Oklahoma City first made NBA commissioner David Stern smile in 2005 when it offered itself to the displaced New Orleans Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.
Seven years later, his Cheshire Cat grin remains thanks to a relocated franchise that appears to have become America's sweetheart en route to the NBA Finals.
Twice OKC has been called upon to save a troubled franchise, twice OKC has delivered, and the most impressed — and thankful — person in the NBA board room might be the commissioner himself.
Stern addressed the media an hour before the start of Game 1 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Tuesday night and it didn't take long for him to congratulate the city and state that almost instantaneously has become one of the league's prize commodities.
“It's interesting to see the way the state of Oklahoma has taken to these Oklahoma City Thunder,” Stern said in his opening remarks. “It's very rewarding that the NBA could play a part in really the growth and literally the excitement that this city that has suffered so much is seeing and having.”
Stern stood firmly in OKC's corner when it offered the Hornets a home and again three years later when Seattle failed to build a suitable facility to keep the SuperSonics franchise that began in 1967.
Asked to speak about Oklahoma from a personal standpoint, Stern said: “Well, I guess I would say I think of it fondly.”
Stern then re-told the story of the first time he met OKC Mayor Mick Cornett. When Cornett told Stern he wanted to lure an NBA franchise to the city, Stern responded: “You really ought to pursue another league.”
Stern recalled the particulars of Cornett's sales pitch, however. “They were building canals, rivers, Bricktowns, you name it, this place was building it,” Stern said.
When Hurricane Katrina hit and OKC quickly offered the Hornets safe haven, Stern spoke to Hornets owner George Shinn.
The Hornets remained for two seasons (2005-07) and sold out 30 home games at what was then the Ford Center.
After a one-year hiatus from the league, OKC's heart grew fonder, SuperSonics ownership chairman Clay Bennett relocated his franchise here after the 2007-08 season, and the Thunder was born.
Following a 3-29 start with a gutted roster, the Thunder slowly climbed to respectability and finished its inaugural season 23-59 (.280).
The following season brought a 27-win improvement to 50-32 (.610), which tied for the eighth best one-year turnaround in NBA history.
That was followed by a 55-27 (.671) record with an appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
This season brought the highest winning percentage yet at 47-19 (.712) and a trip to the Finals that consisted of conquests over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, the 16-time champion Los Angeles Lakers and four-time champion San Antonio Spurs.
“Mayor Mick and Clay Bennett and the business community and everyone sort of stepped up and recognized that they were going to be, in effect, taking care of a borrowed team with a tragedy of its own that it was dealing with,” Stern said.
“And the NBA, all of our owners, our fans even, were so warmed by that, that it enhanced greatly the opportunity for Oklahoma City to have a team. I said it was a failure of ours that we were not able to persuade Seattle that there should be a new building, and we didn't like the fact that the team moved. We approved it, but that was what happened, and Oklahoma City has not disappointed the NBA, the people of Oklahoma, or all of our owners and fans around the world.”