Steven Ivory

*Before now, I never knew the feeling.

Never knew what it was to live in a town and root for its professional   team–in my case, the Los Angeles Lakers–while reserving  a soft spot in my heart for its rival from my old hometown.  That’s because  my hometown, Oklahoma City, aside from a brief stay by the New Orleans Hornets, never had  a  pro basketball team.  That is, until the  Oklahoma City Thunder.

And while things may have changed by the time you read this, right now, as I write it, I know the feeling. And oh, what a feeling.

The idea that Oklahoma City has an NBA basketball team is remarkable enough.  The notion that the team is in the Western Conference playoffs is surreal.

But the fact that on Saturday night, April 24, 2010, at Oklahoma City’s Ford Center, the Thunder whupped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers like they stole somethin,’ tieing the Conference series at two games each–well, that no doubt has the Rod Serling estate considering a lawsuit charging copyright infringement, because this was an episode right out of the “Twilight Zone.”

Saturday’s final score, 101-96, looks respectable on paper for the Lakers.  Actually watching the game reach that conclusion was far more dramatic.

Okay, so I relished the Thunder’s early lead.  I didn’t expect them to go and actually win the thing. I waited for the Lakers’ inevitable second gear. It never came.

Usually, when dynasties lose to up and comers, rather than the newbie being duly credited, the dynasty is simply said to have had a bad night.  But in the post-game interviews, the Lakers themselves admitted that Saturday was an unmitigated ass kicking.

And for that, of course, I felt guilty. I mean, I’m a Laker fan.  My quiet,  anxious glee over Derek Fisher’s missed free throws–this guy almost never misses at the line–felt downright perverted. However,  the guilt I felt was not for my rooting for the Thunder; I felt guilty for the fact that there was no guilt.

I know. You’re reading this–you are still reading, right?–and wondering what’s the big friggin’ deal.  I understand. Folk who live in places like  Philadelphia, Dallas, New York–hell, any city with a pro sports team  playing  on network television every now and then–take for granted rooting for the home team.

However, until now, for me the closest  thing Oklahoma has had to pro excitement (no offense,  Arena Football) is University of  Oklahoma  football.  While the OU Sooners’ might is legendary,  Oklahoma City is a town that can’t have too many pleasant distractions.  Fifteen years later, the town is still mourning the April 19, 1995  Oklahoma City Bombing, a tragic event that killed 168  men, women and children, including a cousin of mine, Charlotte Thomas. Until the September 11, 2001 attacks,  the OKC bombing  was the largest terrorist attack on American soil in history.  That’s a lot for any city to shoulder, but especially Oklahoma City, whose biggest  distinction before  the bombing was being a place where nothing ever happened.

At Ford Center, just a few blocks  from where Timothy McVeigh ignited the heinous contents of a Ryder rental truck that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building,  the Thunder has given a healing city something to feel good about.

The NBA’s New Orleans Hornets know Oklahoma City’s love. From 2005 to 2007, after hurricane Katrina,  the franchise called Oklahoma City home,  dubbing itself the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.   It didn’t matter how well the Hornets did or didn’t play, the city enthusiastically came out to support them.

Indeed, it was the Hornets’ OKC stint that paved the way for the Seattle SuperSonics to end up in Oklahoma as the Thunder, starting its season at Ford Center in 2008.  Led by NBA   2009-10 season scoring leader Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder has bestowed OKC with   industrial strength pride.

Every time the Thunder has played the Lakers, my phone rings. On the other end are L.A. friends who know I’m from Oklahoma. But the calls come from OKC, too.

The city is simply  beside itself. They don’t hate; they’re fascinated.  And proud: they talk about the Lakers’ plane landing at Will Rogers World Airport;  they gape at star Lakers killing time before the game walking around Brick Town and sleeping with Oklahoma City women.  They’re excited. The Lakers come from a town that is every thing OKC isn’t,  and Okies giggle at the very concept that the highfalutin  Lakers have to come through the Thunder to get what they want.

To be sure, the Lakers have their haters. That would only be nearly  every NBA fan outside L.A. They hate Kobe, they hate Phil Jackson, they hate Jack Nicholson and any combination of the colors purple and gold.

These are the kinds of haters who hope that when the Big One comes,  it happens one afternoon  early in the NBA season when the Lakers are having a meeting downtown at Staples Center.

They hope the ground opens up under Staples, swallowing it  whole, taking with it  most of the Lakers (mainly Kobe), Phil, even Jack, if he happens to be around, and the uniforms and pennants, along with all the Mercedes, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Maybachs, Porches and assorted custom black SUVs parked in the private underground lot.

It distresses me that Oklahoma could be the assassin that  Boston and New York are betting on to beat L.A.  I’m conflicted.

By the way, the Boston Celtics are evil.  Simple as that.

Of course, this is bigger than just the Lakers and the Thunder. It always is.  It’s about the Little Engine That Could and every David and Goliath-styled fable known to man.

At its core, the Lakers/Thunder competition is  about what every sport  is always about: ability, validation, respect and inspiration. Ultimately,  it’s about  the individual hopes and dreams of every spectator  who sits on the edge of their seat in silent anguish or who stands on their seat, screaming wildly at the top of their lungs, their face painted in the colors of their favorite team.  

Truth is, to the backs of our favorite athlete or team we all quietly (or not so quietly) hitch our own dreams and ambitions, with the  heady, zealous  notion that if they can win,  in our own lives, so can we. In that regard, if the Thunder doesn’t play another post-season game, they’ve already scored heartily on behalf of  a city in profound need of a win. And to that I say, welcome, my beloved, sleepy hometown, to the Big Time.

Steven Ivory’s book, FOOL IN LOVE (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) is available at Amazon.com (www.Amazon.com).  Respond to him via [email protected].