OKC Thunder forges community ties that reach past basketball court

BY JENNI CARLSON jcarlson@opubco.com Published: June 5, 2011
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Zack Hardiman is a youngster of few words.

Because of a developmental disability, his speech is slower and his sentences are shorter. But the 12-year-old doesn't need many words to describe his relationship with Nick Collison.

“Nick's my best man,” Zack said.

The Thunder power forward and the Edmond seventh grader are buddies.

The unlikely friendship started last fall when Collison did a community outreach event at Special Care, a special-needs school on the north side of Oklahoma City. That's where he met Zack. A heartstring was tugged. A connection was made.

Beyond the court

To understand just how deep an impact a professional sports team can have on its community, you need only know about the boy who needed a break.

During a season in which the Thunder won the Northwest Division and went to the Western Conference Finals, the team's fingerprints were everywhere in Oklahoma City. You could see them in the banners hanging from downtown skyscrapers or the flags waving outside car windows or the royal blue T-shirts popping up everywhere or the eyes drooping from yet another late-night playoff game.

Everyone was Thunderstruck.

But for thousands of Oklahomans like Zack Hardiman, the Thunder's reach goes beyond the court.

It extends to the students who took home one of the 15,647 books from the Thunder Rolling Book Bus. To the kids who received one of the 2,500 toys collected over the past two years during the team's toy drives. To the more than 18,000 children and adults who annually use the renovated Police Athletic League outdoor basketball court, a project done by the Thunder Community Foundation.

A large photo of the court's dedication hangs on the wall in Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty's office.

“I love that picture,” he said.

What he loves most isn't that he is standing with Thunder guard Eric Maynor. It's that they are surrounded by kids who are smiling ear to ear.

“All of these are inner city kids that if it wasn't for some of these programs would not have the opportunity to play sports or have a place to go,” Citty said. “You have these stars who have such a big influence on the youth within the community, plus you have the financial resources. It's the whole package.”

Citty is an Oklahoma City lifer. Born and raised here and a three-decade veteran of the police department, he has seen the best and the worst of his hometown.

He considers the Thunder among the former.

The team refurbished that basketball court, teamed with the police department for other charities, even honored two officers who were injured this past year, Chad Peery and Katie Lawson.

“The heart that they have,” Citty said, “it's just so good for the community.”

Proposal accepted

Pam Newby echoes those sentiments.

The executive director of Special Care was thrilled last fall when she learned her school would be getting a visit from a pair of players. The Thunder had invited high school basketball teams to submit proposals about community service that they were doing in hopes that it could partner with them. The boys' basketball team at Westmoore had volunteered at Special Care on several occasions, so it sent in an application to the Thunder.

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