The Wise Men of Thunder U: Players like Desmond Mason, Kevin Ollie, Malik Rose helped mold OKC franchise
They might not still be playing for the Thunder, but a group of veterans helped establish the team's identity and lead the way for young stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
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.
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“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.