Sam Presti and Clay Bennett looked awfully somber Wednesday night in the Chesapeake Arena catacombs, considering they had just come from the pandemonium of the basketball floor.
Their ballplayers were adorned in Western Conference championship shirts and caps. Their fans were shrieking like schoolgirls after the biggest sports night in Oklahoma City history.
But Bennett and Presti were on a mission. Bennett, the Thunder chairman who once was the Spurs' rep on the NBA board of governors, and Presti, the vice president/general manager who earned his wings in San Antonio, were paying their respects to those they had conquered.
They exchanged hugs and handshakes with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and assistant GM Danny Ferry and coach/president Gregg Popovich.
Popovich, in particular, was magnanimous, patting the backs of the Thunder brass.
And Presti walked away with red eyes and lumpy throat.
My theory: Presti was emotional with his mentors, not because he felt so bad about beating them, but because he knew how monumental was the achievement.
Winning the NBA West is not for the faint. The NBA West is a closed society. An exclusive club. Only the stouthearted need apply.
Between 1998 and Wednesday night, only three franchises had won the Western Conference. The Lakers (seven), the Spurs (four) and the Mavericks (two).
Back East, they pass around the conference title. Nine franchises in those 13 years. Indy and Philly, New York and New Jersey, Cleveland and Miami, Detroit and Orlando and Boston. No franchise more than twice.
But the West is not egalitarian.
Which makes the Thunder's ascension to the NBA Finals even more special. And who the Thunder dispatched to get there.
The Mavs (still with franchise cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki). The Lakers (still with franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant). The Spurs (still with franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan).
That's why Popovich mentioned the “great, great stuff” of the Thunder's run. And Presti was clearly moved by the achievement.
“You have to embrace and respect these opportunities when they are presented because there is nothing promised or guaranteed,” Presti said. “Every season is unique, and you are not entitled to anything other than the same number of days to improve as the other 29 teams when camp starts each season.”
The West has been so stingy with its trophy because of stability. Its superstars tend to stay put. Back East, LeBron fled Cleveland. Dwight Howard appears ready to scram from Orlando. Allen Iverson wore out his welcome in Philadelphia.
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