How the Thunder helped put OKC on the map in black America

Oklahoma City is the unlikely home to arguably the NBA’s most exciting team — the Thunder — which is led by African-American all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite being the largest city in the state of Oklahoma, OKC has grown further in stature thanks to its NBA Finals-bound basketball team. The Thunder has dramatically increased the city’s ‘coolness’ factor. It’s up for debate whether being home to the world’s first parking meter is something worth bragging about.

The Thunder have played their way into the heart and soul of the entire state. In the four years since moving from Seattle (the team used to be the Seattle Super-Sonics) the Thunder have used young talent and an undeniable swagger to catapult themselves as popular favorites among basketball fans all across the world. After last night’s defeat of the San Antonio Spurs, OKC has earned a chance to compete for a championship against the winner of the Boston Celtics vs Miami Heat Eastern Conference series.

Economically, the Thunder churn the city. The teams has sold out all of their homes games (this shortened season lasted 62 games), pump money at a rate of $1.3 million into the local economy with each home game and have the 7th highest merchandising revenue in the league.

Shooting guard James Harden’s beard has become an iconic symbol of how much the fans and city of Oklahoma City have embraced everything Thunder. Fans wear mock beards in support. Each home game, the fans fill the area in white shirts that read Team is Community as they project unity in the building with a “white out”.

Ironically, on a nightly basis during home games, you see the African-American dominated Thunder play in front of an overwhelmingly white crowd. Of the fifteen players on the OKC roster, only two are non-black — Cole Aldrich and Nick Collison. And Collison only receives spare minutes in games.

But this is not the big picture. The apparent cohesion of the white and black forces of Oklahoma City today is a stark contrast with  the city and state’s past. Oklahoma City hasn’t always been a positive place for African-Americans, and as recently as this year racial animus has tainted the state’s reputation.

This April, two men from Tulsa confessed to shooting five and killing three black people and terrorizing an entire African-American community.

theGrio: Tulsa’s complex racial history revisited in wake of shootings

The state of Oklahoma was historically a destination for migration in the late 19th century. Native Americans once inhabited the land until oil was found, after which white southerners came in and moved the Native Americans out.

“African-Americans and Native Americans were complex actors on the nineteenth-century ‘frontier’ of the North American continent,” Dr. Kendra Field, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California Riverside told theGrio. “The presence of some Native Americans as slave owners [in Oklahoma], and some African-Americans as settlers on Indian land, illuminates a more complicated and complete history of United States empire.”

Early blacks that moved to the Oklahoma area prospered economically. In the early 1900s the Greenwood area of Tulsa became known as “Black Wall Street”, an area of successful black businessmen who epitomized what it meant to be black and wealthy. In 1921 this area was again taken over by whites and became a known site of lynching and violence. What was once a place of hope and opportunity for blacks quickly became a site of violence and brutality.

The complex racial history of Oklahoma is deeply embedded into the psyche of the area and is unmistakable, and yet the Oklahoma City Thunder are undeniably beloved by the fans.

Today Oklahoma City is home to just under 600,000 residents with the most recent 2010 census counting 579,999 people. Of this population, the two biggest are white and black at 62.7 percent and 15.1 percent respectively. As one of the largest livestock markets in the world, and an area feasting on natural resources of oil and natural gas, Oklahoma City is a thriving community.

Oklahoma City has been thirsting for a professional sports franchise for some time. But the Thunder have delivered so much more than anyone could have predicted. At the very least, OKC has created an opportunity for fans to enjoy a team that represents their city with the compassion that some past members of the community lacked.

Follow Marquise Francis on Twitter @mKfly