It’s debatable which is the NBA’s newest franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Charlotte Bobcats.
While the Bobcats are the most recently created, the Thunder were most recently introduced to a new city. They have come so far from their old home in Seattle — both in distance and style — that they are virtually a brand new team; fans from the Emerald City wouldn’t remember them on or off the court.
But it hasn’t been a quick or easy journey for the Thunder to have come as far as they have; from 2006 to 2009, the team endured its fair share of trials and tribulations.
Before they made the trek to the Midwest, the Thunder were called the Seattle SuperSonics (or just Sonics, as they were better-known).
With renowned names like guard Gary Payton, coach Lenny Wilkins, center Jack Sikma, and player-coach Nate McMillan, the Sonics were regular playoff contenders in the 1970s and 1990s. In 1979, they captured Seattle’s first professional sports championship trophy, defeating the then-Washington Bullets in five games.
Despite being loaded with considerable talent and playing in a relatively weak division, the Sonics suffered during the 2000s, including a franchise-worst season with 62 losses. In Seattle, the team was known for good shooting but weak defense and a talent for losing close games.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, forcing the New Orleans Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City. The city enthusiastically embraced the team, hosting them for almost two full seasons while the New Orleans Arena was repaired and checked for damage.
After the Hornets left, Oklahoma City residents found that they missed the NBA game, and basketball commissioner David Stern confirmed that the city had proven itself capable of successfully hosting an NBA team.
Local business investors, led by Clay Bennett, approached the owner of the Seattle Sonics, Howard Schultz, and offered to buy the team, which was currently for sale due to clashes with the city over the creation of a new arena.
Seattle fans were outraged and grassroots movements began to keep the team in Seattle. Bennett insisted that he would use a year’s time to try and find a new home in the Seattle area; but it was later revealed that Bennett and his co-owners had no intentions of keeping the Sonics there, instead intending to bring them to Oklahoma City as soon as possible.
Many legal battles ensued, and in the end, the franchise was deported and the courts awarded the city of Seattle a fine of millions of dollars for the broken arena lease. The team’s old name, colors, and logo remained the property of Seattle, in case of a possible future franchise, and the team was rechristened the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In their first season in Oklahoma City, the Thunder improved slightly on the dismal record of the previous year, finishing with a 23-59 record.
With the noted yearly improvement of cornerstone forward Kevin Durant, who was drafted by the Sonics in the 2007 Draft, the team turned its bad fortunes around, and were competitively in the running for a spot in the 2010 NBA Playoffs. Durant was second in the league in points per game, trailing only LeBron James for the title.
Part of the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder seems to be their eager willingness to embrace the small-town, almost college-game, mentality surrounding the Ford Center. ESPN writer J.A. Adande recounted in a March 12, 2010, article that the players and coaches hang out together outside of practice and games.
Coach Scott Brooks half-jokingly threatens to lock his team out of the practice facility on account of their constant presence, whether or not practice is actually scheduled. And Durant’s mentality of “you try to win where you are” is going to aid the Oklahoma City Thunder as they negotiate his upcoming contract extension.