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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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Thunder Road

Oklahoma City lost more than just a basketball player when Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors. A new era has dawned not just for the team, but for fans’ relationship with the city, the franchise, and OKC’s latest leading man.

They say Kevin Durant used to sit right there. Back in the corner, just on the other side of the fire pit here at Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce Grill. Once, the former Longhorn showed up in a UT shirt for the Oklahoma-Texas football game, the only spot of burnt orange in a bar full of Sooner crimson. Another time, he rolled through the door in his wheelchair while rehabbing his broken foot, politely excusing the waiters who nearly tripped over his multimillion-dollar leg. Most often, though, he wandered in after Thunder wins and sat, surrounded by friends or family, unobtrusive and undisturbed. Before he left, someone with him would take care of the bill. This was the picture of Durant that Oklahoma City always held in its collective mind: sitting postgame at his neighborhood sports bar, ordering from a menu that included the 2nd Street Steak Ums and the Okie Chicken Wrap.

He’s here now — at least he is on TV. It is Thursday, November 3, and all televisions are turned to the game in Oakland between the Thunder and Durant’s new team, the Golden State Warriors. It is not going well.

"How many points does he have?" asks Jeremiah Curran, a server here at Deep Deuce Grill.

"Soooooooo many," says his colleague, Jordan Harris.

Jeremiah has an undercut, pulled into a top knot, Jordan a flowing brown mane. Both are servers and musicians, and neither is an OKC native. Like many, they fell for the Thunder only after moving to this city. And now, after Oklahoma City has suffered its first significant pro sports abandonment, fans are left trying to figure out how the relationship between the city and its team will change.

For now, they drink. Jeremiah and Jordan are both off the clock, so they sit at the bar and glance up at the screen, where Durant promptly hits back-to-back 3s. "It’s so weird," Jordan says. "I’ve watched that exact same stroke — catch and shoot the exact same way — how many times? Thousands, probably. And every single time, I was cheering for it. And here it is, and I want to cheer for it again. But it’s just …" He shakes his head. "Damn." He’s like many in Oklahoma City, post-Durant: caught between anger and confusion, sadness and hope.

The game slips increasingly out of control. Whatever success this surprising Thunder team has enjoyed, it remains, like almost every squad in the NBA, no match for these Warriors. Durant’s new team is still figuring itself out but already has the feel of inevitability. So much so that Jordan and Jeremiah drift away from the game, an eventual 122–96 blowout, trading restaurant gossip and talking through weekend plans. Unable to look away for long, Jeremiah glances up in the third quarter to see Durant hit his seventh 3. It’s that familiar motion, dropping the ball gently through the net from on high. As if he’s been conditioned, Jeremiah shouts, "Yes!" He pounds the bar top with a celebratory fist.

Then he stops himself. "Oh," he says. "Wait."

"Oh, no." He shakes his head. "Oh no, no, no." For a moment, he laughs at himself. He turns to the bartender and smiles.

"Another shot of Jameson, please."

For so many years Durant was perfect and he was theirs, and it felt like it would always remain that way, the city and the franchise and its superstar all growing together, until finally they earned the title they deserved.

Durant left for reasons simple and complex — some that he’s explained, some that he hasn’t, some that he likely never will. Maybe he wanted a bigger city. Maybe he wanted a divorce from the man to whom his title dreams were wedded, Russell Westbrook. Maybe he envisioned nights like Monday in Oakland, when he could bear witness to Klay Thompson scoring 60 points in 29 minutes, and Durant himself could fade into the bench mob, just one star among the many, delighting in another player’s performance. Maybe he just wanted to win — nothing more or less.

Many Oklahoma City fans say the same thing: It’s not that he left; it’s how he left. After taking a few meetings and making a choice in private, Durant announced his decision in a Players’ Tribune letter that focused more on how much he would miss Oklahoma City than on how excited he was to move to Golden State. He said he cherished the organization and its fans. "Oklahoma City," he wrote, "truly raised me."

