x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

When Oklahoma stole Seattle's thunder

Few in the United States moan about a move of a sports franchise from one city to another.

Oklahoma City Thunder have caused a stir in the NBA this season having reached the Western Conference semi-finals. Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo
Oklahoma City Thunder have caused a stir in the NBA this season having reached the Western Conference semi-finals. Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo

From afar, you might know little of Oklahoma City, but forgive yourself. Many Americans know little of it, and they live in the same country.

Situated in the middle of the vast land as the 31st-largest city in the nation, Oklahoma City lacks the tourist traffic of the coasts. For further inconvenience, it neighbours a very loud place known as "Texas". Oklahoma City neither preens nor much gets the chance.

Sport can lure attention, but for its first 119 years, Oklahoma City had no major professional team. Yet for the last four, it has had one, and for the last few weeks, that one looks like the best basketball team on Earth, while reinforcing a peculiar cultural reality:

In America, teams move around from one city or region to another, and everybody gets used to it.

In England, just for one place, Wimbledon football club moved to Milton Keynes, and people still don sour expressions over the wretchedness. In America, they're thundering in Oklahoma City, dressing in blue en masse, cheering on their Thunder, steadily forgetting the team pretty much just got through relocating 2,456 kilometres from Seattle in 2008.

Well, of late, forces have merged to give hoop-brained people the hunch the Oklahoma citizens might just cheer the Thunder all the way through a championship parade.

The team have a glittering star in the NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant, aged 23. They have outstanding perimeter support in the point guard Russell Westbrook, aged 23, and the shooting guard James Harden, aged 22. They shooed the defending champions Dallas Mavericks in a first-round play-off sweep. They spent Monday night destroying the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the second round.

Chicago might have put up resistance, but Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player, injured his knee, which finished the Bulls. The splashy, second-year Miami project of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh might turn up in the finals, but crucial cog Bosh suffered an abdominal strain that has become the lament of Miami.

The cagey Lakers might still eclipse the Thunder, but the Thunder make the Lakers look so slow that the creaking seems audible. The San Antonio Spurs represent a prime threat, and a title would give them five since 1999 and place them among the most overlooked near-dynasties ever. Yet doubt hovers because their central trio has ages of 36 (Tim Duncan), 30 (Tony Parker) and 34 (Manu Ginoboli).

Suddenly, the coolest team in the coolest American sport is in Oklahoma City.

So, you might ask, do people find this gauche? Isn't it vulgar that owners seek and find sweeter deals in other towns? Isn't it weird the Thunder plays in the "Northwest" division, confusing young geography students across the land? Isn't it strange that the Thunder get to display the 1979 championship trophy won by the Seattle SuperSonics, even as ownership agreed to avail the name "SuperSonics" to any future Seattle club?

Would it be lamentable if such a team won such a major title?

Nah, not really.

In the 2000s alone, the NFL has seen titles from a club that moved from Baltimore in 1984 (to Indianapolis) and a club that moved to Baltimore in 1996 (from Cleveland). The 2000s dawned with a title from the Rams, who moved from Cleveland all the way to Los Angeles in 1945, from Los Angeles down the freeway to Anaheim in 1980 and from Anaheim halfway back across the country to St Louis in 1994.

Among 11 hockey titles claimed this century, the cherished Stanley Cup has gone to New Jersey (formerly Kansas City and Colorado), to Colorado (formerly Quebec) and to Carolina of the American South (formerly Hartford of the American Northeast).

In the category of long adjustment time, the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 baseball World Series, 53 years after relocating from New York, and the Los Angeles Lakers won five titles between 2000 and 2010, long after relocating from Minnesota in 1960.

Why do they call them "Lakers?" Because Minnesota has a horde of lakes. Is there much jazz in Utah? No, but there is plenty in New Orleans, which the New Orleans Jazz abandoned in 1979 to become the Utah Jazz.

Hang around a few decades, and these things even start to seem to make sense.

However poignant, the relocation drill grows routine. One fan base, often dwindling, endures a sad phase. Another, eager to pounce, exults. The Darwinian struggle persists, and pretty soon, you can have a generation of kids dazzled with Durant but blissfully unaware his club ever resided in Seattle, or that some Oklahoman tycoon bought it and took it home.


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