Oklahoma City’s Thunder BOOM! - 405 Magazine

Oklahoma City’s Thunder BOOM!

The OKC Thunder have struck the nation’s attention, and we in central Oklahoma are feeling the economic boom. With a fresh run at the NBA Championship about to tip off and the city gaining attention on the national stage, we take a look at the OKC Thunder’s arrival in, and continuing impact on, the state.

Oklahoma City Will Never Be Confused With Seattle.
While Both Places Boast Headquarters Of Companies Purveying The Equivalent Of Liquid Dollar Signs (Oil Here, Coffee There) The Cities And Their Home States Have Little
Else In Common.

Seattle, the “Emerald City” of the Pacific Northwest, offers mountain vistas, river escapades, oceanfront forays, flying fish at the Pike Street Market, tremendous historical culture and more, all within the confines of a state with a solid record of supporting Democratic presidential candidates and liberal-leaning political agendas. Pacific sunsets are worth the trip.

Make no mistake, though – landlocked Oklahoma City (no catchy nickname here) is no slouch. With a vibrant museum scene, great waterfront fun (with more still to come) on the reclaimed Oklahoma River, fantastic Native American heritage and cultural sites, low unemployment and an extremely affordable cost of living, OKC has more to offer than most people realize. Politically, Oklahoma is as red as the clay soil, staunchly conservative and heavily Republican. Prairie sunsets can hold their own with the best of them. Most people would give Oklahoma’s generally mild climate and about a million sunny days a year the edge over the rainy weather on Washington’s coast, too.

Despite some obvious differences, Oklahoma City and Seattle do have a bit in common. They are the largest cities in their respective states. Both have experienced tremendous population increases over the past two decades – OKC’s citizenry has increased by a whopping six figures since the turn of this century. Both cities’ populations come in north of 600,000, though the Seattle metro area figure is considerably larger.

There is one other thing the two cities have – or had – in common: a certain National Basketball Association franchise. In a story familiar to most locals, the Thunder didn’t materialize out of thin air but was moved here from Washington state’s hotbed of hip. While some basketball fans in Seattle are still sleepless (and a little bitter) about losing their pro team, their loss has undeniably been Oklahoma City’s gain.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

 Smack in the middle of the land often casually dismissed by coastal cultural elitists as “flyover country,” Oklahoma City spent its first century garnering little interest from national media outlets. Most outsider attention came in the wake of undesired events – notably the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and the horrific Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Things began to change when the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics were relocated to Oklahoma City and rechristened as the Thunder in time for the 2008-2009 season.

After decades of being identified mainly as a college football state, getting a sliver of the sports world’s attention on Saturdays in the fall, Oklahoma – and OKC – suddenly started showing up in living rooms around the country during the professional basketball season. What they saw at first was not very pretty. The inaugural season in Oklahoma got off to a dismal start, with the team losing 17 of its first 18 contests and firing head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Though it was hardly an auspicious debut, Thunder fans flocked to the Ford Center (now the Chesapeake Energy Arena) to support the new kids on the block. Under interim head coach Scott Brooks, the Thunder rebounded to post a record of 23 wins and 59 losses in their first season in Oklahoma. Brooks was officially named head coach at the end of the 2008-2009 season, dropping the “interim” from his title. After warmly welcoming the Hurricane Katrina-displaced New Orleans Hornets for portions of the 2005-’06 and 2006-’07 NBA seasons, local fans had developed a taste for professional basketball. With a team of their own, Oklahomans now had an appetite for more. Despite the Thunder’s rocky first season, the team sold 100 percent of the tickets available for home games.

Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

The Thunder faithful did not have to wait long for brighter days on the court. The relocated franchise brought stout building blocks held over from its last season in Seattle. Superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant played his first two professional seasons with the SuperSonics. All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and defensive wizard Serge Ibaka, drafted while the team was based in Seattle, made the trip to the heartland as well. Both players still occupy starting positions in Oklahoma City. Forward Nick Collison, drafted by Seattle in 2003, continues to be a contributor to the team’s on-court success.

Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti, another holdover from the Seattle days, continued to build around the nucleus through savvy draft picks and timely trades. Guard James Harden, drafted in 2009, added a scoring threat that helped carry the Thunder to an appearance in the NBA Finals after the 2011-’12 season (Harden now plays for the Houston Rockets). Forward Thabo Sefolosha and center Kendrick Perkins joined the team via trade in 2009. Both players fit in nicely with the team’s philosophy of playing tough defensive basketball. Sefolosha departed as a free agent after last season.

Subsequent Thunder draft picks Reggie Jackson (2011), Perry Jones (2012) and Steven Adams (2013) have benefited from the organization’s focus on player development. Jackson and Adams played significant roles during the 2013-’14 season, which ended with a loss to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Although the league championship has eluded the team thus far, the Thunder continues to take steps in the right direction. After failing to make the playoffs after their first season in Oklahoma City, the franchise has made four straight appearances in the postseason.

With two established superstars in Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder continues to court complementary players who can help put the team on top of the basketball world. It is a team built to win now – and well into the future. It is also a team built on smart money – Forbes recently ranked the Thunder second in the league in terms of player results versus player salaries. Only the Miami Heat ranked higher, and the rankings came out before LeBron James bolted South Beach to go back home to the North Coast. The team – and its fans – are getting what they pay for on the court. Despite playing in one of the smallest markets in the league, the Thunder is listed by Forbes as the 11th richest out of the NBA’s 30 franchises, just behind San Antonio.

That value is not restricted to Thunder fans and the team’s front office, either. Economists are nearly unanimous in their derision of publicly funded sports arenas as a generator of local business activity, typically arguing that dollars spent in relation to support of a sports team are merely drawn from other entertainment options. It sounds like a compelling argument. Many local businesses, however, would likely disagree with that assessment. In support of the latter view, we need look no further than the recent “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Restaurants, bars and hotels in Bricktown, just a short walk away from The ’Peake, have seen business boom thanks to the Thunder. With 41 regular season home games and deep playoff runs for the past several seasons, the team draws upwards of 20,000 people to the area over 50 times a year. Since the NBA schedule spans the winter months, the team draws people to the arena on days when staying home used to be the preferred option. When “Thunder Alley” opens toward the end of the regular season each spring, even more people show up. They don’t all have tickets to the game, but watching the action in a pub-and-grub near the arena is a fun backup plan for most. “For people who can’t get tickets, we’re the game-day host of choice,” says Brett Sundstrom, general manager of the Skirvin Hilton. “It’s always more fun to watch the game with a bunch of friends and other fans.”

Before the SuperSonics bolted from Seattle for the Sooner State, businesses near Key Arena, the Sonics’ former home, enjoyed a similar scenario. Although the venue still hosts concerts and other sporting events, a 2012 Huffington Post article reported that area businesses were slowly closing their doors. Economic impact estimates attributed to the Thunder range widely from a low of under $50 million to over $80 million per year. An estimate of the SuperSonics’ annual impact to the city of Seattle came in well over $200 million. While that figure is criticized as being grossly overstated, the impact on the businesses near each city’s arena leaves little to question.

The most recent data from the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce pegs the team’s direct spending impact at approximately $1.15 million per home game. Carry that out over the regular season and playoffs, and the annual spending spree easily eclipses the $50 million mark. That cash tends to come from all corners of the state and spreads out over the city. “Fans come from outside the area to watch the game and stay overnight,” says Sundstrom. “Our restaurant and bar business picks up with pregame and postgame traffic. Of course, there’s always a more vigorous postgame if we win.”

Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

Hotel traffic isn’t restricted to fans and friends. “The majority of visiting teams stay with us,” says Sundstrom. Hosting high-caliber NBA clientele involves a little more effort than putting up a couple from Cushing. Having grown up simultaneously with the arrival of professional basketball, the Skirvin has plenty of experience. “We’ve been doing this since the New Orleans Hornets were here on a temporary basis,” Sundstrom explains, so catering to visiting teams is “kind of second nature now.”

