Found December 21, 2011 on Fox Sports:
The plane landed from a gray sky into a gray land. Rain, shadow, cold concrete and dreary farmland -- this was Oklahoma City as the start of the NBA season inched closer. Still, just a short drive from the airport, through all the melancholy an Oklahoma winter can throw at a man, one of the game's best players practiced himself into a fine sweat with a group of teammates capable of making a championship run. And that, as much as any other storyline in an NBA season jam-packed with them, could shape the fate of the Western Conference between now and June. The key fact for the Oklahoma City Thunder is this one: They have created a culture based on Midwestern values like togetherness, teamwork and humility best personified by the fact that Kevin Durant isn't just playing in Oklahoma City -- he's excited about it. In an NBA that's more than ever about the glitz and glamour of brighter cities attracting the brightest talent there's still an oasis of normal holding sway -- and brimming with promise -- in the league's least desirous city. And Durant is one of the key reasons. "For me it's always been about basketball, and this is the best place for me to go as a basketball player," he said, just a few minutes after some of those crowding around him had been talking about the misery of the coming weather. "A lot of the guys are going to bigger cities, but that really has nothing to do with what we have going on here. I love the guys on this team, everyone loves being here, we love the city, the support we get here." This is something a lot of athletes say: Happy to be here, love the town, this is my focus. Head to Orlando, another not-so-sexy NBA locale -- but certainly one with more nightlife going for it than Oklahoma City -- and Dwight Howard would likely say the same things. Only Kevin Durant is different. People believe him, in large part because he's telling the truth. He means it. Fans know it. Teammates know it. Coaches know it. Durant works in Oklahoma City in part because, beyond being one of the league's best players, he's also one of its nicest and down-to-earth players. His buy-in of what the Thunder are trying to do, and where and for whom they're trying to do it, is as important as his play. The fact he wants to be there -- that there are no demands for trades, no talk of how he'll eventually look in a Lakers' jersey, no leaked reports of his envy for other stars whose lights shine brighter in better cities, no get-me-to-the-coast-now drama -- is one big reason the Thunder could be as dangerous as any team in any city this season. To be sure, the recipe for success in a small-market like this one is a much more complicated and unlikely one than in, say, Miami or Los Angeles. It would be a lot harder, if not impossible, to land three players like Miami's Big Three in a single free-agency haul in a place like this. And it's hard to fathom a player of 'Melo or Howard's caliber turning one franchise inside out because they're demanding to come to this one. Call, then, Thunder general manager Sam Presti the wizard of the plains. His plan for excellence in a place like this was a potent mix of luck (getting Durant rather than Greg Oden), incredibly shrewd draft-day decisions (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka), a good trade that could turn this season into a great one (shipping Jeff Green to Boston for big-man Kendrick Perkins), excellent coaching (Scott Brooks) and a steady construction of a culture that reflects his organization's locale as much as its talent. Presti and head coach Brooks have created in the heartland a culture for this group of talent that's more close-knit college style than Miami madness; more about patience than "not six, not seven" preseason celebrations; more about turning young guys, good coaching and enough time into something that even New York City, Los Angeles or Miami can get behind: A winner. "I think guys stay where they're wanted, guys love the cities regardless of small or big," Westbrook said. "They'll stay there (if they can win)." That's another thing that Durant, Presti, Brooks and this group of talented players has reinforced. Free agents -- even big-time ones -- want to play where they can win, and that means being surrounded by talent. Chris Paul was willing to opt into another year on his contract to play with Blake Griffin. Dwight Howard seems willing to be a New Jersey Net to have a season alongside Deron Williams. Each of the Big Three took less money to play together. So, too, in Oklahoma City a very good group of guys seem genuinely happy to be here. If you put the talent in place early, as the Thunder have, and build a culture around being connected to the community and being patient in the idea excellent will come, also as the Thunder has, talent may just decide it likes playing in a place like this. A few years ago, during a losing season, as the clock ticked down on a random win the crowd erupted in utter applause. Why? Because the Thunder had just dispatched the Knicks. As in: Oklahoma City can hold its own against the big city. As in: This is a prideful place, and it has been embraced and celebrated by a core of talent led by Durant and Westbrook that have never offered a wandering eye. Their focus, at least for now, is solely on what's happening here. That's made them a loyal following and a very, very dangerous basketball team. So while big cities suck NBA talent with the same gravitational pull it exerts on other talent from other professions, and other storylines fester in Los Angeles and New York and Miami and Chicago, don't forget Oklahoma City. Don't forget the power that might come with being able to play with Durant, Westbrook and other young players who have accepted, embraced and now reflected a culture that's not about what's shiny and sexy. Don't overlook what they may just do this year. On Tuesday, though it was just a preseason game, the Thunder still finished 2-0 against the Dallas Mavericks after an 87-83 win. Durant dropped 10 points in 21 minutes of play, Westbrook added 12 points and Harden added 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Perkins looked not just lean but mean, something the Thunder have been missing, and the sold-out crowd was so frenetic and interested you'd swear it was a regular-season contest. After the game, downtown Oklahoma City was cold and vacant. Even in the dark it seemed as if the grayness lingered, in the way winter in this part of the country can be as much a color as a season. And yet inside, in an arena as nice as most you'll find in so-called better cities, a team full of young, able talent had just dispatched a defending champion. It was just a preseason game, yes. But that fact couldn't mask this one: In a place the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and other stars are unlikely to ever choose to live in, those who are here could be in the process of creating something capable of bringing home what the greatest of cities covet: a championship. You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.
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