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Thunder Love Unites a State

Basketball team bridges many of Oklahoma's divides
BY Phillip O'Connor Published: June 11, 2012

It has smoothed some of the “turnpike friction” between the state's two most populous cities, conquered long-held rural-urban divisions and united the bitter partisans who cheer for the state's two largest universities.

One fan called it Oklahoma's “Elmer's Glue.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder is helping bridge numerous divides — some deep, some trivial — that sometimes separate Oklahomans and creating a statewide sense of community unseen since the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

“That was a moment that brought us together in tragedy,” said Claire Dodson, 49, of northwest Oklahoma City. “This is a celebration. It's fun. There's just a sense of unity again. You don't see boundaries as much.”

That broader sense of togetherness was evident last week in the Chesapeake Energy Arena just moments after the Thunder secured a spot in the team's first NBA Finals.

Team owner Clay Bennett hoisted the Western Conference Championship trophy overhead as a raucous sellout crowd of more than 18,000 roared its approval. TNT basketball analyst Ernie Johnson asked Bennett to describe his thoughts after watching “this team do this in front of these fans.”

Bennett sported a Thunder T-shirt, a look that has become de rigueur among hoops-obsessed fans across the state.

“All I can think of is how this incredible group of young men has unified this city and this state as never before,” Bennett said.

Behind him, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and other Thunder players clapped and nodded in agreement as the arena noise swelled again.

Tulsa Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr. is less interested in discussing his city's sometimes testy relationship with Oklahoma City these days than he is in emphasizing a new spirit of teamwork between the cities, in part, due to the Thunder experience.

“Working together, we can accomplish a lot more than trying to do things on our own,” Bartlett said of lessons both cities have come to realize.

“We've gotten away from a lot of that snipey-type of statement we might have made several decades ago. Which is good. We all grow up,” he said.

The Tulsa mayor has had a courtside view of the pull the Thunder has had on his city's residents. A steady trail of taillights heads down the turnpike on Thunder game nights toward Oklahoma City.

He knows that in the stands, bonds are being formed between former strangers.

“That's a positive,” Bartlett said. “And in Tulsa's interest. It's just that familiarity with each other. It brings interest and friendship and relationship.”

“It really is Oklahoma's team,'' Bartlett said. “It's so nice to be on that stage, that high level of competition. It really reflects well on the entire state.”

In some ways, the team is helping some residents reconnect with a state which they had lost contact with and maybe even a little faith in.

Suzette Hardeman left Oklahoma City after high school. After getting laid off from her job in San Diego three years ago, she returned with no plans to stay long-term. “Oklahoma City was not the most exciting place to come back to,” said Hardeman, 46. “I complained. I was miserable,” she said.

Then she fell in love. With a basketball team.

Her mother, who owned season tickets, made the introduction.

“I became the Thunder fanatic,” Hardeman said. “I'm still here.”

Now, on game days, Hardeman dons a Thunder T-shirt, earrings and decorative pins. She has team stickers on her car windows and OKC flags that flap in the wind.

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