I was perfectly content paying little or no attention to the NBA.
Oh, back in the days of Wilt Cham-berlain and Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Jerry West, clear up through the days of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, I at least had a passing interest in professional basketball.
But then all the stars retired (and, in Jordan’s case, unretired and retired again) and the NBA faded from importance in my view. Then the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” came along and I lost interest altogether.
The pros didn’t play hard until the playoffs, I told myself, and they certainly don’t play defense. And the season was too long.
But then Hurricane Katrina happened and Oklahoma City’s leaders, with a new downtown arena funded by the forward-thinking MAPS project, made a bid to host the New Orleans Hornets while that troubled city rebuilt.
So for two years they were suddenly “our” Hornets. Guard Chris Paul became our favorite player, a kid with a clean image who enthusiastically embraced his temporary home.
Then, just as suddenly, the Hornets were gone, back to the Big Easy. But then came Clay Bennett, who married into the Gaylord family and wanted to spend some of it to buy the Seattle SuperSonics and move them to OKC.
Then it happened, and suddenly “our” team was called the Thunder.
Suddenly I found myself caring about the NBA again.
They won only 23 games their first year, and we told ourselves to be patient, it would take time to build a winning franchise.
We were right, but it didn’t take nearly as long as we expected. In their second season the Thunder won 50 games and qualified for the playoffs.
Today, with this year’s playoffs slated to begin this weekend, the Thunder have their first division crown since moving to Oklahoma City, just beat the Lakers on their home floor and have a real chance to go deep into the playoffs.
They are young, they are long and they play like they not only love the game, but also like each other pretty well.
They also appear to love playing in one of the NBA’s smallest, quietest cities. Oklahoma City is about as far from Times Square, South Beach and Sunset Boulevard as you can get.
Fans are tempted to pinch themselves, since these guys are almost too good to be true. Kevin Durant, a lock to be the NBA’s leading scorer for the second straight year, can play inside and out, rains down threes from anywhere on the floor and runs the floor like a gazelle. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, Nazr Mohammed and Serge Ibaka all play key roles nearly every game.
And what the Thunder lacked inside, the trade for Kendrick Perkins has more than made up for. Perkins is going to provide the kind of tough rebounding and inside defense the team will need as the playoffs commence.
And you are just as likely to see the Thunder players interacting with underprivileged kids or wielding a paintbrush to fix up some elderly person’s home.
The Thunder have a great young coach, Scott Brooks, and one of the sharpest general managers in the game in Sam Presti. And the ownership group thus far has enough sense to stay the heck out of the way and let the basketball folks do their jobs.
The franchise’s only negative seems to be its mascot, Rumble, which looks like the very embodiment of the term “mad cow.”
I was perfectly happy ignoring the NBA for all those years. But the Thunder changed all that. Excuse me, that should be, our Thunder.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.