When pressed, several fans say, fine, it’s not how he left. It’s where he went: To the team that beat them in the conference finals. The team he let beat them. "That," says Jeremiah, "is just weak." This is one criticism for which Durant seems to have no patience. "How am I weak," Durant asked Bill Simmons in September on Any Given Wednesday, "if I’m at the top, elite level of my profession and I just chose to play for a different team?"

In Oklahoma City and around the NBA, Durant has long been less a person than a symbol. Here was the perfect small-market superstar, the man who paired quiet ruthlessness with humility and grace. In that characterization, though, something was lost. "Nobody cares," Durant said in that same interview, "about what I want as a person. It’s all about what I can do on a basketball court. … Why should I care what they think, if they don’t really care about me as a whole?"

Contrast that with Westbrook. No one has ever made the mistake of turning Westbrook into a symbol. To watch him play is to be confronted by his raw humanity: manic and defiant, spectacularly ambitious and flawed. He says little to the press, but he reveals himself nightly. When he steps onto the court, you always get the sense that Westbrook is delivering the truest expression of who he is.

Oklahoma City has always loved him, but never quite like it loved Durant. "I’ll admit," says Patrick Riley, editor of The Lost Ogle, a prominent local blog that covers city politics, culture, and sports. "I was one of those people — Westbrook drove me crazy sometimes. There was Good Russ and Bad Russ. And when he was good, he was really good. But when he was bad, you’re just sitting there looking at Durant and thinking, ‘Here’s one of the most graceful scorers in NBA history, and you won’t just give him the ball.’" He was thrilling and infuriating, his highs and lows brought into relief by the consistency of the man with whom he shared the ball.

At his best, Westbrook bolstered Durant. Always, Durant evened out Westbrook. Fans adored one, accepted the other. But a month after Durant announced his departure, Westbrook announced he was signing an extension. Immediately, he became subject to the kind of love that had long eluded him, even if it remains different from the love the city reserved for Durant.

Now the season is winding its way through December. Durant is scoring 27 points a game on 57 percent shooting, and his Warriors are as good as promised, 19–3, outscoring opponents by more than 13 points per 100 possessions.

In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are hanging in playoff position in the West, built on tough defense, good rebounding, and a Herculean run from Westbrook, who’s on pace to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson did it 54 years ago.

Back on the Fourth, Jeremiah cooked hot dogs and burgers over the flames of a burning Durant jersey. Another fan drove to Durant’s house and put a "For Sale" sign in his yard, changing the sign’s text from "By Owner" to "By Coward."

Hordes took to Yelp to leave savage reviews of Durant’s restaurant, Kd’s. (Sample: "I was going to give it another chance but I opted for the other restaurant across town that was better. If you can’t eat ’em, join ’em.") One fan doused a Durant jersey in gasoline and sprayed it with bullets until it caught fire.

Months later there is no unified rage like there was in Cleveland, post-Decision, but Oklahoma City’s pain remains raw. To explain, Rick Moore offers a theory. He’s been a Thunder season-ticket holder since the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008, and one night this November he sits inside the arena talking through the short history of the city’s relationship with the team. "People need to realize," he says, "that we’re all still new at this."

For decades, sports in Oklahoma meant the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Barry Switzer in the fall, Eddie Sutton in the winter, recruiting year-round. When the Thunder were formed, team officials intentionally chose a primary color, blue, that nodded to the state flag and bore no resemblance to either school’s signature hue, and a secondary color, "sunset orange," that looks like a mix between Cowboy orange and Sooner crimson.

