They are gone but not forgotten.
Think of them as distinguished alumni of ‘Thunder U.'
They blazed a trail and helped build a brand — the Thunder brand. Everything it represents now is a credit to what they helped establish.
“All those guys helped us and molded us into what we are,” said Kevin Durant.
Kevin Ollie, Malik Rose and Joe Smith.
They are among the former players who helped shape the organization, its roster and its culture.
Kurt Thomas, Adrian Griffin and Desmond Mason.
They are the roots of the Thunder's character and commitment, both on the court and in the community.
Ryan Bowen, Morris Peterson and Mike Wilks.
They are the unsung heroes who will now be watching the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals.
But every one of those players can take great pride in knowing that their contributions helped manufacture this magical ride.
“They're a big part of where we are now,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That's one thing Sam (Presti) has brought in, guys that our young guys could look up to and see how they work, not necessarily guys that are going to be stars or high-minute guys or high-point guys. But their professionalism was going to have a lasting impact on our young players.”
When the Thunder didn't have an identity, and needed a few good men to help create one, they answered the call. When Durant needed a role model as a 19-year-old rookie, veterans like Thomas and Griffin showed him the way in Seattle. When Russell Westbrook needed nurturing, Ollie and Wilks provided lessons on professionalism even if they couldn't dream of possessing the starting point guard's gifts.
“We've been really fortunate to have had some really solid professionals help support and enhance the vision and values of our program,” Presti said. “The contributions of an Ollie, Mason or Griffin are enduring in the sense that they helped establish values and standards with us that have lasted longer than their actual tenure with the program.”
Presti says when he sees them now he has to remind those former players, many of them retired, how important their contributions were.
“What makes those guys who they are,” Presti said, “is that in their minds they were just doing their job.”
Their support never wavered, not in the face of losing and not when saddled by scarce playing time. And there were some lean years.
Thomas and Griffin played on a 20-win team in Seattle.
Mason, Rose and Smith played on a 23-win team in the Thunder's inaugural season.
Peterson, Bowen and Wilks barely played at all.
Not a peep of protest could be heard from any. They stayed grounded and remained committed to the greater good, even when it was clear that they wouldn't be around when the fruits of their labor would harvest.
They are now the distinguished alumni of Thunder U.
“If we do end up as the last team standing, they won't go unnoticed,” Durant vowed. “Even if we don't, I'll make sure people recognize them for what they've done for us and how they helped build this whole thing.”
The Wise Men
The Oklahoman caught up with five former Thunder players to get their thoughts on what it was like playing for the team in its infancy stages and how they tried to help the organization and its players grow.
Arrival date: Feb. 19, 2009.
Departure date: July 1, 2009.
How acquired: Traded by New York for Chris Wilcox.
Thunder stats: 5.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 15.5 mpg, 20 games.
Today: Philadelphia 76ers color commentator for Comcast Sports Net.
What do you remember about your time with the franchise: When I came in, it was top shelf, from the GM on down. Everybody was polite and it was a family atmosphere. That's one of the main things that stuck out. Everybody was just friendly and everybody got along with one another. It seemed as if they all were working toward a common goal.
What impressed you about the roster then: The practices, how competitive they were. Everything on down to the free-throw shooting contest was just about guys competing against one another. Everybody was pushing each other and making each other better. And I noticed how it wasn't really clickish. Everybody hung out with everybody. Whenever we did something, it was always together.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: Honestly, it was a culture there already that Sam and Scott and even the assistant coaches and training staff had already built. It was just all about winning. I know I fit right into that. The only contributions I made, if any, was maybe during the games I would have a few pointers for maybe Kevin Durant on how somebody was guarding him. But those guys were well on their way to where they are now before I got there. I just had a cup of coffee with them and went along for the ride for a while.
Arrival date: Aug. 1, 2009.
Departure date: July 1, 2010.
How acquired: Signed as a free agent.
Thunder stats: 1.8 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 0.8 apg, 10.5 mpg, 25 games.
Today: University of Connecticut assistant basketball coach.
What do you remember about your time with the franchise: The organization as a whole, particularly how they treated their players. They treated them first like people. They wanted to improve them as players, but most importantly I think Sam and the coaching staff wanted to improve us as people also. You had to have strong character to be on that team and also discipline and responsibility. I think they did a great job of establishing that environment, and everybody tried to fit into that.
What impressed you about the roster then: It was just talented. Plus, it was a lot of young guys. They are still young but they were really young then. And when you see a collective young group like that that has a respect for the vision and it wasn't about themselves and they were checking their egos at the door and they had an unshakable personal integrity about themselves and they accepted the responsibility on and off the basketball court, it was a beautiful thing. So you saw it shaping if they kept that same mentality.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: What I always really tried to push to them is just believing in one another and fighting and always taking the stairs and not the escalator, because our world is so built on immediate gratification. You want everything immediately. But for us to be a great team we got to take our time and we got to put the hard work in, because that's what successful people do. They do what unsuccessful people don't want to do. And if you keep doing that every single day it becomes a habit. And they bred hard work. I mean, that was a part of them. That was a part of us. We worked every day in practice and we loved each other as we worked. So it was a collective effort as a group. But I always wanted to push to them that the only way you achieve greatness is through preparation. And my preparation was solid each and every day.
