YOU watch the Thunder make a little Christmas Day history, or read that Kevin Durant is neck-and-neck with LeBron James for most all-star votes, and it's easy to forget just how remarkable it is that this is occurring in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder has established itself as one of the National Basketball Association's top teams and model franchises. Now in its sixth season in Oklahoma City, the team has won three of the past four Northwest Division titles, played for the NBA championship (in 2012) and appears capable of making a strong run at another berth in the finals this season.
Last week the Thunder rolled into Madison Square Garden and beat the New York Knicks by 29 points, the most lopsided Christmas Day loss in NBA history. Sometimes those sorts of stats can seem silly, essentially made up, but the NBA has been playing Christmas Day games since 1947.
The next day, the Thunder was the focus of a sports cover story in USA Today. “Thunder Rolling Again,” was the headline, with writer Sam Amick noting that with Sam Presti orchestrating as general manager, and Durant and Russell Westbrook comprising “the game's best one-two punch,” the team looks poised to get the last laugh on those who felt the Thunder would slip this year. (Westbrook's knee surgery on Friday was a blow, certainly, but he's expected back sometime in February — the playoffs don't begin until April.)
Durant leads all Western Conference players in all-star voting, and he's only a few thousand votes behind James in the overall tally. This isn't a surprise, or shouldn't be, because Durant is a superstar on the court and highly marketable off it.
Yet none of this would be happening if not for the vision and dedication of city leaders two decades ago. Oklahoma City's mayor at the time, Ron Norick, helped steer and sell the original MAPS proposal, which included nine public works projects to be paid for with a sales tax increase. One of those projects was a new arena.
Oklahoma City voters approved MAPS by a narrow margin in December 1993. When money began to get tight several years later, talk turned to spiking the arena altogether. Norick's successor, Kirk Humphreys, led the push for a six-month extension of the MAPS tax to get all the projects completed properly.
The arena opened in summer 2002. Just three years later, after Hurricane Katrina made playing in New Orleans an impossibility for the NBA's Hornets, city leaders (including Humphreys' successor, Mick Cornett) pitched the idea of moving the team here temporarily. The NBA agreed and the Hornets called Oklahoma City home for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.
The city (and state) went bonkers for the NBA. When a group of Oklahoma City businessmen bought the Seattle SuperSonics and couldn't get a new arena built for the team there, they sought to move it here. But doing so would require upgrades to our arena. Voters agreed to pay for them by extending the 1-cent MAPS for Kids sales tax for 18 months.
The rest is history, and a testament to what great leadership and great community support can mean to a city.