To a native Oklahoman, almost to a man, there is nothing easier to spot in all the world than a foreigner. The alien in question need not be of far-flung descent to prick up an Okie’s ears; be you from Dubai or Des Moines, you will soon notice your new disarmingly talkative acquaintance plying you with subtle questions about your origins, his eyebrows rising slightly with your every added “g” and dropped “r” at the end of your answers.
What Okies choose to do with this information once we’ve obtained it varies as widely between us as it does with folks anywhere else. What doesn’t vary is the reason we all possess the ability. We come by it honestly, the same way a dog hit by a car never goes near the highway again. We can’t spot you because we think less of you. We can spot you because we have all grown up knowing what you have thought of us.
People’s eyes filled with sympathy when we used to tell them where we were from. They’d actually say, “I’m sorry.” “You poor people,” they’d say, “you’ve been through so much.” We had been through so much. For a state known for the better part of the 20th century as either the place where they manufactured OU football or a giant gingham-covered square dance, Okies under 40 have been witness to carnage in their lifetimes on par with residents of Northern Ireland. Between wrath-of-God tornados and domestic terrorism, we learned to cringe at the sight of our state’s name flashed on the national news, to shudder at the question, “did you hear what happened?” We were a people steeped in woe. And worse yet, braced for it.
But then, like an August snowstorm, a freakish, miraculous gift: Oklahoma City got a professional basketball team. And not just any team–maybe the most perfectly suited group of professional athletes ever assembled for a particular market. Young, insanely hard-working model citizens who hugged their mothers on the sidelines and led locker room Bible studies, it was if the entire roster was genetically engineered to appeal to Okie sports fans. Slogging through that first 23-win season was no big deal. We were just happy, and to be honest, stunned that they were here.
We hadn’t seen “happy” yet, though, because the next season, the Thunder started to win, and win big. It’s conventional wisdom in the NBA that the maturation of any particular team is an excruciatingly slow process. Years can pass before teams grab the next rung of a playoff ladder, if they continue to make the playoffs at all. The Thunder, however, seemed to leap entire decades’ worth of conventional wisdom in a single bound, doubling their win total in their second season and storming into the Western Conference Finals the next. By their fourth season, after dispatching three out of the four previous NBA champions on their way to the Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder were arguably the best young team in the NBA, one that was poised to dominate the West for years to come.
Happier than the winning, though, was the genuine love that developed between this small town and our boys. We got to know these guys. We saw them not only beat hell from the Lakers and the Heat and the Knicks, we saw them volunteering at elementary schools and food drives and fundraisers. We came to understand that these young men weren’t biding their time in some dusty outpost they’d been assigned to, playing out their contract until they could jump to somewhere, anywhere, else. They liked it here. They liked us. And, maybe more importantly, they were like us. We saw ourselves in the way Russell Westbrook threw his body into the trees again and again, screaming as he crashed into the floor, only to pick himself up, again and again, grinning. We adored the fact that our starting shooting guard was the worst shot on the team, because it was Thabo Sefolosha’s unflinching defense that was a thing of beauty to an Okie. We all reveled in the knowledge that Nick Collison led the league in charges drawn. Kevin Durant was admired for winning the scoring title three years in a row; he was loved because he did it with the grace and humility of Jimmy Stewart. These guys were playing for us now, because we saw ourselves in the way they played. What we cheered in these men were the things we loved about ourselves, the qualities that we always knew we possessed. What we cheered in them were the things we wanted you to know about us all along.
So, we cheer. We cheer louder and longer and with more love in our hearts than any other dump in the league because this team is ours. We cheer and every CEO and high-powered lawyer and local celebrity with a courtside seat puts on the free T-shirt, just like the janitor in Loud City who’s hoarse the next day at work when he tells his buddies about the game. We cheer and we say “thank you” and “good game” to our boys when we see them at the mall or in Bricktown or the Paseo on a First Friday. We cheer and we fly our flags. We cheer and we wear fake beards. We cheer because they are the best version of who we always were.
We love seeing our city on the news now. “Did you hear what happened?” doesn’t make us shudder now; it makes us think KD dropped 50 on the Lakers. Live shots of our new, beautiful city at night, between the absolute Renaissance of public art projects and the county-sized population of Thunder Alley, give us chills of pride. We are one, and we are showing you our best face now. We are one, and we want you to see us for who we are. We’ve always been one, and we always will be. The Thunder just made everybody stand up and cheer about it. We’ve all been waiting a long, long time for that. And it feels so damn good.