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Sports Authority

Edmonds: Westbrook won’t be greeted with boos in return to OKC

| Wednesday, October 16, 2019

I’ve thought long and hard about this Sports Authority. The timing had to be perfect. I needed to allow myself enough time to process what happened but knew that I was facing an inevitable deadline. And now, with the NBA regular season a mere week away, I’m forced to face the facts — things are going to be different in Oklahoma City.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column defending Russell Westbrook as “the backbone of the Thunder and, by extension, the backbone” of my beloved hometown. I talked about how a city that’s often been defined by natural disasters, limited economic diversity and a tragic bombing 25 years ago felt a sense of pride and relevance when Westbrook took the court. Having been spurned three years ago by another superstar for the glamor of the West Coast, Westbrook’s — and later Paul George’s — decision to stay with a small market that had built itself on the NBA Draft, spoke volumes to our community.

And then July 6 hit. In the wee hours of that Saturday morning twitter lit up as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped arguably one of the biggest “Woj bombs” in NBA offseason history when he announced that the Thunder were trading George to the Clippers in exchange for a record-setting seven picks — four unprotected first-round, one protected first-round and two pick swaps — in addition for two starters, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This trade sent shockwaves around the league as George was only one year into his four-year max contract. However, it quickly became evident that George was a betting chip to a much more publicized offseason move — Kawhi Leonard. Having made it clear to Clippers executives that in order to get the two-time Finals MVP they needed to get George, the Thunder stripped the Clippers of all future trade assets in the process. This sparked an avalanche of moves in the following weeks as the Thunder went in full-blown rebuild mode, trading rising-star Jerami Grant to Denver and eventually Westbrook to the Rockets, reuniting him with former Oklahoma City star James Harden in exchange for Chris Paul.

While this series of trades was devastating, there was something so tragically perfect about it. Built out of the ashes of the Seattle Supersonics, this team had inspired a generation of basketball fans with its high-energy, unapologetic style of play. It had been to the peaks at 23 and 24 and tasted the anguish of loss. It had tried every combination available to its limited market and fallen short. Much of it was bad luck. Double shoulder surgery to George, a dirty play on Westbrook’s knee in the postseason, limited cap space in a small market. Yet, that painful memory of Damien Lillard’s shot soaring over George’s arm while Westbrook looked on symbolized so much more than the end of a season. There’s something strangely comforting about the fact that each of these traded players is now situated to compete for an NBA title. General manager Sam Presti made sure not to repeat the same mistakes of countless teams before who had kept disgruntled superstars around only to watch their team crumble under the weight of locker-room drama.

However, to talk about this team, it’s impossible to not talk about Westbrook specifically. As the longest-tenured player with the same team at the time prior to the trade this past summer, the Thunder came to embody all that Westbrook is. Beloved by his own fans, and despised by everyone else, he is fiercely loyal, even up until his final days with the Thunder. Much like the person who emailed me over the summer citing that specific reference to him as the backbone of our city claiming it didn’t age well, I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in the national coverage. In the weeks that followed this trade, multiple pundits on ESPN speculated that Westbrook will be greeted with boos come January 9 when he makes his return to Chesapeake Arena. I’ve got news for you — that couldn’t be further from the truth. Borrowing a line from my dad in the weeks following the trades “Grown men will cry,” and it’s true (by the way, my dad will be one of those grown men). While there’s no denying the bittersweet ending that this past July marked, there’s an overwhelming sense of gratitude among the Thunder fanbase. For the past 11 years, we’ve experienced consistent success and watched our city grow exponentially in response. It’s hard to imagine that one person is responsible for this and it was by all means a communal effort, but it’s impossible to deny the centrality of Westbrook through it all. He — and his family — represented the resilience and loyalty that flow throughout Oklahoma City, a city where everyone seems to know everyone and that’s constantly seeking to be bigger than it actually is.

Things are going to be different in Oklahoma City this season. In fact, they might be different for a few seasons. But not all hope is lost. While other teams have gone down the path of bitter contract disputes and player frustrations, this franchise recognized the end of a road and chose to part ways. The names on the jerseys may have changed but the spirit that the teams of the last 11 years established is far more entrenched in the city’s identity than any one player.

I, like many basketball fans, hope that one day there will be a 30 for 30 explaining how what had the potential to be one of the great basketball dynasties came crashing down, short of glory. But more importantly I hope that, as time goes on and we continue to reflect on this team and franchise, the gratitude and respect the fanbase holds for Westbrook will prevail.

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