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Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC, Memphis still revel in status as major league cities

Elevated self-image. Community pride. A bonding spirit. You know all those things we're always saying the Thunder does for Oklahoma City? The same goes for the Grizzlies in Memphis.
by Berry Tramel Published: May 13, 2013

— Elevated self-image. Community pride. A bonding spirit.

You know all those things we're always saying the Thunder does for Oklahoma City? The same goes for the Grizzlies in Memphis.

Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals matching the Thunder and Grizzlies continues Monday night, and it's a series of cities with similar histories. Places something less than Gothams that revel in their relatively new status as major league cities.

“When you have a professional sports team like that representing your city,” said John Moore, president of Memphis' chamber of commerce, “and they have their own unique way to play, and it's kind of exemplary of Memphis' grit and grind mentality, it's a huge source of pride.”

Oklahoma City and Memphis are separated by less than 25,000 people in metro population. Of the 30 NBA franchises, seven are the lone major league team in town. Three of those seven — Thunder, Grizzlies and Spurs — remain alive in the conference semifinals.

“It's a unifying factor in a unique way,” said Rick Shadyac Jr., CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. “It's the team we can all rally around.”

Shadyac came to Memphis four years ago from Washington, D.C., which he calls a Redskins town, “but that's a little diluted. Now, people are passionately following the Washington Nationals. And I do. But it's different when you follow one team.”

Shadyac relates a story oft-told in OKC. How people of different races and different backgrounds come together to high five and cheer and buy each other beers for 2 1/2 hours while a ball team plays a game.

“Brings everybody together in a really cool fashion,” Shadyac said.

Unlike Oklahoma City, Memphis long had sought major league status. OKC got serious in the 1990s, when current Thunder chairman Clay Bennett led a group that sought a National Hockey League franchise.

Starting in 1970, Memphis had a series of teams in the American Basketball Association and various football teams in leagues trying to make ground on the NFL. In 1993, Memphis was a finalist for NFL expansion franchises that eventually went to Jacksonville and Charlotte.

Finally, the Grizzlies arrived in 2001 from Vancouver, though not until recent years have the Grizzlies emerged as a contender.

“The NBA has done everything for Memphis that I'm sure it has done for Oklahoma City,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It's raised our profile. They've changed our world, even in spite of some of those lean years.”

Moore and his family lived in Edmond in the late 1980s. “We've kind of watched Oklahoma City develop over the same time frame,” Moore said. “It's really impressive. We're both winners, in the sense that our brand is being waved throughout the world.

“We're both in there, showing the world what we're all about. One more arrow in your quiver to advance the growth of your city.”

Trial run

Oklahoma City had a trial run as an NBA city, with two seasons of hosting the Hornets after they were displaced from New Orleans. It went famously.

Memphis, too, had a tryout as a major league city. It didn't go quite so well.

In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee, with a new stadium promised in Nashville by 1999. The Oilers played that '97 season in Memphis' Liberty Bowl, with plans to do the same in 1998.

But the Oilers based in Nashville and just came over for Sunday games. Memphians were not thrilled at being a stopover for a franchise headed to cross-state rival Nashville.

Oilers owner Bud Adams was criticized for hefty ticket prices.

The Oilers drew five crowds under 32,000, including just 17,071 for an October game against the Bengals.

by Berry Tramel
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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