Seasons of Sports
OKC’s home field advantage
Photos by Don Risi, Rachel Maucieri and Shannon Cornman
When it comes to sports, most of us have an attitude that falls somewhere between the performative disinterest of airily dismissing “sportsball” and showing up to a competition with no shirt, a painted face and a lungful of insults for refs and opposing players.
Some people genuinely don’t care and have never once referred to a franchise or its players as “us”; others plan their vacations around sporting events, make quasi-religious pilgrimages to venerated arenas, lose sleep over a loss or suffer genuine short-term depression at a playoff-run-ending debacle. Yet most of us sleep pretty well at night, even after our team loses, and the parents who scream at the umps at their 6-year-old’s tee ball game are a thankfully small minority.
Still, sports affect all of us, even if we eschew fandom: the arena paid for with public funding, the parade in the middle of the street, the taxes that support public school sports, the cost to public health of sports-related injuries and even deaths. We as Americans are not alone in this – witness soccer around the world, or cricket on the Indian subcontinent, and the proliferation of violent combat sports seemingly everywhere. Among the first questions we answer in childhood is which sport we’d like to pursue, if any.
In Oklahoma, at least in living memory, the answer had two categories: football and other. Yes, boys played baseball and basketball, and even a little soccer and wrestling, while girls opted for softball, gymnastics, cheer, volleyball, track and field, etc. But football was the dominant form of sports entertainment, even while Okie fans were forced to choose a pro team – Cowboys, Chiefs, the city of your birth – since we had no NFL franchise of our own. In 2005, the ship started its long, slow turn, though, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina brought NBA refugees to Oklahoma City. The Hornets arrived, and everything changed. Could our city support sports at this level? Could the NBA steal our gaze from Sooner football? The seasons overlapped about halfway through the semester, so how would that affect both teams?
We know the answers now, and overseeing much of that transition was then-Mayor Mick Cornett, a former sportscaster who was elected to the City Council while still doing play-by-play. Cornett, a lifelong golfer himself who dabbled in running and tennis, ran for mayor in 2003-’04, so it was during his tenure that the Hornets visited, stole our hearts and left. OKC then finagled a team away from Seattle, renamed it the Thunder, and has since been treated to some of the best basketball – at least by individual statistics – in the history of the NBA.
To get an overview of the state of sports, we talked to a sampling of locals, including Cornett, whose lives have been changed by athletic competition. The diversity now found in OKC is astounding, given the dominance of football for so long. That sport continues its reign, but other pursuits are creeping up. Admittedly, there are no opposition perspectives here; we went all in for the “pro” position. That seems permissible, given that, culturally, we’ve decided that a little bit of sports is good for all of us.
Former Mayor, Former Sportscaster, Multi-Sport Athlete
Describing his life now as “busier than I thought I’d be, and some days busier than I want to be,” Cornett said he is speaking around the world, mainly in support of his book The Next American City.
“The second edition comes out in January, and it includes a new chapter that Penguin-Random House requested,” Cornett says. “I’m focused on building a consulting business, and I do manage to get some golf in.”
Sports in his life has moved through phases: recreation softball in his 30s, running in his 40s and tennis in his 50s. Golf has been the consistent pursuit, and it’s a sport the former mayor would love to see Oklahoma City woo even more.
“We are one of the largest cities in the country without a major golf tournament,” he says. “We simply need a title sponsor, and it would only require one week a year of support, including fan support, which we could easily do in addition to our support of the Thunder.”
Speaking of the Thunder, with the sudden departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the team is faced with an uphill struggle to remain relevant in the short term, and the upcoming season looks unusually uncertain (by comparison; we’re talking about a team that’s made the payoffs nine of the last 10 years) for players and fans alike. Cornett believes that the city is in no danger of losing its NBA franchise, no matter how bad next season looks.
“We’ve sold out all our games, and the fan support is strong,” he says. “We definitely have long-term viability; like other cities – Portland and San Antonio, for example – the one professional sport model works well in cities of a particular size.”
He is less hopeful about baseball. Talk of a Major League Baseball team has sprung up thanks to the success of the AAA OKC Dodgers franchise in the city, but the scale of operations is much larger for an MLB team.
“At this point we don’t have the corporate base to support a major franchise,” Cornett says. “However, with some infrastructure improvements, a Major League Soccer team is a possibility.”
Goalkeeper, OKC Energy FC
A stadium for Major League Soccer would need a capacity of about 20,000 seats. The model requires a good-size fan base, but nothing like Major League Baseball, where the stadiums need a minimum capacity of about 40,000. The OKC Energy play in Taft Stadium with its 7,500-seat capacity, and as the only current minor league soccer franchise in the city, the hopes of the sport’s future rest on their shoulders, including those of Florida native Cody Laurendi, the Energy’s goalkeeper.
The team recently underwent a coaching transition with the departure of Jimmy Nielsen and the hiring of Steve Cooke. Laurendi was matter-of-fact about the changes, calling transition in professional sports “inevitable.”
“In that sense, it mirrors life,” Laurendi says. “Good pros understand that and respond accordingly. For me, that means showcasing my skills and strengths and helping the club make a good transition.”
Laurendi has played in Los Angeles and Miami, so his experience with soccer – which goes back to the age of 4 – is shaped by grander stages in larger markets. We asked him about the viability of MLS in Oklahoma City.
“My experience has been fantastic here, but I recognize that the city isn’t ready for MLS,” he says. “The infrastructure isn’t here yet. Look at cities like Austin, Cincinnati and Columbus. They’re pumping millions into the sports infrastructure because they see soccer, as an expression of the country’s growing diversity, is the future.”
Can Oklahoma City get there? “The fan base here is growing,” Laurendi says. “We have generational support now, and the trajectory is toward even more soccer. Highlights are readily available online and on television. The landscape is definitely changing.”
