Oklahoma City Thunder: Clay Bennett's hall induction represents what OKC has become and what is to come

OKLAHOMA SPORTS HALL OF FAME — Oklahoma City now has sports heroes of its own. That's the great thing about Bennett's induction. It represents what's to come. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Boomers not yet identified eventually will follow Bennett.
by Berry Tramel Modified: August 4, 2013 at 11:00 am •  Published: August 4, 2013
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photo - Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team chairman Clay Bennett
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team chairman Clay Bennett

Clay Bennett sat in his Washington Athletic Club hotel room in the early days of running the Seattle SuperSonics, circa 2006. The phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Clay Bennett?”

“Yes.”

“This is Bill Russell.”

Yes. Bill Russell.

Russell had talked with NBA Commissioner David Stern and volunteered to help Bennett in trying to get an arena deal completed in Seattle, where Russell has lived since coaching the Sonics in the 1970s.

“We developed a very special friendship, well beyond our process in Seattle and the business of the team and the league,” Bennett said.

A few months ago, a phone call went the other way. Bennett called Russell. Bennett had his pitch all planned out. But barely before it started, Russell interrupted.

“Whatever it is, I'll do it,” Russell said.

What it is is the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, which inducts Bennett on Monday night at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The Thunder chairman, the man primarily responsible for bringing the NBA to town, will be introduced by sport's greatest champion.

Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles in a 13-season span, 1957-69. He became a basketball star, a societal icon and a hero to generations of fans, including a young Sam Presti, who grew up in Massachusetts and now runs the Thunder's basketball operations for Bennett.

Oklahomans never had heroes like Bill Russell. Oklahoma heroes were mostly stars of some other city, some other state. Mickey Mantle, Jim Thorpe. Even if they were collegians who had shined here; Barry Sanders, Lee Roy Selmon.

But now we have heroes of our own. That's the great thing about Bennett's induction Monday night. It represents what's to come. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Boomers not yet identified eventually will follow Bennett.

“I think it's exciting for the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame to now welcome our own NBA heroes,” Bennett said, “as certainly Kevin and Russ will lead the way for many Thunder players, coaches and management to be inducted in the future.”

* * *

Twenty years ago, Oklahoma City was a sleepy capital city. A home on the range. Nice place to live, especially if you were allergic to excitement, but you wouldn't want to visit there.

Stagnant population. Sluggish economy. Dead downtown.

Now, Oklahoma City has been transformed. Thriving economy. Rejuvenated downtown. Young people engaged in a variety of ventures.

A certain basketball team did not do all that by itself. But the Thunder has brought a spotlight to a city that now is wide-awake and bouncing off the walls. The Thunder was the vehicle for Oklahomans to express their bootstrap accomplishments.

“I think the team's impact on the city and state has been nothing short of transformational in terms of how it's brought people together and how it's connected so many from every demographic, every part of the city and state in a meaningful way,” Bennett said. “And for all the world to see. I'm very proud of our players, our coaches and our organization, for playing a role in that.”

Bennett's words are rare. For such a community leader, for a man who's been at the forefront of so many endeavors for so long, Bennett stays remarkably quiet.

Since the Thunder moved to OKC, Bennett has gone years at a time without talking to the media.

Scars in Seattle, where he was vilified when he began the process of moving the franchise, have made Bennett wary. But it's also his preferred management style; the Thunder is patterned after the San Antonio Spurs, who have one management voice (Gregg Popovich) and a chairman (Peter Holt) who seldom speaks. Bennett has Presti to talk of all things Thunder.

But Bennett agreed to speak to The Oklahoman in advance of the Hall of Fame induction. And it's clear he's thrilled with what has become of his hometown.

“I have always been proud of Oklahoma City,” Bennett said. “I have always been proud it's been my home, but there were those years when I knew we were an inferior place to live, compared to many other cities throughout the country. We did not have the assets and amenities that others had. And I had a desire to be impactful in terms of supporting our city and helping it develop and grow. And was fortunate with many, many others to have that opportunity and see some of these things come together.”

Ike Bennett, Clay's father, grew up in Oklahoma City and graduated from old Harding High School. Back then, NW 63rd Street was a gravel road; the city mostly ended around 39th and Penn.

“This city has really grown,” Ike Bennett said. “Especially the last 10 years. It's amazing. I can't walk down the street without someone stopping me and say something about it, knowing how proud I am of him.”

Clay was raised in Oklahoma City and attended Casady, the affluent private school in the north part of town. His family owned Public Supply, a door and window manufacturing company. Bennett married his high school sweetheart, Louise Gaylord, whose family owned The Oklahoma Publishing Company, which published The Oklahoman.

Clay Bennett became active in the Chamber of Commerce in his 20s; before he turned 30, Bennett had spearheaded the effort to bring the U.S. Olympic Festival to Oklahoma City, which seems rather quaint by today's OKC standard but was a huge deal for the city in 1989.

In the '90s, OPUBCO purchased 30 percent of the San Antonio Spurs; Bennett sat on the NBA franchise's board of directors and represented the Spurs at league meetings. And Bennett and former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick led an OKC bid for a National Hockey League franchise in the '90s.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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