The Thunder boom has also been a boon to business for Dave Smith, owner of the Big Red Shop in Warr Acres and the Bedlam Zone in Edmond. Smith has specialized in selling Oklahoma Sooner and Oklahoma State Cowboy merchandise for over 50 years. “Business used to slow way down after the [college football] bowl games,” Smith shares. Interest in collegiate products might linger if the schools did well during the basketball season, but that well dries up after the NCAA tournament in March. With the Thunder, “Interest peaks in March,” says Smith. Thunder merchandise drives his retail business through the previously slow spring months, helping bridge the revenue gap between college football seasons.

Other intangible factors are harder to measure. During televised broadcasts, basketball fans around the country see Oklahoma City on display. Views of the downtown skyline, activity on the riverfront and other civic venues portray the city in a way that many outside of the metro have never seen it. The global superstar status of Kevin Durant has made him a household name in far-flung places. And he calls Oklahoma City home, putting the city on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

While it is impossible to determine the value of that exposure, it is most certainly a positive. “KD and the Thunder are a very welcome addition for what they do for the community and the class act they present,” opines Smith. In an era of glorified “bad-boy” athletes and celebrities, Smith says Oklahoma City is blessed with somewhat of a rarity. “We have a star that never does anything to embarrass the franchise or the city.”

Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

In a city – and state – peppered with “house divided” flags and license plate brackets indicating internal turf wars between those loyal to either the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University, the Thunder rises above the fray. College fans whose heartstrings are tugged between Stillwater and Norman unite in support of the state’s only major professional sports team. “One good thing about the Thunder is everybody is a Thunder fan,” says Smith.

This is due in part to Oklahomans’ fervent support of our own, but the heroes of the hardwood also get introduced to their new home immediately upon arrival.

Whether new members of the team come via draft or trade, one of their first trips in town is a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis, the team’s 2014 draft picks, stopped at the site on their first weekend visit to the city in June. The community engagement does not stop there. In fact, it is just the starting point, as players participate in community events at home, around the country – and around the world.

On a road trip to Memphis in January, several Thunder players visited patients at Target House, an extended stay facility for patients of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and their families. For players to take time out of their tight travel schedule to make such a visit is testimony to the team’s commitment to community engagement. During a preseason swing through Great Britain in October, players, team mascot Rumble the Bison and the Thunder Girls participated in a Special Olympics basketball game and held a separate meet and greet session in Manchester. These are people who “get it.”

Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

Players are not the only people reaching out. Team staff members volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build a home for a family in Moore who lost their house to the May 2013 tornado there. The team also sponsors the Rolling Thunder Book Bus, a traveling bookmobile that has made appearances at over 1,100 locations, mostly schools, and distributed over 87,000 books to kids for free. Autographed jerseys, game balls and other memorabilia are donated to nonprofit organizations for fundraising events all around the state. Even Rumble is linked with the greater Oklahoma community, his name having been inspired by a Native American legend born in the Arbuckle Mountains.

So maybe Oklahoma City isn’t Seattle. We can’t claim Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana, but Toby Keith and Garth Brooks aren’t too shabby. No Pacific coastline? No problem – we have more lakeshore living than you can possibly imagine. Cascades? No. Arbuckles – yes. Pike Street Market? Nope. Stockyards City? Oh, yeah.

Despite any lingering hard feelings about losing their NBA team, here’s hoping that Seattleites can take some comfort in the fact that they still have the National Football League’s Seahawks and Major League Baseball’s Mariners. Here in Oklahoma City, we are happy to report that the Thunder reigns – and the sun is shining.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Getting In on the Action

• The 2014-’15 NBA regular season begins October 28, but the game-by-game schedule has not been released as of press time. When it comes out, you’ll want to get your tickets ASAP. The Thunder continues to sell out on a regular basis, so don’t wait until the last minute to buy your billets. Visit nba.com/thunder/tickets, call 405.208.4800 or e-mail fans@thunder-nba.com for information.


• For everything Thunder-themed, visit the Thunder Shop at Chesapeake Energy Arena (call: 405.605.4306) or Leadership Square (405.227.1445) or shop online at nbathundershop.com.

• For Thunder goods closer to home, visit the Big Red Shop in Warr Acres (405.495.1130) or The Bedlam Zone in Edmond (405.418.2600). The stores feature apparel from Adidas, Cutter and Buck, Antigua and Sportique. Find everything from autographed goods to your very own Thunder yoga mat! Shop online at bigredshop.com.


