Royal Ivey soaked up the scene around him. The bronze chairs lining the gently sloping grass. The reflecting pool stretching out like a sheet of glass. The massive gates standing guard.
And in that moment, he understood.
The veteran guard had come to Oklahoma City two summers ago for something of a recruiting trip. The Thunder wanted to sign him as a free agent, but first, he wanted to get a feel for the franchise and the city. When Thunder general manager Sam Presti picked him up from the airport, Ivey asked what it was like playing here.
Presti took him straight to the Oklahoma City Memorial.
To understand this city and its people, you must first understand the impact of what happened on that hallowed ground.
Ivey felt it that scorching afternoon as he stood where the bomb had exploded nearly 15 years earlier.
“I was stunned,” he said.
His eyes moistened a bit.
“That's why every time I get to show somebody else, I take them there.”
Throughout this coming week, we will bring you stories about the runners who will take part in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon next Sunday. More than 22,000 have already registered.
Why are they running?
That is a question we explore every year, and what we've found is that every runner has a different story, a personal reason for lacing their shoes and hitting the streets. But ultimately, all of them are running this marathon because of the memorial and everything for which it stands.
Every dollar of every registration goes to the memorial. Without the marathon, the memorial could not continue its mission of remembering those who died and comforting those who remain.
Sometimes, we need a reminder of just how special a place it is.
How powerful, too.
The Thunder has made going to the memorial a part of new employee orientation, if you will, from the beginning. That includes players, coaches, staff and anyone else on the franchise's payroll.
“When we first arrived in 2008, we felt it was really important that we understood where we were,” Presti said. “If you're going to represent a community ... it was imperative that we spent time understanding the history.
“Obviously, the memorial is a gateway.”
Presti knew that from firsthand experience. He was the director of player personnel for the San Antonio Spurs when he spent a few days in Oklahoma City for the McDonald's All-American Game in 2004. A museum and history buff, he decided to go to the memorial one afternoon.
The impression was lasting.
Four years later, Presti was back in Oklahoma City as the general manager of the relocating Sonics. He was trying to prepare the way for the soon-to-be Thunder while also thinking about the big picture.
“Our focus has always been on building a franchise, not just a team,” he said. “A big part of that, I think, is being part of the community and understanding the community in which you live and represent.”
No doubt that winning is the best way for a team to endear itself to fans, but on-court success can be fleeting. The Thunder wanted to sink its roots deeper than that.
To do that, the franchise's people needed to understand the impact of the bombing. The lives it took and the lives it touched. The scars it left and the rebirth it spurred.
That meant going to the museum on the memorial grounds, hearing the recording of the bomb's blast, seeing a clock with its hands frozen at 9:02, watching video footage from those chaotic minutes, hours and days afterward.
Then there are the faces.
Walking into the Gallery of Honor stops even the biggest, baddest NBA player in his tracks. There is a picture of every man, woman and child killed in the bombing displayed with a memento from their family.
The impact is profound.
A recent addition to the Thunder family toured the memorial a few weeks ago. Recently uprooted and relocated, she seemed stressed. Down in the dumps a little bit, too.
But by the time her tour was over, her entire outlook had changed.
“It changes a lot,” Thunder guard Daequan Cook said of going to the memorial. “When you know you're going to be here for awhile, when you know you're going to be in this community for awhile, there are certain things you want to know.
“Us going to the bombing gave us the opportunity to really see where (the city) came from.”
Plenty of other businesses with local ties send out-of-towners to the memorial. When our sports department was in the process of hiring several new writers last summer, we started asking candidates who had come in to interview if they wanted to see the memorial. Three said yes. One said no.
We hired two of the candidates who wanted to tour the memorial.
They got it.
And after seeing the memorial, they got so much more.
“Every time I go, I get a different experience,” Ivey said. “What went on that day was devastating to this community and to the state of Oklahoma.”
Maybe the heartbreak and the healing is why the Thunder guard keeps going back to the memorial. He's taken his parents, his girlfriend and several friends to the grounds. In less than two years, he's been five times.
While he wants those close to him to experience the memorial — the chairs, the pool, the gates — the trips aren't only because of them.
They're also because of what it means to Royal Ivey.