Thunder kindles mixed emotions

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comJune 21, 2012 

Maybe it’s a matter of maturity, and learning to be a less militant curator of grudges.

It has to be tougher for those who had been Sonics fans for four decades. But it still took a couple years before I could even watch Oklahoma City Thunder games on television. And then it was an endeavor accompanied by rising bile.

But as the Thunder faces imminent expulsion from the NBA Finals by the Miami Heat, I’ve discovered stretches when I’ve been able to watch games without yelling at the television: “This should be our Finals. This should be our Kevin Durant. This should be our team.”

For many of us, reconciliation with the NBA won’t gain full traction until Seattle gets a new team. But the price of continuing to boycott the Thunder would be missing some entertaining basketball.

It’s helpful, as seasons pass, that the team just doesn’t look much like the Sonics anymore.

As the best young team in the league, the Thunder certainly doesn’t resemble the 20-62 monstrosity of the final season (2007-08) in Seattle when new ownership was doing everything possible to scuttle fan support and earn high draft picks.

Interestingly, only one team in the league had a worse record that season – the Miami Heat (15-67).

Durant was a rookie then, an engaging kid of 18 when he showed up, a ready-made NBA scorer destined for stardom. He has picked up three NBA scoring titles while we’ve been trying to ignore him.

It wasn’t his fault.

The sad Sonics of 2008 allowed GM Sam Presti to use their high draft pick on Russell Westbrook, who never had the chance to play in Seattle. Westbrook is one of the most exhilarating and exasperating players in the league.

In Tuesday’s critical loss, which put the Thunder in a three-games-to-one hole, Westbrook scored 43 points in a stunning offensive display. But he also dribbled off his foot late in the game and committed a thoughtless foul in the final seconds that killed the Thunder’s chances.

He’s so quick that he motors from the 3-point arc to the rim as fast as anybody who’s ever played. And he’s a point guard who can hang around the rim and tip-dunk teammates’ misses.

And when you question his mistakes, it’s probably fair to remember that, like Durant, he’s only 23.

Actually, only one Thunder player triggers flashbacks for me: Nick Collison.

Collison and Durant are the only two remaining who played in Seattle, and Durant was here only his rookie season. But Collison was not only fun to watch when he played here, he also endeared himself to Sonics fans by expressing his disappointment in the team’s relocation.

The poor guy showed up in Seattle needing surgery on both shoulders and having to sit out his first season. But for the next four seasons, he played with hustle and intelligence. He was a good ambassador for a team that really needed one.

When the thieving owners managed to cut ties with Seattle, Collison told the P-I: “A lot of people say they’re sad for us to leave; they say a lot of nice things about me personally. That’s the toughest thing for me. We’re a part of the NBA; we accept this. But the fans are left with nothing. So that’s who I feel the worst for, the diehard Sonics fans who have been around for a long time.”

It’s hard to root against a guy like that.

So, Tuesday night, it was fun to watch Collison – now 31 – come off the bench and block a Dwyane Wade dunk attempt at the rim, and then score some quick baskets that led commentator Jeff Van Gundy to say: “What an impact he’s had.”

Good for him.

But during games televised from Oklahoma, all the good will and maturity comes undone. When the camera scans the crowd, right there in the front row on one baseline is owner Clay Bennett.

I can’t help but remember those hours in the Seattle courtroom, watching him testify, hearing him rationalize his stealing of the Sonics.

And that’s a vision that will take longer to set aside.

dave.boling@thenewstribune.com 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling

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