Photo courtesy OKC Thunder photos

• Why not invite the team’s best girls to your next community event? You can book some or all of the Thunder Girls online at nba.com/thunder/thundergirls or e-mail thundergirls@thunder-nba.com for more information. Appearance fees apply.


• Team mascot Rumble the Bison can make your little Thunder fan’s birthday party a day to remember. Rumble is available for your next corporate event, company picnic or any other appearance (within reason, of course!) For information visit thunder-nba.com/rumble or call 405.208.4736. Appearance fees apply.


• The Rolling Thunder Book Bus is ready to dispense knowledge to young fans everywhere. Learn more about the library on wheels at nba.com/thunder/community/bookbus.html. To schedule a visit from the team’s lorry of literacy, go to nba.com/thunder/community/request_forms.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Photo by Carli Wentworth

Feeding the Best

After being arguably the best player in the NBA for the past few years, the league intelligentsia finally made it official at the end of the 2013-’14 season when it named the Thunder’s Kevin Durant its Most Valuable Player. Durant averaged a Michael Jordan-esque 32 points per contest, led the team through lengthy injuries to other key players like Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins, and scored at least 25 points in a record 41 consecutive games. MVP? No doubt about it.

Despite superhuman achievement on the court, Durant is undeniably (and, quite frankly, endearingly) human. So what does this guy eat? Popeye had his spinach and Superman had his … whatever is the exact opposite of Kryptonite. What is it that makes the “Durantula” so dominant? I caught up with KD’s personal chef, Ryan Lopez, to find out.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

How did you get involved in culinary arts? I was involved in a lot of sports growing up and I ate a lot. I started learning how to cook from watching my dad in the kitchen. I took an interest in it and wanted to see where the career could take me.

Describe your professional training. I grew up in Michigan outside of Detroit. I studied Culinary Arts at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, for 2 1/2 years. The chefs I worked with there shaped me, formed me and showed me what it takes to work in a kitchen.

What has your professional experience been up to this point? I worked in several different restaurants around Detroit – Fishmarket, Roast, Gastronomy, Prime 29 – and then was sous chef at a country club. I learned how to work with a lot of different foods. Like Fishmarket taught me how to prepare, cook and store fish.

Photo by Carli Wentworth

So how does someone become Kevin Durant’s personal chef? I heard KD was looking for a chef, and I actually tried out for him in Akron, Ohio. I made a few soul food/backyard barbecue style things and he enjoyed it. I came out to Oklahoma for five days after that to talk to Kevin and interact with him and his people. It was kind of foreign, but the people were nice and friendly. I had a good response to it and moved to Oklahoma City in October 2011.

What exactly do you feed the MVP of the NBA? We try to stick with things that are friendly to the body. During the season I try to stay in a straight line and try not to deviate. Plenty of fruits, maybe some eggs and fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast. Salmon or Chilean sea bass with a nice soy glaze and roasted vegetables for lunch. A lot of his favorite meals are on the menu at his restaurant, KD’s.

Does the menu vary during the off-season? We might deviate a little in the off-season. Kevin might take it easy for two or three weeks after the end of the season, but he trains every day. We might do a “cheat meal” and work in some homemade mac and cheese. If you make it, you can manipulate it to make it healthier than a processed version.

What are you shooting for in terms of calories and carbohydrates? Around 2,500 calories, which we might exceed with lots of carb intake for energy. I work in good carbs from things like sweet potatoes and whole wheat pasta. We want him to get his vitamins from fruits and vegetables.

Photo by Carli Wentworth

Do you travel with the team? No, I stay at home when they travel. I pack a plane-ride meal for him, usually lunch since they often fly out during the day. I’ll send something like a chicken sandwich, fruit and a bag of chips. A little better than a box lunch because I made it!

So are you gearing up to fuel another MVP season? Yeah – gotta do it!

Now we now what our resident superhero eats to sustain his strength. If you want to know what’s cooking for KD, check out Lopez’s creations on Instagram at chefryan22. Eat up – and Thunder up!