Arrival date: Sept. 28, 2009.
Departure date: Nov. 25, 2009.
How acquired: Signed as a free agent.
Thunder stats: 4.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1 game.
Today: Video operations/player development coordinator for the Denver Nuggets
What impressed you about the roster then: Just how young the guys were and how hard they worked. It's been well-documented over these last few weeks how hard KD works on a day in and day out basis. But that was the one thing that I couldn't get over. Every day after training camp, no matter how hard practices were, he was out there leading the charge, going through more drills. He almost sort of guilted the other guys in. Everybody else is sitting there watching him go through the drills and then they'd jump in too. Before you know it, the whole team is out there doing drills. A lot of times guys will stay after and get shots up just to be seen. But he was really doing it to get better. And when you have a group of guys like that that actually wanted to get better every single day, and when that's led by your superstar, you can't help but do great things.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: I just tried to come every day and work as hard as I could. I knew that's what they wanted me to do was just to come and compete every day in practice and just make KD go harder, make Jeff Green go harder. I think Coach Brooks liked me because he remembered me back in Denver when I was with the Nuggets. He just loved the way I used to run Carmelo (Anthony) up and down the court. That's kind of what he wanted me to do. Just to see me out there doing those things, I think helped make them aware of how to play the game. I never took anybody aside and talked to them in certain ways. But I just tried to lead by the way I played and came to practice every day and played.
What do you think when you see how far they've come in such a short time: It's so fun to watch and know that it's something you were a part of, even if it was for a short time. I think I was on the roster 16 games and only played one. But being able to go through a whole camp with them and get to know them a little bit and see how well they're playing it's just great. It's been a lot of fun but not surprising because of how hard they worked on their individual games on a day-to-day basis.
Arrival date: Aug. 13, 2008.
Departure date: March 1, 2009.
How acquired: Traded by Cleveland in a three-team deal that also brought Desmond Mason in exchange for Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin.
Thunder stats: 6.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.7 apg, 19.2 mpg, 36 games.
Today: Free agent. Finished his 15th NBA season in 2010-11 for the Los Angeles Lakers.
What impressed you about the roster then: We had Jeff Green. We had Kevin. It was Russell's first year. It was a great young nucleus that I felt that after a couple of years together could definitely be a threat in the NBA because of their talent and because of their work ethic. It was a young team but they had some young guys that really wanted to get better and put themselves in the gym almost 24 hours a day to work on their games. You could tell then that things were about to be good.
When did you know this franchise was on the right track: They were bringing all the right pieces in. They brought in Kevin, they brought in Russell, they were bringing in some veterans to kind of bring them along and help the coaches teach them the game. Early in the year, we lost P.J. Carlesimo and that's when Scott Brooks became the head coach. And from that point on, when he took over you could tell that it was a big attitude change on the floor and in that locker room.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: When I was there, I had been through all types of situations. I had been on winning teams. I had been on losing teams and mediocre teams. That first year we were there we struggled pretty bad. But my thing was to not only be an example on the floor but also try and help the younger guys keep their heads into the game and stay focused on a night-to-night basis and not worry about the record at that moment but just work on getting better as players individually. The good thing about it was that we had a good group of young guys that listened and respected me enough to listen to my input. That made my job easy when I was there. The only tough thing about it was trying to get the wins on the board. But everybody kept playing hard no matter what the record looked like.
Arrival date: Aug. 13, 2008.
Departure date: July 1, 2009.
How acquired: Traded by Milwaukee in a three-team deal that also brought Joe Smith in exchange for Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin.
Thunder stats: 7.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.2 apg, 27.3 mpg, 39 games.
Today: Oklahoma City businessman and artist.
When did you know this franchise was on the right track: I knew it was heading in the right direction after last season. When you saw the way the guys were playing last season, I think in one year Kevin really jumped from a maturity standpoint and being a leader on the team. I thought that set the tone because I knew his work ethic. And when you have your best player in the gym all the time, there early and leaving late, everybody else can be held accountable because he's putting in the work and putting in the time.
How did you try to impart wisdom onto the younger players: I just tried to use some of my experiences to pass along to those guys. One thing I really tried to do with the young guys when I played is talk to them about what life was going to be like after basketball, saving money, making good decisions. Playing basketball was easy. Most guys have been doing that their whole lives. But I just tried to pass along things that guys gave me that helped lead me in the right direction. I wasn't ever a bar or club type of guy. What I did was I always went out and had a good dinner in cities. I always tried to invite the young guys along and pay for dinner and really just sit down and hang with them and talk about our experiences and have a good time. So for me, it was trying to lead by example from that standpoint away from the court, trying to help guys put themselves in better positions by avoiding temptations.
What do you think when you see how far they've come in such a short time: I think it's a good thing for the young guys because they're getting a lot of experience in high-level games and the stress levels are high. But these guys are really holding their own. I watch then and they get down 10 points or maybe even 15 points and it doesn't really bother them that much because they've got a focus. And I think Scott is a big part of that. When you listen to his huddles, he doesn't seem nervous, he seems calm and positive all the time.