The Oklahoma City Thunder have been in existence for four years, and they've just won their fourth-ever Conference Championship. They'll be commuting to Miami to play against the Heat. It's an amazing run for the Thunder since they've done so well so fast... Wait... Editor message... The Thunder was formed in 1967? Really? But that means they've actually existed for 45 years!
Now, make no mistake: It's truly impressive how fast the Oklahoma City Thunder, AS the Oklahoma City Thunder, were able to turn themselves into one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. Their inaugural season, they went 23-59 - which was actually an improvement from their previous season - and were one of the worst teams in the league. The next season, they more than doubled their win total, going a great 50-32. So yeah, not a bad turnaround, and they've been contending ever since. But no one has yet forgotten the past of the Thunder, who came into existence in 1967 as the Seattle Supersonics. They're one of those teams that moved, and it's still a raw bite to Seattle fans and other people who didn't think it right. Sportswriter Bill Simmons, a very knowledgeable NBA enthusiast, to this day still refuses to refer to the team as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead, he calls them the Zombie Sonics. So what happened?
Well, to answer that question, it's only natural that a little bit of background is necessary. And by a little bit, those who haven't read my team series before must understand that I really mean I'm telling a textbook-worthy history of the team. So here we go: The Sonics were formed in 1966, along with the San Diego Rockets. (The Chicago Bulls had already been around for a year, having been formed for the previous season.) The official date was December 20, 1966, so you can see why the date so frequently gets rounded up to 1967, which is the year the Sonics began playing proper. The beginning team featured All-Star guard Walt Hazzard and NBA All-Rookie Team members Bob Rule and Al Tucker. Despite that firepower, the Sonics ran onto the basketball court for the first time in 1967 for their first-ever game and got their asses handed to them by a blowout score of 144-116, and things didn't exactly get better from there. The Supersonics that year were one of those teams that everyone else in the league was ashamed to lose to, and that showed in Seattle's 23-59 record. For some reason the team saw it fit to blame Hazzard, who was traded to the Atlanta Hawks the following season.
The 1970's were an interesting time for the NBA, with the eminent threat of the ABA always there. Eventually the two leagues ended up merging, and part of the reason why was because Sonics owner Sam Schulman was so hell-bent on the merger going through that he said if the NBA didn't accept the merger, he would not only jump to the ABA but move the team to Los Angeles so they could compete directly with the NBA's Lakers. That was more a threat back then than it would seem to be now: Their star player, Lenny Wilkens, was named the MVP of the All-Star game in 1971, and ABA Rookie of the Year Spencer Haywood jumped to the Sonics after a lengthy court battle, and in 1972 the Sonics were officially a winning team. They went 47-35, and that mark could have easily been better; they were 46-27 on March 3 that year, but had a rash of late injuries which resulted in them losing eight of their next nine. Then management did that weird thing where it makes a trade of a good player - in this case, team leader and star Wilkens to Cleveland - and fell back to 26-56 before hiring Bill Russell to coach in 1975. Russell took the team to the playoffs for the first time, where they beat the Detroit Pistons before losing to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Russell left soon after, and in the 76-77 season, the team started 5-17 when management rectified its earlier mistake by bringing back Wilkens. In 1978, the Sonics won the Western Conference Championship, but lost to the Washington Bullets in the Finals. For 1979, Seattle was packing a loaded backcourt with Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, John Johnson, Lonnie Shelton, Fred Brown, and Paul Silas. They went back to the Finals that year, played against the Bullets again, and this time beat them in five games for their first NBA Championship.
