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.
“I'm two notches away from tacky,” she said.
But she no longer thinks about leaving the city.
For some fans, backing the Thunder has meant overcoming logistical hurdles.
Anna Lou and Dale Caid, both 81, have made every home game for the last two years. Not bad when you consider their age. But consider their commute. Residents of Granite in southwestern Oklahoma, they drive about 290 miles round-trip to each game.
“I think they're the Elmer's Glue of the state, pulling everybody together,” Anna Lou Caid said of the team. “It's fine to call it the Oklahoma City Thunder, but I think it's the Oklahoma Thunder. This team belongs to all of us.”
Craig Downing, 46, also knows the Thunder road more traveled. For years, he drove 250 miles each way from his Panhandle home as a Thunder season ticket holder. On the eve of this championship year, with college tuition to pay, he gave them up.
That's when friends with tickets stepped in. He'll be going to a game this week with Scott and Brent Nichols from Beaver.
Carter Jennings, 30, is a third-generation Oklahoma Sooner fan who hates anything orange. Eric Epplin, 30, grew up in Stillwater and played drums in the Oklahoma State University marching band. The two became unlikely friends while working together as assistant district attorneys in Oklahoma County.
Both are also huge Thunder fans, who attended a few games together in recent years, including Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
“We have both discussed the fact that we love the Thunder for the simple fact that it gives us a chance to root for the same team and not be at each other's throats whenever sports are discussed,” Jennings said.
As Yukon captain of the Thunder Blue Alliance, a team fan club, Lisa Warren has seen how the Thunder is pulling people together as never before. The Yukon chapter has 161 members, many of whom gather for watch parties at Louie's Grill and Bar. She's also met fellow fan club captains such as Randi Cutburth, from Burns Flat, Makayla Redding, from Helena, and Cynthia Evans, of Ratliff City.
“I had to Google to see where these towns were,” said Warren, 52, a secretary in the education department at Mardel's corporate office.
Shirley Graham is no relation to the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, but she does preach the NBA gospel wherever she goes.
“Everybody who know me knows I'm a huge Thunder fan,” said Graham, 54, of Tulsa whose sales job with Crown Products Inc. has her to traveling to Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. “I convert everyone I can.”
As one-time Dallas Cowboys season ticket holders and college basketball fans, Graham and her husband, James, at first took no interest in the NBA. Now she can't imagine Oklahoma without it.
“This is a state team,” she said.
Thunder ticket holder Allene Bottom agrees. Bottom, 75, lives on a farm near Hammon in western Oklahoma.
“I think it's brought people from all over the state together,” she said. “I don't understand why they call it a small market, it's statewide.”
Need any more proof of the state's devotion to the team?
On the north edge of Oklahoma County, Mark's Short Stop, 2915 E Waterloo Road has erected a marquee sign championing a team member for the nation's highest office.
The sign reads: “Serge Ibaka for President.” (He really wasn't born here.)
Contributing: Staff Writers Bryan Painter and Gina Mizell