Oklahomans learned to be fans by rooting for colleges: rooting for coaches who remained fixtures and players who cycled through in four years but held loyalties that persisted for their entire lives. With college sports fandom comes a culture that values top-down power structures, favoring coaches and institutions over the agency of players. This is the state, after all, where OU football coach Bob Stoops once bragged about telling his Heisman-winning quarterback, Sam Bradford, "What makes you think those fans in the stands are wearing no. 14 for you? … It could be you, or it could be anyone else. Those 70,000 fans in the stadium are cheering and buying tickets to see Oklahoma."

For so much of the Thunder’s existence, the franchise seemed to build on the area’s college culture, operating a team that felt divorced from many of the realities of pro sports. Players seemed close. Loyalty was expected. Stars were seen around town, often unbothered by fans. When the team reached the Finals in 2012, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin borrowed the language of college sports, predicting to USA Today that the team would be crowned "national champions." Says Moore: "I don’t think we ever fully got it. This is different than college sports. It’s a business. I think we kind of took that for granted."

That confusion, Moore thinks, fed the degree to which the city felt pained by Durant’s departure. "It’s like a romance," he says. "You’re in love with someone, and they leave you, and you never saw it coming."

Now, Moore is unsure the city will ever attach itself to anyone quite like it did to Durant. Perhaps not even to Westbrook. "Now we’ve seen how painful it can be," he says. "I don’t think we’ll ever allow ourselves to be hurt like that again."

Remember this?

Of course you do. June 21, 2012, right around 11:30 p.m. Eastern. Game 5 of the NBA Finals, as LeBron James was completing his turn from pure villain to amoral demigod, finishing with a triple-double.

(ABC)
(ABC)

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had each been efficient and devastating, and the Miami Heat, who had promised "not three, not four, not five" championships, had just earned title no. 1 with the Big Three.

Down in the corner of the court at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena stood Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden — ages 23, 23, and 22 — arms interlocked in a moment of shared grief. In the years since, reports have trickled out indicating that Oklahoma City was never utopian. Harden had his frustrations, Westbrook and Durant their tensions. But in the worst moment of their professional lives, they seemed drawn to each other. Across the court, LeBron danced. Wade grinned and flashed two fingers, celebrating his second title. Udonis Haslem dumped red Gatorade on Erik Spoelstra, soaking the coach’s immaculately tailored suit. And the Thunder’s three young stars watched every moment wrapped around each other, as if aware that only they could ensure that one day Oklahoma City would experience the same joy.

You could feel it in the moment: Someday, this image would be iconic. The Thunder’s success felt inevitable, especially to those in Oklahoma City. All that stood between them and multiple titles was the passage of time. "Of course they’re going to win a championship," remembers Riley. "At least one. Probably more. I don’t think anyone ever thought that was the last time that group would be in the Finals. Everyone knew they would be back."

Riley remembers exactly where he was when that began to change. He was sitting in his living room, surrounded by friends, watching the Sooners drive to take the lead against Notre Dame. It was October 27, 2012. His phone buzzed. He reached for it and saw a text from a source. Harden had been traded. "Right then," he says. "You just stopped for a moment. You said to yourself, ‘What?’ That’s when I started questioning ‘the Thunder Way.’"

He continues: "That team should have been trying to win immediately. You can always have promise. You can always have hope. It feels great when you have it, but it’s not that great when you never allow it to develop. That team should have won championships."

Instead, they were limited by poor timing and worse fortune. Sixty wins in 2012–13, all undone in the playoffs by Patrick Beverley’s sideswipe to Westbrook’s knee. Fifty-nine wins the next year, but not enough in the Western Conference finals to overcome a Spurs team that played some of the most beautiful basketball of this century. In 2014–15, Durant broke his foot and then-coach Scott Brooks lost his job. In May, the Thunder took a 3–1 lead over Golden State in the conference finals. And, well, you know what happened next.

The hardships extended beyond the court: In the span of a month in early 2016, part-owner Aubrey McClendon and the wife of assistant coach Monty Williams both died in car crashes. And yet through all of this, there remained a sense that the Thunder had built something special, a sense that the familial atmosphere remained.

