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How the Hornets and Hurricane Katrina Paved the Way for the OKC Thunder

Episode 4 of ‘Sonic Boom’ explores how Oklahoma City became a temporary home for the New Orleans team—and eventually a permanent home for the NBA

AP Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve spent much of the last year obsessing over a question: How did Seattle—once home to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, to the Seattle SuperSonics, one of the iconic franchises that defined the NBA of my youth—end up as a basketball orphan? How did one of America’s most vibrant basketball markets become a market without an actual team?

I knew some version of an answer. The same one known by so many who follow the NBA. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the team away to a man from Oklahoma, Clay Bennett. Bennett skipped town. The end.

But I wanted to know more. More about what happened in Seattle, and in Oklahoma, and in other cities from New York to New Orleans that all led to one of the great heists in the history of pro sports.

So I went searching for answers. And the deeper into the search I went, the messier and more complicated, and sometimes more confusing, the whole thing got. And as I allowed myself to fall deeper into this obsession, I found myself fixated on so many people beyond just Schultz and Bennett. So many things had to go wrong—or right, if you’re from Oklahoma—for this to happen. So many people had a stake in this struggle.

So I talked to them. There are the players, from Lenny Wilkens to Gary Payton, who now find themselves retired, legends of a franchise that no longer exists. There were the local activists who fought to keep the team in town, and the ones who almost seemed to be pushing them out the door. And I obsessed over the people behind the scenes in Seattle and Oklahoma. People who made deals on late-night conference calls and on private jets, people whose own ambitions were bound up with the fate of the franchise.

All of it brought me here. To a story about a heist. And about a loss.

Below is an excerpt from the fourth episode of Sonic Boom, the new documentary podcast series from The Ringer available exclusively on Luminary. Listen here and check back each Thursday through November 21 for new episodes.

Oklahoma never got to be a part of the pro sports landscape, but it did have college football. And for most of the state’s history, that identity was enough. People in this state loved the Oklahoma Sooners or the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

If they were into other sports, they picked a team from a faraway city, or they just followed along as casual fans. But as far as pro sports coming to Oklahoma?

“The major leagues weren’t even really a pipe dream,” said Berry Tramel, a sports columnist with The Oklahoman. “It was just never considered that we might become a major league market of any kind.”

In the years after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, after the city really pulled together to invest in itself, it started to think even bigger.

Oklahoma City started to think about building an arena.

There was some debate, of course. That money could go to fortifying other projects. And what was Oklahoma City going to do with a major arena anyway?

“And at the last minute they decided to go ahead with the arena project and in 2001 what was called the Ford Center was constructed at a bare-bones price of about $90 million,” Tramel said. “It was a functional, very solid arena but no bells and no whistles.”

It was going to open in 2002, about six years after Seattle renovated Key Arena. What would they put there? Major concerts, for one. Maybe some NCAA tournament games. But the outlandish dream was that this thing could actually host a team of its own.

There was this attitude in town, like, Could we do this? Could our little city become a home to a major team?

It seemed preposterous, but again, this was a city built from scratch. A city built by people accustomed to really going for it. And it’s a city that was searching for an identity. And willing to pay for one. Up in Seattle, they had stadium fatigue. Here in Oklahoma City, they weren’t tired. They were hungry.

One league showed some interest. Not the NBA—the NHL. Oklahoma City put together a group of investors, trying to lure pro hockey to town. They were led by a man named Clay Bennett.

“We were a pretty thriving minor league hockey market and people got behind it and people were excited, although the truth is most of us … didn’t know much about hockey and we didn’t know much about the National Hockey League,” Tramel says. “But the idea of being a major league market was certainly enticing.”

In 1997, the NHL moved toward adding four new teams. The league had a pool of six finalists. Nashville, Atlanta, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Columbus, Houston, and Oklahoma City.

“Four expansion franchises were granted,” Tamel says. “We made the final six and then the cuts were made and Oklahoma City and Houston were not selected. So we thought, ‘Well, there goes our chance to be a major league city here, at least in the lifetime of most of us.’”

It’s an interesting blip in Oklahoma City’s recent history. It felt like a big deal in the moment, but now, for mayor David Holt, it’s a footnote.

“As it turned out, I think we got really lucky that we that we didn’t get that NHL team,” Holt says.

They were lucky because it meant the Ford Center was available for a bigger opportunity a few years later—though, sadly, one born out of another city’s suffering.

On August 29, 2005, a massive, deadly storm destroyed one of the NBA’s cities: New Orleans, home of the Hornets. And I don’t want to lose sight of something here. In terms of the overall impact of Hurricane Katrina, the effects it had on a basketball team barely register as important.

