“Given the events of the last few weeks, I think it is important for all of us who love the Thunder to reflect on where we have been, where we are now, and mostly importantly where we are going,” began Sam Presti in an op-ed for The Oklahoman at the end of July.
The piece, titled “Looking back, thinking forward,” was published nine days following Russell Westbrook’s trade to the Houston Rockets that finalized a franchise altering summer both on the court and symbolically off it. In attempting to regain control of the team’s narrative after trades of Paul George to the Clippers and Westbrook to the Rockets, Presti reemphasized the inherent, myth-making bond between basketball and Oklahoma City. He also added a touch of realism in preparing fans for an uncertain, perhaps tumultuous future ahead in writing how “the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is transitioning to a new phase.”
The roadmap of Oklahoma City's recovery plan was laid out over 1079 words and 10 paragraphs. It could have written out on Apple Notes and screenshotted to the Twitter timeline, or unveiled in the captions of an Instagram post. Instead, that Presti published the piece in an online newspaper backed his sentiments with a sense of space and perspective while also reemphasizing his communal approach. One isn’t supposed to react how the Thunder have “parted ways with foundational players” without balancing it with how fans will “watch the rise of another great team, as they watched the rise of their rebuilt downtown.” The piece wasn’t so much basketball for sharing and content as it was basketball as a community service.
Though Presti addressed the inherent tension of building a sustainable team outside of a big city. While sports in small markets “create a set of intense memories through which individuals come together to form a larger community,” that intensity is balanced with how the Thunder “operate with significant disadvantages” that can only be overcome by methods of “thinking differently.” That outsider framing parts another layer of meaning into the franchise’s existence, and that supporting the team -whether they win or lose - is a show of one’s rebellion and search to overcome mainstream resources through long-term thinking savvy. The tone echoes Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that reminds investors that the company’s approach to growth runs counter to fast money, or in this case, the cobbling together of big-name free agents on short contracts at the expense of player development.
“Our managerial decisions...have been made from the viewpoint of shareholders who are staying, not those who are leaving,” wrote Buffett in his shareholder letter last year.
There are historic examples, both scripted and off-the-cuff, of NBA executives responding to player movement. From that perspective, Dan Gilbert was an innovator in setting off the modern day, direct-to-fan experience with his infamous comic sans letter following LeBron James’ move to Miami in 2010. And while there are obvious differences in voice and tone between Gilbert and Presti’s note (to start, compare the structure of Presti’s paragraphs to the one-sentence paragraphs of Gilbert), each letter was in response to a loss of a player that meant more than their stats on the court. Both Presti and Gilbert dug in their heels with an eye towards the future. Capitalization and punctuation aside, the statement “I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only: DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue….” shares similar sentiments from both executives.
But Presti is also quick to remind us that “the words ‘Oklahoma City’ are now known across the world, recognized for...an unbreakable connection between a city and its team.” Cynically, one could say that every fan base needs to believe in that unique connection between supporter and team. After all, a game of basketball takes place over the same 48 minutes, over the same four quarters, on a hardwood floor measuring 94 x 50 feet. Beyond that, what differentiates one team from the next?
Or else, consider the alternative, that a city’s passion for its team wasn’t born out of a unique bond between place, player, and circumstance but because that team simply won. Or that basketball in Oklahoma City didn’t actually have a special meaning, and that all sports fans behave similarly - with passion after wins, with anger and indifference after losses - anywhere in the world. Without that belief of a deeper relationship between city and franchise, does any team have a reason to exist outside of just winning and losing?
“It was like seeing a Super Bowl team sponsored by your local sidewalk lemonade stand,” wrote Sam Anderson last week while reflecting upon the 2012 NBA Finals in which the Thunder lost to the Heat in five games. Anderson was celebrating the paperback release of his book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga Of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding...and Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis which places the Thunder’s cycle within the historical context of Oklahoma City.
The cycle of grand ambition and subsequent failure are just part of the city’s fabric, according to the book. The only difference this time around is that there were no op-eds from executives on websites attempting to galvanize supporters during past booms and busts. Even as Anderson wistfully observes that no team embodied the destructive aspect of the player embodiment era like the Thunder in losing three MVPs through trade and free agency, there was already a sense of narrative fate that this story could only end this way, however perverse. That era may not have resulted in a dynastic title run, but there was truth.
Actually, did you know that Chris Paul played in Oklahoma City throughout the first two seasons of his career? And that the trade is an example of how life serendipitously finds a way of coming full circle. Paul took a more modern approach in announcing his excitement of returning to the team in an Instagram post. Presti also obliged in exclaiming excitement, though from his narrator’s point of view, a new Thunder era cannot symbolically begin until Paul is traded as rumored and all connections with the past are finally severed.
But the Thunder “still technically exist” Anderson reminds us. The team will play a regular season, with players, with points, with wins and losses. That is also the regenerative nature of tomorrows, of future booms and busts. Maybe the team drafts three more future MVPs - someone has to fill those empty spaces of superstars and potential eventually. If Boom Town explains how the Thunder came to hold its unique place within the timeline of the city, then “Looking back, thinking forward” explains how the team can extend the city’s story into the future, winning and losing aside. There’ll always be another story to tell, though some narratives have a way of writing themselves.