The Oklahoma City Thunder will travel to Turkey as scheduled this week for its preseason opener despite the country's ongoing violence and the highly publicized crisis in neighboring Syria.
Concerns over the safety of players, coaches and team and league personnel raised questions recently about whether the first leg of the Thunder's two-game European tour would be canceled.
But the Thunder is scheduled to depart for Istanbul on Wednesday, with the team left to trust that the NBA-mandated trip will be as secure as any other road game.
With a Sept. 6 travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State to U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Turkey, Thunder general manager Sam Presti was asked last week about security concerns abroad. Presti directed the question to the NBA. But not before calling it “a very fair question.”
Tim Frank, the NBA's senior vice president for basketball communications, could not offer clarity on what measures would be taken to keep the Thunder organization safe. Citing league policy, Frank said the NBA does not comment on security procedures.
“Obviously we are aware of the situation in Syria and are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of our teams and staff,” Frank said.
Following the team's first day of training camp Saturday, a mandatory security meeting was held for all Thunder players, coaches and support staff. The Syrian crisis was not discussed. Instead, it was said to be more of a standard security meeting, one in which NBA security personnel went over the basics of international travel. According to one person present at the meeting, the league is confident the Thunder will be safe in Turkey in part because of the successful experiences with prior events in Turkey.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, for example, were members of the Team USA squad that won gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Durant was named tournament MVP.
“Our team, the organization and the NBA itself are taking it very serious,” said Thunder guard Derek Fisher. “We obviously hear about (Syria) and read about it as players. But I don't think we're concerned that our ownership group, our general manager, our team would put us in danger. And I don't think the NBA would choose to do that either. So we have confidence in the process. But it's obviously a very volatile situation. We just pray that we don't find ourselves in a dangerous situation.”
Istanbul to the Syrian capital of Damascus is approximately the distance between Oklahoma City and Denver. Such proximity to a nation in civil war could pose a threat to a high-profile group of Americans traveling in that vicinity.
Tensions in the Middle East have cooled in recent days, however, with diplomacy replacing drawn out chatter of dire consequences that could have included U.S. attacks on Syria because of the country's usage of chemical weapons.
Still, with many Thunder players scheduled for promotional appearances and community events before and after Saturday's game against Turkish club Fenerbahce Ulker, safety remains a high priority.
“We're all grown men,” Durant said. “We know when there's trouble and when there's not. We all got to stick together and help each other out in that area. The NBA's done a great job with everything in making sure we're well-secured. So we'll be fine.”
After completing all postgame obligations, the Thunder is scheduled to leave Istanbul for Manchester, England. There, the Thunder will play its second preseason game against Philadelphia on Oct. 8.
“We're going to follow through with the security protocol,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “But I know (the NBA) has our interest at hand. It's not something at this point I'm worried about. I'm just worried about getting there and being able to handle the time change and be able to function the next day.”