This is a storm that killed nearly 2,000 people and destroyed 800,000 homes. It is one of the great tragedies of America in the 21st century. And our government’s tepid response is one of its greatest sources of shame.

The story we’re telling, though, is about a basketball team. And Katrina played a critical role in that story, too.

The New Orleans Arena, where the Hornets played, only experienced relatively minor damage from the storm. But the area around the arena completely flooded. Within a matter of days, it became clear that New Orleans would not be the same for a long time.

Speedy Claxton, a point guard on the Hornets, was at home in New York, watching on TV when Katrina hit.

“We were just about to head to New Orleans for training camp and all that type stuff,” Claxton says. “And then that’s when it happened. … We didn’t know what was going to happen if we would go there. And it was kind of an in-flux situation.”

NBA training camp was scheduled to start about a month later. It quickly became clear that the Hornets couldn’t stay in New Orleans. They were going to have to figure something else out.

It was weird because we didn’t know we was going to go in and you had all these other guys going to their respective cities to play,” Claxton says.

One man, in particular, needed to find a solution: the NBA’s commissioner, David Stern. The same man who would, five short months later, travel to Olympia, Washington, to try to secure funding for a new arena in Seattle, only to get turned away by Washington speaker of the house Frank Chopp.

In the weeks after Katrina, Stern faced a challenge unlike any he had seen before. A natural disaster had wrecked one of his teams’ cities, leaving it without a home. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City still had an arena but lacked a major professional team.

Tramel remembers being at an Oklahoma football game right after the hurricane hit.

“I was walking around campus, I got a call from one of the busy bodies, I would say, of Oklahoma City,” Tramel says. “He said, ‘You know the Hornets can’t play their NBA season this year in New Orleans—there’s no way.’ Of course, in New Orleans at the time, 10,000 things were going on. More important than the NBA but he said, ‘I placed a couple of calls, and I think we can get the Hornets to come up here and play. And I’ve called a couple of people, I’ve called the mayor. I’ve called Clay Bennett. I’ve put a bug in their ear.’ And he said, ‘Keep an eye on that.’”

At this point, then-mayor Mick Cornett was already in touch with Stern. And so was the local businessman who’d tried to bring hockey to OKC, Bennett.

“That very day is when David Stern called Clay Bennett,” Cornett said. “Clay was at the football game and he was at the stadium in Norman and he told me the story of how he went into a virtual closet and took the call from David Stern when David Stern said, ‘Listen, you guys might be able to help us out. The Hornets are homeless right now.’”

The city put a lot of things in place. Fast. They looked at the schedule of the team, and the schedule of the arena. Thirty-six of the Hornets’ 41 home games were open dates on the OKC arena’s schedule. Bennett made calls to contacts around town. They put together a “revenue guarantee”—essentially, a combination of sponsorships and season-ticket suite purchases that the NBA knew it could rely on.

And—they did it. They moved the team.

The players moved all of their stuff up to Oklahoma. Claxton remembers it as kind of a whirlwind.

“We all flew out there and we all kind of stayed in a hotel out there,” Claxton says. “And it was kind of a weird situation. I mean, the whole team in the same place, the same hotel and we were just like living out the hotel for a little bit—going to practice, coming back, and then you still see everybody that was at practice. That was kind of a weird situation.”

Going in, no one knew exactly what to expect. Were Oklahoma City fans going to treat the Hornets—the New Orleans Hornets—as if they were their own?

People around town thought fans would support the team out of some sense of civic duty. That, and of course they’d get to watch all these famous stars come to town. Kobe and the Lakers. LeBron and the Cavs. Or even more minor stars, like Ray Allen and the Seattle SuperSonics. All right there in Oklahoma City.

But then they played their first game, and it became obvious this was going to be a much bigger deal. The team was expected to be pretty bad. They had a few solid vets, and a promising rookie point guard, Chris Paul. And then in their first game, they blew out the Sacramento Kings.

“And you know, we really didn’t know what to expect because we didn’t have a superstar on our team at that point,” Claxton says. “So we just thought there was gonna be fans of the NBA more so you know like Kobe came in. Iverson came and we thought there was gonna be fans of those guys, but it was a complete opposite. Like they were booing ’em and I was like, wow, this is amazing. Like these fans really, truly get it and they cheer for their hometown team.”

They played the full season in Oklahoma. Their young point guard, Chris Paul, won Rookie of the Year.

And then the next year, with New Orleans still recovering, they played 35 of their 41 home games in Oklahoma and the other six in New Orleans. It was a team that belonged to two cities, both at the same time. In Oklahoma City, they started thinking: Who’s to say we can’t do this every year?

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