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.