And, of course, a sense that someday a title would be won. Durant was too good to join the ranks of Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, greats who never won rings. Westbrook was too explosive a sidekick. This offseason, the front office traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis (as well as Ersan Ilyasova, who was later sent to the Sixers), a move that added cap flexibility and two potential starters to support Westbrook and Durant. "It felt," says Riley, "like we were on the doorstep to the promised land."

It felt like they were close to realizing a dream set in motion long before the NBA ever arrived in town.

One night in early November, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett sits in his suite high above the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena, thinking back over the arc of pro basketball in his town. He remembers feeling convinced, when he took office in 2004, that he was inheriting a city on the rise. After decades of migration away from Oklahoma — "So many people I went to high school with left and never came back," Cornett says — the city had stabilized. The oil bust of the ’80s had given rise to a diversifying economy and revitalized downtown in the ’90s. Jobs were plentiful. Cost of living was low. Men and women who had set off for the coasts as young adults now found themselves drawn back home. And yet, Cornett says, "I felt like our city had a wounded brand."

Once, the city had no brand whatsoever. A previous mayor liked to tell stories about traveling the world, sitting on planes across the United States and beyond, having the exact same conversation. "Where are you from?" his seatmate would ask. "Oklahoma City," he’d reply. And then — silence. Perhaps a polite nod. There was no sense in talking to a man from Oklahoma City, apparently. They each turned to their respective books and prepared for flight.

In 1995, the city became known throughout the world, not for what it had done but for how it had suffered. On April 19 of that year, Timothy McVeigh and accomplice Terry Nichols detonated 4,800 pounds of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in an act of domestic terrorism. One-hundred-sixty-eight people died. Hundreds more were injured. It was, until 9/11, the deadliest act of terrorism ever committed on American soil. For years, the image of the city was inextricable from the horrors of that day.

"We allowed ourselves to be defined by that tragedy," says Cornett. Oklahomans refer to the event as the "Murrah bombing." Elsewhere, though, the city’s name became shorthand for the attack. Says Cornett: "Not all tragedies take on the names of the cities where they take place. Kennedy got shot, and it wasn’t called ‘the Dallas assassination.’ 9/11 didn’t take the name of New York or Washington or of a town in rural Pennsylvania. But our city’s tragedy seemed to take our name every time."

Oklahoma City’s identity as the site of one of this country’s worst terror attacks can seem fully present or like a relic of ancient past, depending on which of the city’s residents are talking. Moore, the longtime season-ticket holder, allows his voice to go soft and his head to turn down as he remembers the events of that morning. At the time, he was assistant to then-mayor Ron Norick, and he remembers a blast so grotesque that he imagined only a plane crash could cause it; the sight of the building with its exterior gone and its guts spilling forth; and minutes later, the sound of more explosions that he thought must have been gunshots and the voice of the officer who told him no, those were just car tires exploding in the flames. He remembers joining other civilians in helping victims exit the building, and hours later, once the city had turned from violent chaos into a current of active quiet, he remembers the face of a young boy asking if anyone had seen his father, only to be told by police officers that the man was dead.

Moore spent days away from home, helping to coordinate relief efforts. When he returned later that week, his wife told him she liked his beard. Moore was confused. He touched his face, and only then did he realize he’d forgotten to shave. He’s kept the beard ever since.

The bombing became the region’s most infamous tragedy, but it’s only one of several. There was the Dust Bowl in the ’30s, and there have been a number of deadly tornadoes in the decades since, including one in 2013 that killed 24 people in the town of Moore.

Says Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s VP of communications: "There’s a resilience to the people of this city that I don’t think you’ll find very many places. There are people here who have weathered so much together, and they always come back excited to move forward with whatever is next."

