Thursday, June 14, 2012

Coming of Age

By Jonathan Lowe

It's been four years in the making. They received some time to learn the process. There might have been a couple rough patches, but their comfort level grew with each game. They've shown the resolve to withstand any questions of credibility. Now, in a short period of time, they're getting the chance to display their worthiness on the NBA's biggest stage.

Wait a minute ... you thought I was talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Close, but not quite. I'm describing Oklahoma City, the city. When the Sonics organization moved east in 2008, their young core of players weren't the only ones being ushered into the Association. The capital of our 46th state finally got a shot at being home to a professional franchise in one of our "Big Four" leagues.

While there have been moments to showcase the city over the last couple of years (first playoff series and last year's run to the Conference Finals), having the NBA Finals in your front yard is a whole 'nother level of attention. All the eyes of the basketball world (along with others) are focused on your fans, your highlights, and even your flaws. It's just as much a chance to trip on your on feet as it is to put your best foot forward.

In my lifetime, OKC has become the eighth metropolitan area that has introduced pro sports into its city's historical profile. The first time actually involved a team I could have possibly become a season ticket holder for. In 1985, the Kansas City Kings headed out to Cali and settled in Sacramento. The next introductions came three and four years later, respectively. In the second and third rounds of NBA expansion during the 1980s, Charlotte and Orlando had their chances to enter the world of pro sports cities.

The NFL got in on the act in the mid-'90s. After birthing the Jacksonville Jaguars during the expansion of 1995, the league oversaw the Houston Oilers' move to Nashville (now the Tennessee Titans) in 1997, beating the NHL's Predators by one year. "The only game in town" would be put on ice in 1997. The Hartford Whalers had been in the league for nearly two decades. However, with the last shift in a mid-decade relocation string, the Whalers slid down the Eastern Seaboard to the hockey hotbed of ... Raleigh, NC. And thus, the Hurricanes were adopted.

Three years later, hockey was at it again. Columbus OH is more widely known for that university that stresses using "the" in front of it, and they also had a pro franchise in the MLS' Crew. However, when referring to those main four sports, the Blue Jackets would draw first blood. In 2001, the NBA put their stamp on another city looking for a pro identity. Although there were previous ABA and USFL franchises in town, Memphis didn't get their chance in the more established groups until 2001, when the Grizzlies moved in from Vancouver.

Through all the shifting and growing the last 30-plus years have offered, each team has shown some modicum of success. Every one of the organizations has at least made the postseason in their particular sport. Jacksonville played in two AFC Championship games in four years (hosting the game in 2000). Sacramento fell short to the L.A. Lakers in the classic 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Going a step further, Orlando has been to two NBA Finals (1995 and 2009). The Magic couldn't overcome Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant in their two respective tries at the title. Meanwhile, after defeating the Jags in the 200 AFC Championship, the Nashville-based Titans came up a yard short of tying the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

However, the benchmark for the this group of franchises was set in 2006, when the Hurricanes stunned the hockey world by lifting the Stanley Cup (only less stunning than if they lost to the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers). The Thunder will try to match that achievement and bring home the second title amongst this group of teams.

There is a difference, though, between the Thunder and the other seven teams I mentioned. According to most, this year is opening of the window. With the core of this team consisting of sub-24 years olds, we could expect this area to turn into the new San Antonio of the Association. That would only mean more bright lights on the place "where the winds come sweeping down the Plain."

In hearing an ESPN feature story on the squad's connection to this city earlier this season, I rediscovered something. If you take the history of the state/territory, you don't find overwhelming positives. From the Trial of Tears, to the Dust Bowl, to the 1995 Bombing, this area has had its share of infamy.

I actually visited Oklahoma a little over 10 years ago with a group of my college classmates. While in the area, we stopped by the site of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. I remember the still air on that early spring day giving the site an air of gravity that could encapsulate you.

Now it's OKC's turn to give the country a taste of their better side. The exposure mainly appeared through the Thunder's efforts, but the team won't be the only item the city can offer viewers. That could help even more in the long run. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka can't play forever. But the impression that they leave could turn into something that improves the city's profile for years to come.

Until the time comes for the next generation of Thunder to roll into town, all I can say to the fanbase is, "Congratulations on your call-up. Welcome to the big time."

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