The Oklahoma City Thunder are a stolen franchise, having been torn from Seattle in 2008. A mere four years later, they are in the NBA Finals, three wins away from becoming champions. They are also being relentlessly promoted by the NBA and their network partners as a team to love. We are told to see them as America’s Sweethearts, with their small-town vibe, roaring crowds and exuberant fans in color-coded shirts that all read, ”Team Is Family.” They are the brilliant culmination of a planning meeting NBA Commissioner David Stern had with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd about how to give the league “red state appeal.” This was in conjunction with the NBA’s establishment of a dress code and road behavior guidelines, and a general sense of rather blunt unease from David Stern that a league built on a foundation of black, inner-city talent would repel wealthier white fans.
You don’t get much more “red state” than Oklahoma, where every district voted for John McCain in 2008, the only state that can make that claim. You don’t get more red state than an arena named after minority owner Aubrey McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a company that makes its profits through “fracking,” the practice of splitting open the earth to extract more oil and natural gas. “Fracking” has been linked to earthquakes, toxic contamination of drinking water and global warming. According to studies, it actually causes greater degrees of global warming than coal. Not surprisingly, McClendon is a climate change denier. He’s also, for good measure, a staunch gay rights opponent, and one of the main funders for the 2004 group, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” aimed to smear John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam. And he, like majority owner and major Republican donor Clay Bennett, took hundreds of millions in corporate welfare to move to OKC. It’s all so very “red state appeal.”
It’s not surprising that the NBA is promoting the Thunder like they’re the team from Walnut Grove. It’s also not surprising that every effort is being made to squelch any discussion during broadcasts of their Seattle roots. More surprising by far is how much traction this line of thinking has among those who should know better.
ESPN’s Bill Simmons who once railed against the move to Oklahoma City, promising to only refer to the new team as “The Zombie Sonics,” has learned to stop worrying and embrace the Thunder. In a column titled—I wish I was joking—“Thunder Family Values,” Simmons writes about his newfound love for Oklahoma City, it’s exuberant fans, and the general vibe of the entire region. He ends his piece by writing, “I found myself feeling happy for the Oklahoma City fans after they clinched Game 1…. Is it possible to feel happy for Oklahoma City while continuing to feel absolutely, unequivocally terrible for Seattle? Actually, yes.”