The Oklahoma Problem

Oklahoma is pretty terrible at being a state, but their basketball team is fantastic.

Like every other state, Oklahoma sends two senators to the United States Senate. Oklahoma chose, and has continued to choose, as its top legislators 1) a former doctor who took it upon himself to unilaterally sterilize women he thought might benefit from that (unrequested) Fallopian modification and 2) the foremost climate change know-nothing in American politics, a man with a legitimate claim to be America's most terrifyingly bad amateur pilot, and who resembles what the Thing would look like if he got his stomach stapled.

The state has had one of the worst methamphetamine problems in the country for a decade, but has failed to pass a pair of laws restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, which is to meth what milk is to ice cream, because the state government has caved repeatedly to pharmaceutical-industry lobbying. That same state government did succeed in passing a spectacularly trollish "personhood" law that was designed to establish a new beachhead for the Securing Women's Vaginas In The Name Of Liberty movement. That the aforementioned jokers were elected to public office by Oklahoma's voters, instead of being consigned to their deserving roles as hapless and unliked Applebee's managers, is pretty inarguably the fault of the people of Oklahoma. On the other hand, the fact that those same Oklahomans cheer robustly for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA's Western Conference champions and one of the most exciting and endearing great teams in recent memory, is not, to their credit, the fault of Oklahomans.

This is only even a question because the Thunder used to be the Seattle SuperSonics, and were relocated in a shady, shoddy, and generally awful manner. In a chain of events that reads like the plot of an overly programmatic Great American Novel contender from 2007, ham-headed Oklahoma petro-billionaires named Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon purchased the Sonics from Starbucks founder and grandiosely self-absorbed human TED talk Howard Schultz, did the absolute minimum amount of pretending-to-care PR kabuki required by a quiescent commissioner's office, and then moved the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City before the 2008-09 season. Since then, everyone has more or less behaved as you'd expect—bitter Seattle fans sneered at Oklahoma City as a podunk burg without anything even resembling a decent craft brewing scene; Oklahoma City fans were (and have sort of remained) passive-aggressive dicks about the whole stole-your-team thing, but also showed up to support what was then a frankly lousy team in numbers that Seattle couldn’t muster.

But those are the fans, and fans never profit on transactions like this. For the people who did, Howard Schultz presumably gave a bunch of actual TED speeches about inspirational leadership and probably wrote an unreadable airport book about "brewing up innovation" or something. Bennett and McClendon have continued to do what they do—be garish caricatures of pity-farming, PAC-stuffing, rent-seeking, brittle/bullying new-school fossil fuel plutocrats, minus the stupid Larry Hagman hats and with an unusual focus on making sure gay people can't get married. There is a lot here to dislike, in short.

But those Oklahomans did what Schultz couldn't, or wouldn't—they hired a forward-thinking general manager and trusted him to tear down a mediocre roster and build a championship-caliber team over the course of the multiple years required for that task. That GM, Sam Presti, smartly and swiftly did just that, with an assist from being able to draft human scoring machine Kevin Durant. He built a dazzling, endearing team of young and comparatively inexpensive players in three years, and that team plays fun, team-minded basketball that's as open, energetic and lively as the Miami Heat's style is self-absorbed, stagnant and soul-constipated. And so it was that Bennett found himself at half-court after the Thunder's series-deciding Game 6 win, looking like a pork sculpture in an oversized t-shirt and saluting the way that the Thunder had "united Oklahoma like nothing before."

And of course the natural response to Clay Bennett saying this, or anything, is to quietly wish that he suffer some sort of golf accident. But the unnatural response, at least for those disinclined to look favorably on this particular flavor of plutocrat, happens to be the correct one in this case—Bennett did his job, and his team has more than done its job, and the fans have given and gotten deservingly. That job was to win basketball games, not to unite the people of Oklahoma or even to delight fans coast to coast by playing virtuosic, joyful basketball. The politics and disingenousnesses and other off-court unpleasantnesses that complicate the Thunder's existence are no less real for this, but this is nevertheless and maybe all the more an admirable basketball team.

Everyone involved, it might be argued, is getting what they deserve—Bennett and Presti, the loud and loyal fans, the lively, lovable team. We can make this complicated if we so choose, of course. It's worth remembering how every one of the unaccountable moneybags involved in the team's relocation acted like an appalling turd in perpetrating its heist on Seattle. But then it's worth it to let the Thunder make us forget it. The magic of the Thunder is in how all that brilliant, brash modesty on the court, all that hard work and brave play, have made this all so simple and simply good, for everyone, deserving and not.

Previously - Welcome to the NBA Playoffs