With that core in place and a real title to their name, the Seattle Supersonics entered the 80's as a force that the rest of the NBA had to recognize. And for the first half of the 80's that's exactly what they were and how they played. But in 1983, owner Schulman took a look around and made a decision: His team was on top of the league, he was just a few years removed from their first NBA Championship, and he was packing a fantastic core of players. Time to sell the team, obviously! Okay, that's harsh; in all honesty, we can grant a pass for Schulman. In 1983, NBA basketball wasn't yet NBA BASKETBALL!!!, and being the baby among major sports leagues in the United States, wasn't yet beyond the point of having a lot of financial problems. David Stern wasn't yet in charge, the game rules had created an all-time bore, cocaine and me-first athletes were far more prevalent (hard to believe, I know), and the NBA was experimenting with the new three-point line thingie no one was sure about yet. It's entirely possible Schulman was just sick of waiting for the league to finally take off, but no matter what, the Sonics were sold to Barry Ackerley, and decline started there. Fred Brown retired, and he had been a mainstay for 13 years, including on the Championship team, so his number was also retired. Sikma was traded in 1986, thus cutting the final link to the Championship team of 1979. Although the Sonics had an All-Star Game MVP in 1987 and made the playoffs in 1989, getting to the second round.
The dawn of a new era began in 1989 when Shawn Kemp was drafted, and the next draft yielded Gary Payton. Those two guys had great talent, and in 1992, coach George Karl arrived, and the Sonics were back with a vengeance! Riding a 55-27 record in 1993, the Sonics played their way to the Western Conference Finals, where the Phoenix Suns needed seven games to finally dispatch them. The next season, the Sonics rode the lethal Kemp/Payton duo to the best-NBA-record 63-19 and.... Became the first top seed to ever lose the first round to an eighth seed when the Denver Nuggets beat them. Next year: 57-25, first-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The following season, the Sonics hit the hardwood with the best roster they ever assembled, led by Kemp and Payton, and with a roster full of All-NBA Second Team selections. Their record was 64-18, the very best they had ever done, and they did manage to beat their first-round hiccups and go all the way to the Finals. Unfortunately, they had a dynamo staring them in the face: Michael's Chicago Bulls. ( http://www.lunch.com/reviews/d/UserReview-Ch...atest_Bullfighters.html ) Not JUST Michael's Bulls, but a Phil Jackson-led Bulls team that also featured Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, a first-ranked offense, a second-ranked defense, and the greatest regular season record in NBA history at an ungodly 72-10. A lot of NBA analysts now try to use the fact that Seattle managed to steal two games from Chicago as proof that the Bulls were overrated, but these people do seem to forget just how deep and talented the Sonics were that year. (They also forget the Bulls that year only lost two games by double-digit scores as well, but we won't get into that.) The playoffs are a different beast than the regular season, and you don't make the Finals if you're not stacked. Seattle gave Chicago the best fight it could, but ultimately the Team of Destiny story played out full, and the Sonics were just another team failing to win a ring because it couldn't get through Michael and the Jordanaires.
While the Sonics continued playing excellent basketball through the next couple of seasons, their window was effectively shut after 1996. George Karl got pissed at management and resigned, one of their outstanding defensive players retired, Kemp became a major head case and was sent packing in 1997 due to a contract dispute, and Payton was traded to Milwaukee in 2003. It made sense now that the official team logo from there always contained "Seattle Sonics" instead of "Seattle Supersonics" 'cause this team wasn't super no more. The team surprised people in 2005 by winning their division, but that turned out to be an anomaly in an extended period of mediocrity. It was the only time they made the playoffs since 1998, and the last time they ever made the playoffs as the Seattle Supersonics. They were a lottery team from that point on, although they did draft Kevin Durant in 2007.
In 1995, the Sonics' arena was the smallest in the NBA and the owner couldn't get a quick influx of cash for an expansion. So the team was sold again. The Sonics were sold to an ownership group in Oklahoma City, and the leader of the group, Clay Bennett, thought up a new idea: Waste $500 million in taxpayer bucks to build a whole new arena in a Seattle suburb! In the meantime, in 2005, a big hurricane washed into New Orleans. I don't blame anyone for missing that story - it wasn't like anyone treated it like a big deal or anything - but it apparently caused their basketball team, the Hornets, to make a temporary relocation. Oklahoma City had been lobbying for a professional sports franchise for years to prove its arrival as a coming metropolis, but no one wanted anything to do with the place due to its, you know, being in Oklahoma. But Bennett's group successfully lobbied to get the Hornets placed in Oklahoma City as a temporary home - even had the arena built years earlier in anticipation of a team - and the Hornets were welcomed by the OKC populace with open arms. NBA Commissioner David Stern reversed his stance on Oklahoma City, so when the plan for the new Seattle suburban arena fell through, Bennett was able to say "Fuck this. Put the Sonics in a box; I'm takin' 'em home!" Even bought out the team's Seattle lease to do it early.
