Over the next few weeks, Americans will be exposed, some for the first time, to the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder, who will compete for their first NBA championship against Miami. The series opens tonight, Tuesday, June 12, in Oklahoma City. The fast ascension of the Thunder mirrors the renaissance that has taken place over the past decade in the 30th largest city in America. Tonight will be the team’s 64th straight home sell-out. Basketball junkies and economists alike have struggled to explain how this team and city could be so dynamic, so fast. Not surprising, Oklahoma City’s growth has been gradual, even if it has gone largely unnoticed by those who call us “fly-over” territory. Basketball isn’t the only thing the city has going for it. In March, Gallup ranked Oklahoma City as the top city in America for job creation.
I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000, looking for the best place to start a career. Most of my impressive classmates left for greener pastures. The outward migration started with the collapse of the energy industry in the mid-eighties and continued through the 1995 terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh on the Murrah Federal Building. Beginning a career in Oklahoma City looked bleak. But I saw opportunity and found a few other like minds, realizing I was taking a risk. The risk has paid off. Today, Forbes recently ranked Oklahoma City as the ninth best city for recent grads to find a job, a huge turnaround.
So how did Oklahoma City grow to support an NBA basketball team? First, citizens decided to pass the MAPS projects in 1993, a city-wide temporary penny sales tax that raised $350 million for downtown capital improvement projects that built (among other things) the Chesapeake Arena, an 18,000-plus seat professional sports arena that, unfortunately, had no professional team to play there. The arena opened in 2002. Three times since, voters have extended the tax to make community improvements, including the complete reconstruction of aging public schools. Private dollars invested after the first MAPS tops $1 billion. On the private side, the energy industry does fuel the local economy, but in a more controlled and diversified way than in the eighties, despite depressed natural gas prices.
In 2005, an available arena and the pesky gusto of Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett led Commissioner David Stern to bless the temporary relocation of the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina. One community’s tragedy allowed Oklahomans the chance to support an NBA team.
The rest of the story is well-known. A local ownership group came together and after a contemptuous battle in Seattle, moved the franchise to Oklahoma City and renamed them the Thunder.
I count myself lucky. As the owner of a public relations and advertising agency that I started in 2003 and employs 30 people, I wondered if Oklahoma would ever supply the type of talent needed to grow a creative agency, or if I would have to bribe people from creative-class cities like Austin, San Francisco or New York to consider living here. I was initially selling a slower pace and quality of life. Of course, that line of thinking sounds so small-town now. My agency does work globally. Like our westward plains, we know the world is flat.
After a recent Western Conference finals game, the Thunder’s best player, Kevin Durant, said “Well, we never just thought that we were supposed to wait our turn. We always wanted to go and take everything.”
Oklahoma City has waited in line long enough. Win or lose, the city has stepped into the big leagues.
Stone is the CEO of Saxum and the president of the Americas for IPREX, a global alliance of public relations and communication agencies. He played in four NCAA basketball tournaments for the University of Oklahoma.