While proud of the character of his hometown, Mayor Cornett wanted outsiders to think of OKC as a city, not a bombing. "If you’re a CEO in Oklahoma City," he says, "and you are trying to encourage some hot talent from the East Coast to move here, when you offer them a job, are they going to think to themselves, ‘If I take this job I have to live in Oklahoma City,’ or are they going to think, ‘If I take this job I get to live in Oklahoma City.’ It’s hard to make them think the latter when all they know about Oklahoma City is a story of tragedy."

Cornett saw professional sports as the fastest way to change his city’s image. From the beginning, the Thunder functioned as a way to introduce the rest of the world to Oklahoma City. The team taught new players about the bombing’s legacy, taking them on tours of the memorial soon after they arrived in town. In Durant, Oklahoma City had its perfect symbol: a kind and gracious superstar who seemed to love the city as much as it loved him. Today, Cornett won’t go anywhere near a negative word about his city’s ex-ambassador. "Kevin was just terrific in the community," he says. "He gave and gave and gave. And it wasn’t just him. His mother. His brother. His entire family did amazing things here."

Cornett was hanging out with his in-laws on the morning of July 4 when he saw the news that Durant had chosen to leave. He was stunned. "He seemed to like it here," Cornett says, "We didn’t think he’d ever leave."

But he did, and afterward, many in Oklahoma City believed Westbrook would be next. If Durant always seemed to belong in Oklahoma, Westbrook seemed to belong in outer space. (Or, at least, Hollywood.) Now that the Thunder no longer looked like title contenders, it seemed he had little reason to remain in town.

A month passed, and on the morning of August 4, Westbrook announced a contract extension by tweeting a wordless picture of himself reveling in the love of Oklahoma City’s crowd.

Here was the player who had always been no. 2, who had been the scapegoat for so many of the Thunder’s failures, who had been blamed as one of the primary reasons why Durant had chosen to leave, announcing that he would stay by embracing a fan base that, for so many years, never embraced him the way it did Durant.

"I think a lot of people had this kind of moment of really taking a step back," says Moore. "We took a step back and we said to ourselves, ‘My goodness. It’s Russell. It’s always been Russell.’ He’s the one who always wanted to be here, and we never gave him credit for that." Watching the Thunder now is watching Westbrook, fully formed. He is Barry Sanders; he is Prince; he is Zeus. His per-game stats are staggering: 31 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists. But numbers fail to communicate the outrageousness of his season. Better to do it with a video, or a GIF, or perhaps just a punch to the face.

There is a moment, now, that comes just before tipoff at many Thunder home games, when Westbrook walks onto the floor all alone, awaiting his teammates as they make their final preparations. He wanders down to the baseline, and he stands there, just for a second, staring into the crowd and taking it all in. He is not the one this city embraced from the second the franchise arrived in Oklahoma City. He has not been the subject of thousands of adoring profiles, never the one whose loyalty to the town seemed intertwined with its conception of itself. But for a few seconds before the start of each game, he stands there on the court as waves of cheers wash over him. And then he spends the next 48 minutes playing like it’s the last game of his life.

The team has built itself in Westbrook’s image — tough and relentless and often a little pissed off. Oladipo has emerged as a solid second scorer. Sabonis, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter form one of the better big-man rotations in the league. They are 14–8, winners of six straight. This pace — both for the team and for Westbrook himself — feels impossible. But watching them try to maintain it has become one of the best stories in the NBA.

After Thunder wins, Westbrook sometimes ventures out. Locals say that they’ve seen him more often around the city, and at least a couple of times, he has shown up at Durant’s old haunt, Deep Deuce Grill. He’s been known to arrive alongside Andre Roberson and Cameron Payne, and together they’ll get a table and eat and laugh, unobtrusive and undisturbed. Eventually, they’ll leave, and Westbrook will take care of the bill.

Afterward, the restaurant’s servers say, they notice one big difference between Westbrook’s visits and the visits from Durant and his crew.

Westbrook leaves much bigger tips.

All statistics other than team records are current as of Wednesday afternoon.

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