. And while those men are loved here, they largely brought athletic glory to other cities.
Cornett helped bring it to Oklahoma City.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.