But the Cowboys never were leaving Dallas. What Bennett has wanted most was a franchise for his hometown.
“It's always been a big deal to Clay, since he became a young adult, that Oklahoma City got some kind of major league franchise,” Ike Bennett said. “Always felt like that's what Oklahoma City needed to get put on the map.”
Consider Oklahoma City on the map. From Bricktown to the Devon Tower, from the Oklahoma River to Film Row, Oklahoma City is a changed place. And the Thunder is the validation of that change.
* * *
Clay Bennett went out for basketball as a Casady seventh-grader. His coach was Virgil Grantham, a man of some note in Oklahoma hoops circles.
On the first day of practice, Grantham was trying to quickly identify who could and couldn't play, so he had everyone shoot two foul shots and would disperse the players accordingly.
Bennett shot one foul shot and was told to report to the wrestling room.
He eventually became a solid heavyweight wrestler and, at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, an effective offensive lineman.
“Clay was a pretty good athlete,” Ike Bennett said. “Always a big guy. He could have played some college football. He was pretty fast off the ball.”
Clay Bennett had a football scholarship offer from Boston University and an invitation to join the OSU squad as a non-scholarship player.
Instead, Bennett went to OU and left his athletic playing career behind. But now sports are his business.
“It's a privilege, it's exhilarating and it's demanding,” Bennett said of running the Thunder. “We operate in a very competitive landscape. All 30 teams have outstanding ownerships, gifted management and front office talent. The best athletes and coaches in the world. All at the same time, every minute of every day, on every front, doing all they can to gain any advantage.
“And that is exhilarating, because it's so dynamic. So many moving parts. Ever changing. I have found it to be the most challenging yet enjoyable professional experience of my career.”
Bennett sits courtside at most games, along the baseline near the Thunder bench. Truthfully, he'd feel more comfortable up in the suites, where the television cameras couldn't find him so easily and his emotions wouldn't be on such display.
But the intensity of NBA games, the wonder of feats by the likes of Durant and Westbrook, make the attraction too strong. The seat's too good.
In that way, Bennett's not so different from the rest of us. Seems like every Oklahoman has made a connection with the Thunder.
“I don't think it can be overstated,” Bennett said. “And it gets back to what we need most in this country and this world, and that is bringing people together, for a common purpose, for a common good, for a positive experience, where people from every walk of life can gather, in one location, and have a common objective of enjoying themselves, rooting for their favorite team and their favorite players in such a positive environment.
“I don't know where else in our culture we gather in such a way. So I think the value of that experience is virtually priceless, and it extends to not just the live environment in the arena. It extends to the community of fans and friends of the team who are watching games on television, listening on the radio, reading the newspaper, hearing about it, thinking about it, hearing a friend talk about it, but having a connection to it.”
Bennett thinks often of that connection and impact. When he gets a letter from a senior citizen, maybe who lives alone and whose winter nights are not so long when the Thunder is on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
Or when the tornadoes struck Oklahoma in May, and the Thunder responded with a variety of community efforts, including visits to the disaster sites.
“The connection the players clearly had with so many that were hurting and displaced was palpable,” Bennett said. “They brought smiles and reactions of true joy when meeting people who had just lost everything. They were thanking our players and wishing them well. Very humbling.”
* * *
NBA royalty comes to town Monday night. The stately Russell, 79, arrives to honor the man most responsible for making Oklahoma major league.
That initial phone call spawned a dinner. Russell eventually became an ally and confidant as Bennett politicked for a Seattle arena, even testifying with Bennett before the Washington state senate.
At one point, when Seattle life for Bennett was getting rough, Russell invited Bennett over for breakfast.
Russell was raised in Oakland, starred in Boston and retired to Seattle. But he's got a little of Middle America in him.
Russell's wife, Marilyn, was from Kansas. Bennett felt an immediate kinship with the woman who in 2009 would die at age 59. She cooked what felt like an Oklahoma country breakfast.
“Felt like home,” Bennett said. “It was an important time, it helped me feel better emotionally. From that time, we (he and Russell) have maintained our communication and have seen each other often. It's been a real joy to get to know him. He is a loyal and highly principled person.”
And so Bill Russell comes to Oklahoma City for an event that not only honors what Clay Bennett has accomplished, but celebrates what's to come.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.