So we all want Blake Griffin to put on a show, but for the Thunder to come out on top tonight in Oklahoma City Arena, right? A few monstrous dunks — preferably without posterizing someone we hold dear like Serge Ibaka — are what many in the home crowd wants to see, but ultimately no one wants to see Griffin have his way to the tune of a Clipper win over the Thunder. I think we can all agree on this.
But the first NBA game here for Griffin, an Oklahoma City native and former Oklahoma Sooners superstar, has been long-awaited around these parts. We’ve been as eager to see him downtown as any non-Thunder NBA player since the league arrived in OKC for good.
So let’s take a brief look at what, to me, are the three main story lines of interest for Griffin’s professional debut in his hometown.
1. This kind of homecoming has never before happened in Oklahoma City.
In a way, it’s pretty amazing that it only took three years of major professional sports in OKC for a homecoming like this to happen. A true hometown superstar making a regular-season appearance in a professional sport in central Oklahoma? Unthinkable as recently as six years ago.
First of all, there aren’t that many true sports superstars to come from Oklahoma to begin with. You can go all the way back to Jim Thorpe, but there certainly wasn’t anything big-time going on sports-wise in Oklahoma when he ruled. It had only been a state for a year when he first found sports superstardom in the 1912 Olympics, and there wasn’t anything here for him when he became a star in pro football and played pro baseball and basketball. There aren’t many people outside of Oklahoma who associate Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench with their home states. Most other big-time Oklahoma sports names, including half of the state’s six Heisman Trophy winners, were born in other states. Guys like Desmond Mason, who of course did play plenty of his professional career in Oklahoma City, only have Oklahoma connections because of where they played their college ball. It’s not hard to argue that the closest equivalent to Griffin in terms of a locally-born sports star who has found fame on the professional level is OU’s Sam Bradford, who finished his Sooner career only a year after Griffin.
But not even Bradford, who won the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award (which Griffin will probably win in the NBA even if he didn’t play another game this season), has accumulated the national wattage that Griffin has. And, like Bradford, Griffin isn’t only from Oklahoma, but Oklahoma City. Born and raised. Not Edmond or Shawnee or Norman either, but Oklahoma City proper, the same name that graces the court on which Griffin will play tonight. There’s no fudging anything to call them hometown heroes.
So tonight is unlike anything Oklahoma City has ever experienced. With health and luck, Griffin will play another 20-30 regular-season games in OKC, but none of them will be like this. Tonight is a night to cherish if you care about Oklahoma City sports, and being a part of the standing ovation to welcome Griffin to his city will be something most of the 18,000+ in attendance tonight will not soon forget.
2. How far has the Thunder come since fans pined for Griffin during the inaugural season?
It really wasn’t long ago that a sizable contingent of Thunder fans spent the last half of the team’s first season in Oklahoma City half-seriously hoping for losses to increase the number of lottery balls before the draft. It was hard not to when the no-doubt future No. 1 pick was dominating the Big 12 for the state school 20 minutes down Interstate 35 from where the then-struggling Thunder was playing.
So forgive me for beating what is a long-dead horse around here, but it’s worth taking just a minute to note how different things are just two years later. The only thing left to ponder at this point in the team’s inaugural season was where the Thunder would finish in the lottery field and how big of a chance it had to land Griffin. Everyone knew OKC’s NBA future was pretty bright, but it was hard to see how quickly it was all going to happen at that time.
Now, the Thunder finds itself in position for home-court in the first round of the cutthroat-as-usual Western Conference and as close to the No. 2 seed as it is to No. 5. Sure, the stark contrast between the depths of the first season in town and Griffin’s first appearance in his hometown is helped a bit by the knee injury that cost him his real rookie season. But still. Things have changed. The only way the lottery enters the minds of Thunder fans now is to wonder when the team will be able to get lottery-protected draft picks it has traded for.
However … it remains hard to ignore the final point, to which this section provides a nice segue.
3. What if Oklahoma City HAD gotten Blake?!
I’m an ardent James Harden supporter. I maintain that he’ll prove more useful to the Thunder in seven-game playoff series than other players that OKC could have taken with the No. 3 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, namely Stephen Curry. Harden plays far better defense, is certainly no slouch offensively and could potentially truly blossom if he gets starter’s minutes.
But … man. What if the lottery balls had bounced a different way and the Thunder got its hometown boy? Griffin has the potential to be a truly transcendent star, and to this (extremely early) point in their careers, appears to be the only member of his draft class with true Hall of Fame potential. Can you imagine a starting lineup of Griffin-Ibaka-Durant-Thabo/Cook-Westbrook, with Jeff Green as a sixth man and the rest of the more-than-capable Thunder bench? I know you can imagine it, because I know we all have. It’s hard not to.
Alas, that’s never going to happen. If Griffin ever wears a Thunder uniform, it will probably be in the twilight of his career in one of those hometown swan songs that some players are lucky enough to get.
But take heart, OKC fans. The better team, and the team with the better future, still calls Oklahoma City home. Just like Griffin. He’ll come home to warm ovations for hopefully the next decade and a half. Here’s to rim-rattling dunks … and Clipper losses.