This resulted in lawsuits, of course. But the two sides did reach a unique compromise. If an NBA team gets placed back in Seattle, it will be allowed to pick up the name and colors and history of the older Seattle Supersonics. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be allowed to share the history of the Sonics, though, so when that new basketball team hits Seattle, we're going to have a unique situation in which two teams share one timeline until it gets split with a fork in the 08-09 season, when the Seattle Supersonics officially completed their transformation into the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team didn't lose anything from its final stance in Seattle, stinking up the league. But the next year was filled with a metric fuckton of movements and adjustments, and from the very beginning of the year, the kids with the Thunder were cohesive, and Kevin Durant emerged as their leader. In the 09-10 season, Oklahoma City routinely beat up the league's elite teams and finished 50-32. While they were dispatched by Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs that year, they did make a statement when they won the first game 101-96. The next season, they did even better, winning 55 and losing in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. In this past strike-shortened 66-game season, the Thunder went a whopping 47-19. In the Western Conference Finals, they dispatched a San Antonio Spurs team running with all its engines firing at full strength; the Spurs tied the Bulls for the league's best record, both teams being the only teams to be better than the Thunder. They had one of the league's premier defenses as usual, and their offense was finally putting up enough points to be fairly exciting as well. They even took the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, but the Thunder came back and swept the next four! The Thunder, in short, dispatched a team that had not lost a single game in the playoffs this last season. Now they've got their first conference title as the Oklahoma City Thunder, where they'll face the Miami Heat ( http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...mer_Heat_is_Brutal.html ).
The Sonics retired six numbers: Gus Williams, Nate McMillan, Lenny Wilkins, Spencer Haywood, Fred Brown, and Jack Sikma. Mostly, those are guys from the 1979 Championship team, and one wonders where the Gary Payton number is. Wilkens is also in the Hall of Fame. The only other two Sonics in the Hall of Fame are Dennis Johnson, who was the MVP of the 1979 Finals, and Patrick Ewing, played there for a year after the New York Knicks ( http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...he_New_York_Groove.html ) decided his age was getting the best of him.
I don't care what anybody says, the Thunder's snazzy duds are better than the gold and emerald combo the team wore in Seattle. Their current duds are said to take a lot of elements from the collegiate teams like the Sooners and Cowboys, which is a nice way to show their respect to their forerunners, since the Thunder are the first major professional team in the state of Oklahoma. As the Sonics, the team had a fierce rivalry with the nearby Portland Trail Blazers. As the Thunder, since this is Oklahoma and Oklahoma and Texas famously hate each other, you can expect rivalries to develop between the Thunder and the Mavericks, Spurs, and Houston Rockets. Since the Thunder played Conference Finals series against the Mavs and Spurs, in fact, those are well on the way. The appreciate fans, the people of Oklahoma City, have welcomed the Thunder as they did the Hornets. It might just be a honeymoon phase, since they've finally been recognized, but then again, did you watch the Spurs series? Did you hear the way those fans shouted? That wasn't shouting - it was booming, much like real thunder. These fans are ghost-riding like mad, and are on their way to becoming one of the most devoted fanbases in the country in any sport.
The Thunder have improved in their standings and in their value as a team. They've won over lots of new fans. Bennett's group clearly knows how to run a team. I say stick around, because with an exciting group of young players, this Thunder is really going to roll in the Western Conference.
It's impossible for me to think about the Oklahoma City Thunder and not think about the Seattle Supersonics but after seeing Thunder games on television, I really wanted to go to one someday. Well luckily for me, I had an opportunity to go. It was only a 3 hour drive from where I was staying in Texas. No traffic meant that I got to Oklahoma sooner than I thought (pun intended). I got a chance to look around the city a bit and the first thing … more