For the Friday Oklahoman, I wrote about Sam Presti and the Thunder’s connection with the city and the state, after the Thunder’s tour of the tornado-ravaged areas. You can read that column here.
But Presti had a lot of extra stuff to say about the spirit of his adopted state. I thought I would share it with you.
* Presti said he considers himself an Oklahoman. I asked him if he considered himself a Texan when he spent more than six years in San Antonio with the Spurs.
“Each place you live is different,” Presti said. “Each stage of your life that you live, there is a different stage of development.”
What he means is, he was just a kid when he was in San Antonio. He left there six years ago.
* Presti always has said character was important when it came to selecting players, and he doesn’t back down from that. He uses Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as prime examples.
“I feel fortunate to have been around people and players like Kevin and Russell,” Presti said. “I’ve said time and time again that their character has helped drive the culture of our organization, and when they step to the front during times where they’re needed or adversity has taken place, it’s a demonstration of who they are as people and much less who they are as professional athletes.
“We’ve just been blessed to have people like Kevin and Russell that I think truly accept the responsibility of being ambassadors for this team, because they’re the first guys to ever wear the uniforms. They’ve grown, matured. That’s why you see Russell wheeling himself around (Children’s Hospital on Tuesday night), and why you see Kevin giving back some money ($1 million donation to the disaster fund). I can tell you all kinds of highlights Kevin and Russell will be a part of, but there will not be another highlight, a play, a move, or a shot that is more impressive or impactful than what all of us saw the other day. It was authentic.”
* I asked Presti if he’s recognized much around town.
“No, I live a very simple existence,” he said, which is not particularly germane to the question, but let’s give him some leeway. “The people that are most important for our organization are the players. They’re the people that wear our uniform and ultimately are clearly are our best ambassadors. And that could not have been more clear by the way they’ve responded recently as citizens of the community.”
* I told Presti I bet Hasheem Thabeet was great with people, and Presti confirmed it.
“Hasheem is a humanitarian,” Presti said. “He’s a man of a lot of different interests. One of the most optimistic people I’ve come across.
“Thabeet is a very fascinating person. If anybody could be pessimistic about things. That guy’s taken so much abuse over the years for not living up to expectations. But he’s the most optimistic guy. Optimistic person. Very interesting. Intellectual person. Good sense of humor. That guy’s going to do stuff when he’s done. I do believe that. He was good in these situations.”
* Presti on meeting victims who had lost their homes: “That’s what was so moving, was that the interaction with people who had lost so much, their thoughts were with others. Puts perspective into the situation, but also can ask you to take a strong look, the reason why people so feel special about Oklahoma City.”
An example of thinking of others: Everyone wanted to know how Westbrook was doing, in recovering from his knee surgery.
“Every person, everybody, was certainly interested in his well-being,” Presti said. “But that’s the reciprocal nature of this community and the relationship that has been established. It was an interesting dynamic.”
* Presti said he had never seen massive tornado damage up close. He said it was different seeing it live, as opposed to video footage.
“It’s certainly a different perspective,” Presti said. “Your senses are certainly more exposed and more in tune with exactly what it is you’re hearing and seeing and feeling.
“But as you come in contact with those individuals, you start to understand the level of resolve and your optimism about the ability to recover grows, and you can see the humanitarian nature of the people that make up this community.
“As I said before, it’s clear that the resolve, the resiliency and the faith of the people that have had to endure this is infinitely stronger than that of what has taken place. And that’s said with the utmost respect with the tragedy that’s occurred.”
* I asked Presti what he likes about Oklahoma City.
“I think the people are, to me, the thing that drives the city,” Presti said. “I think the civic pride that exists here is second to none. And I think it’s a city of purpose. There’s a sense of purpose that exists in Oklahoma that makes all of us proud to call it home.”
* Presti on the importance of the Thunder being involved in the community: “As an organization, being a community-minded team is incredibly important. Recognizing that part of being a professional basketball team here is giving back. We recognize this will be a long process, as the community recovers, but we’re prepared to see that through when we can.
“And I believe our players have a genuine appreciation for the people that have supported them and stand ready with the rest of the organization to do what we can and be part of that standard, because we’ve learned in five years that we’ve been here why that standard exists and why it must stand.”
* One of Presti’s favorite moments from the tour was when he recognized a woman who is a season-ticket holder. She was wearing a Nick Collison shirt.
“Very passionate North Carolina State fan,” Presti said. “Pushed a lot of Wolfpack players on us over the years. She lost her home. We visited a little bit, then met some other family and friends, and some other players.
“She said to me, ‘You know, I don’t know that I’m going to make that payment on my tickets coming up. And I said, ‘I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that. We’ll take care of that for you.’ We shared a moment there. Then she went right over to Russell, and they had a nice visit.
“It was another example of how small the community is. It’s an example of why we feel so strongly attached to the people who support our team. It brings perspective to the fact that basketball is irrelevant. We talk a lot about the games. Reality is, it’s about the people and the fact that we’re part of this community. You have to demonstrate that consistently, and that goes beyond the court.”
* Presti takes being the sole franchise in a market, a small market compared to most major league cities, seriously.
“Small market sports go beyond the sports,” Presti said. “That’s what makes working in a small market so meaningful. The work you do truly does matter.”
A franchise like the Thunder is an inspirational piece of the city. That’s why, Presti says, he’s so intent on building an organization that has an identity. Being community minded.”
* The Thunder also spent time in a command post with police and fire personnel.
“We spent a lot of time at the command centers with the guys taking breaks, working long shifts,” Presti said. “That was another part of what we were trying to accomplish.
“A lot of the police officers were the same that worked the arena. Lot of relationships there. Another illustration of small market sports. This is what makes it special. Like I told you, some people just don’t recognize, in a small market, it’s about sustainability so you ultimately are defined by more than wins and losses. You are going to be called upon to do things in the community. We are the team that has to do that. Tragic that it’s something like this. We’re not proud to be talking about this. It’s incredibly unfortunate, but I can say we’re here to help, any way we can. Hopefully we’re going to be here for a long time.”