With a nationwide television audience watching, Clay Bennett reluctantly took the spotlight Wednesday after the Oklahoma City Thunder's win over the San Antonio Spurs clinched the NBA Western Conference championship. After saying very few words, he eagerly passed the trophy to his basketball team.
And just like that, Bennett stepped out of the spotlight.
It was a moment that didn't surprise two of his longtime friends — former Mayor Ron Norick and professional sports consultant Rick Horrow.
“That's Clay,” said Norick, who sat behind the team owner throughout the series. “He doesn't like the spotlight. I'm sure he was very uncomfortable.”
Horrow and Norick acknowledged that Bennett's quiet, almost stoic stance was not very different when he took the stage at a very different moment 15 years ago.
It was before Bennett led a group of investors in buying the former Seattle SuperSonics and moving the franchise to Oklahoma City. It was before Mayor Mick Cornett wooed the NBA into making Oklahoma City a temporary home for the Hornets while they were displaced from a hurricane-devastated New Orleans.
It was a moment when Bennett had to face a city and explain it wasn't deemed ready for entrance into the major leagues. It's a tale that begins with a city dismissed as a “small, Southwestern town” making an unlikely play not for the NBA but a National Hockey League team.
It's a story of failure — one Horrow and Norick believe was a necessary first step toward Oklahoma City's rise as the darling of the NBA.
Norick, Horrow and Bennett had barely finished work on persuading voters to approve the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative in 1993 when they first plotted a plan to pursue major league status.
They understood the city had barely escaped losing its beloved minor league 89ers baseball team by passing the ballot, which provided money to build a new ballpark and arena. They also knew that while the minor league Cavalry basketball team struggled to stay alive, they saw continued enthusiasm for the minor league Blazers hockey team.
“I really wanted us to become a big-league city,” Norick said. “It was a hope more than anything. I knew the only way we could do it was to have the facilities first. And that was a real gamble. There wasn't any league that would consider a city without the facility.”
Bennett was an easy pick for heading a commission to begin the pursuit of a major league team. He came highly recommended by veteran civic leader and promoter Lee Allan Smith and earned rave reviews for his leadership in staging the 1989 Olympic Festival.
“He was very young,” Norick said. “But he was very mature for his age, and he was very savvy. People liked him. People respected him.”
Horrow also was an easy pick for Norick after helping persuade diverse interest groups to support an all-or-nothing MAPS ballot that sought to appeal to the arts, sports, business, academics and entertainment constituencies.
Horrow was acquainted with NBA Commissioner David Stern through his prior work with the creation of the Miami Heat and was good friends with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Horrow said his conversation with Stern was pleasant but provided no hope that Oklahoma City might interest the league. But numerous discussions with Bettman led Horrow to hope Oklahoma City might have a shot with the NHL, thanks to years of surprising success with minor league hockey.
The city's first shot at a team quietly occurred as rescue workers were sorting through the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995.
The NHL's Quebec Nordiques were doing well on the ice, but financially the team was struggling in what was the league's smallest market. After approaching the government about a possible bailout, owner Marcel Aubut looked for a new arrangement. Bettman quickly recalled Horrow's pitches for Oklahoma City.
“He was very impressed with all that we talked about in Oklahoma City, and was impressed with our persistence,” Horrow said.
The call was made just 11 days after the Murrah bombing, and Norick was not expected to be a part of the presentation. The pitch, while impressive, did not go in Oklahoma City's favor, and the team ultimately moved to Colorado.
“Gary always reminds me that was an incredible presentation for Oklahoma City with how much pressure they were under,” Horrow said. “To me, that was a defining moment for Oklahoma City. We always knew that Oklahoma City at least believed it would be worthy of the big leagues.”
The next pitch would be much more public as the NHL announced in 1996 it would expand the league by four teams. Norick, Bennett and Horrow called a news conference and launched a campaign, dubbed “NHL Now,” to gain community support for their bid for a team.
“I've been saying for many years this city needs to be a big-league city, needs to be a major league city,” Norick told an audience of business and civic leaders. “And I believe our best shot is the National Hockey League.”
Bennett spoke next; a group of investors was prepared to pay the $100,000 application fee, half of which would be refundable if the effort failed. The community, meanwhile, was being asked to commit to buying advance tickets and suites.
Oklahoma City was among six cities competing for the four slots. Oklahoma City had an arena ready to be built and investors ready to pay an estimated $80 million for a new team.
On June 17, 1997, Norick, Bennett and Horrow learned their bid was rejected by the NHL. Oklahoma City had a strong ownership group and arena proposal but couldn't overcome concerns about market size and television ratings.
The men were devastated — but Bennett delivered the news with the same steady voice that greeted the Western Conference trophy on Wednesday.
“They've treated us very fairly,” Bennett said in a news conference at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber offices.
“It was clear to us — and to the league, I believe — that our franchise was economically viable. The business operation of our franchise would have been successful.”
Looking back, Horrow recalls how he instinctively knew the defeat was just the first step toward a later victory.
“It was clearly an uphill battle,” Horrow said this week after watching the Thunder game on television. “We had a reasonable shot. I had been involved in overcoming the presumption of failure numerous times in my career, and I was emboldened by my Miami experience of nearly 12 failures in the derby before we finally landed the Miami Heat.”
Move forward, Horrow advised Norick and Bennett.
“We all understood this is a part of an organic, evolving success story,” Horrow said. “We just have to write the next chapter. Based on experiences across the country, these failures are a part of a normal franchise process.”
More flirtations with the NHL followed. Norick agrees those early rejections helped Oklahoma City in its eventual bid for the NBA.
“Rejection makes you sharper and makes you focus in on what they're telling you,” Norick said. “If they're saying you're not big enough, or there needs to be a different circumstance, listen to them — they know what they're talking about. I appreciate the NHL knew what to recognize in our proposal that fell short and told us.”
Norick, who stepped down as mayor in 1998, has attended every home game in the playoffs and will continue to sit behind Bennett as the Thunder attempts to bring home the NBA trophy.
Those early NHL concerns about Oklahoma City have been answered. Every Thunder home game during this past season has been a sellout. And ratings for national broadcasts of Thunder games this past year ranked third in the NBA.
Younger fans, Norick admits, aren't quite aware of those early failures. But those in their 40s and older remember the Oklahoma City that struggled to even keep its minor league status — and they are generous in heaping praise on Norick when they encounter him after victories such as the one Wednesday night.
“We are now on every news station, in every newspaper, on every radio station, and we're scrolling on the bottom of all these screens,” Norick said. “They were talking about it on ‘Squawk Box' on CNBC — the Thunder, Oklahoma City, winning the West. You can't buy that advertising. We are now viewed as a national market and not just a small Southwestern city as we had been viewed forever. We're now seen as a big-league market.”