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.
But the Lakers, Spurs and Mavs have remained solid with marquee talent and the core around it. Systems remain in place. A culture is established, be it the dogged professionalism in San Antone or the showtime feel in LA.
Such stability and sustainability closes the door to worthy teams. The Rasheed Wallace Blazers. The Chris Webber Kings. The Kevin Garnett Timberwolves. The Steve Nash Suns. The Deron Williams Jazz. The Carmelo Nuggets.
All reached the West finals. None advanced.
Until the Kevin Durant Thunder. Which is why Presti and Bennett weren't the only emotional members of the franchise.
Durant was particularly moved, and the end-of-series embraces between the Spurs and Thunder seemed more than the standard pleasantries. Durant and Duncan shared a moment together in what appeared to be a ceremonial bequeathing of the crown.
“He just told me congrats and good luck,” Durant said. “I respect Tim Duncan and the whole organization so much. You know, just their professionalism. They do things the right way. They play the game the right way. They're a family, and that's something that we kind of try to model here, as well.
“It just felt good for somebody of that stature with that many championship rings to recognize us that way, and it also felt good to come out there and get a win against them.”
Of course, the expected course is for the Thunder to get many more. Presti's caution is well-noted, but the Thunder's youth appears to signal a new era in the NBA West.
“They've got a very bright future, really,” said Spurs statesman Manu Ginobili. “When your best three players are 22 and 23, it's hard not to be optimistic about the future of this franchise.
“They are great. They have so much talent, and they are so athletic, and they've got a great front office. I mean, we know Sam Presti. He's a really sharp guy, and he pulled this basically out of nothing.”
From nothing to West supremacy, which as history shows, is not easy to do.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.