Radio Personality, OSU Alumnus, All-American Offensive Lineman
Soccer isn’t the only alternative taking our attention off football. Lacrosse has found an unlikely advocate in The Franchise’s radio personality Sam Mayes, who played on the offensive line at Oklahoma State from 2001-04 under Coach Les Miles. An All-American at the position, Mayes was drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, but a broken leg suffered during the Senior Bowl hurt his performance in his rookie year. He returned to Oklahoma and played briefly for the Tulsa Talons of the Arena Football League before settling in Stillwater.
“I made some bad decisions during that time,” he admits. “I had no path. I’d never before been told I couldn’t make a team. I was working at a par-3 golf course when a longtime OSU fan came in. He said, ‘Aren’t you Sam Mayes?’ I told him I used to be.”
The low period broke when he started doing a radio show weekly on Wednesday nights. It didn’t pay well, so he worked at Daylight Donuts, too. The schedule was grueling, but it eventually led to more radio opportunities. His ascent in Oklahoma City radio was rapid, largely due to his natural abilities, great voice, excellent analysis and two of the best teammates in radio: Colby Daniels and Cara Rice. In 2014, Mayes’s “Mid-Morning Mayes” was moved to the prime afternoon drive-time spot and became the “Triple M Ranch.”
Mayes has four kids in his family, three of whom are old enough for sports. The dangers of football are discussed openly in the house, but the sport is not demonized.
“It’s an open conversation in our house, for sure,” Mayes says, “but we also talk about playing the right way: head up, knees bent, deliver hits, don’t take hits. Be the aggressor.”
Mayes said he follows the NFL conversations about chronic traumatic encephalopathy closely, and he doesn’t think enough information is available yet to say with any certainty how CTE begins. “I’m not going to tell my kids they can’t play,” he says. “We don’t know enough yet. At the same time, I don’t necessarily trust the NFL to tell us all they’re learning in their research. I’m afraid they’ll hide things.”
In the meantime, though, there’s lacrosse, which Mayes calls the “best sport, period.” His girls already play, and he believes it’s an excellent choice for both genders.
“No other sport requires as many skills, and no other sport prepares you to play other sports as well,” he says. “Lacrosse requires speed, agility, footwork, endurance, strength, vision, intelligence; it’s the one sport football players should be playing in the offseason.”
Lacrosse has had slow growth in the metro, where football coaches have been slow to support the sport. Precia Barrett, whose son has played since third grade because of “a soccer coach who yelled a lot,” said that Capital City United Lacrosse has had its first player signed with a Division I college program this year. The league has functioned as a “catch all” for kids who did not live in school districts with active lacrosse teams.
“Girls can play with Endurance Lacrosse, too,” Barrett says. “We’ve not had the growth here that the Heartland League of Tulsa has had. Their football coaches caught on faster to what a great sport lacrosse is for the spring, and so the growth came quicker.”
Barrett expects even more growth thanks to concerns about concussions and CTE brought on by football, and the visibility gained from students being recruited to college programs can only help.
Restaurateur, Founder of 84 Hospitality, Collegiate Softball National Champion
Rachel Cope may be the only player ever ejected from a softball game by her own coach. “Some people called it a walk of shame,” she says. “I think it was a walk of rage. The bat may have slipped and sailed all the way to the dugout, so he tossed me. I’d been tossed by an ump before – I was an occasional head case – but being tossed by your coach is embarrassing.”
Cope brings that assertiveness and energy to business, too. She’s also still “an angry loser.” 84 Hospitality now has six brick-and-mortar concepts in the urban core, and Burger Punk near Paseo and Empire Tulsa are in the works. She builds a team, and then delegates responsibilities to the people she thinks best suited for a job.
“Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who never made anything I ever participated in seem like boys versus girls,” she says. “I carry that attitude to this day – whoever is the best player is who plays. I always want to be the best player.”
That was one of the first sports lessons she learned that was also a life lesson. Many more would follow. You don’t win a collegiate national championship at any level without being fully committed.
“My coaches contributed to the team’s success and my own personal growth in different ways,” she says. “They demanded excellence in different ways, but there were similarities. They didn’t congratulate us for things that were expected, which made the times they did congratulate us seem more meaningful. It was a different kind of positive mental attitude, a real-world kind. There were no participation ribbons and they made sure we knew that. That type of coaching worked for me; it doesn’t work for everyone.”
Sports don’t necessarily translate directly to real-world situations, but they often do. Students need to know in obvious ways that reading and math are more useful long-term than football or softball, and while talk of athletes being leaders is overblown – who, after all, is actually following? – there are valuable business and leadership lessons to be learned in sports done the right way.
“I have a lot of resiliency,” Cope says. “Most of that came from sports: losing when we should’ve won, winning when we should’ve lost and coming back from three ACL reconstructions are good examples from my sports career. There is no quitting when you own your own company or are the leader of your team. Fall, get up and try again.”
Growing up in Jenks, Cope was exposed to sports programs that featured female athletics as secondary to boys’ sports. Their girls’ basketball teams have been well respected around the state, but even their facilities were co-ed; most money was spent on facilities specifically for boys. The current focus on women’s sports is good for sports as a whole and creates an opportunity to talk about women in sports. Cope wants parents, coaches and teachers to help turn young women into successful athletes and even more successful community leaders.
“For parents, I’d say it’s important to teach your children about women athletes by making a point to take them to women’s sporting events, watching televised events and making an effort to listen to your children when they say they want to play softball and not do cheer,” she says. “One sport is not more acceptable than the other. Let them experience all kinds! If you own a business, sponsor a girls’ team, donate product, use your social media presence to spread the word. There are so many solutions.”