This is the first in a series of articles about the greatest underdog venues in U.S. pro sports. The criteria is simple: small market towns, communities that get no respect, that personify the under-rated, that constantly challenge the giants of the world, and/or that have suffered some terrible devastation but are rebuilding.
Given its status as not only the newest but the smallest market in the NBA, Oklahoma City has earned a place on our list of Best Underdog Venues.
Consider them the Green Bay of the NBA. And consider them more than that. Consider them the New Orleans of the Midwest.
Yes, ironically many years before Katrina, Oklahoma City experienced an event perhaps even more devastating to the civic psyche than New Orleans' natural disaster.
Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building had broken the backs and hearts of this proud, resilient city. As a result, much like New Orleans would later be, the town was down but not out; broken but not bowed.
Their response to McVeigh was to build a Riverwalk. Around it they created an entirely new, vibrant, bohemian district they call Bricktown.
That was their nod to the future.
At the same time, they saluted their past.
At a church across from the Murrah site, there's an extremely powerful statue of a larger-than-life Christ turning his back in grief on the site of the bombing.
If you've seen this in person, you feel the same pain—the pain of a father or mother looking away from the mangled corpse of his or her own child. If you come away from there without tears in your eyes, you can't be human.
But that's not the end of the story.
Now cross the street. A stunning memorial was built on the site of the tragedy.
There is a block-long reflecting pool, where the Murrah Building stood. From any angle, one can see nothing in the pool but a vivid, mirror-clear copy of the city's refurbished skyline.
Around the pool, empty chairs sit in odd configurations, one for each person who died there, in the exact location where each was found.
Unless you've seen it, you can't imagine the power of this place, how beautifully it captures the pain, the memory, and yet just as poignantly, the hope and triumph of a city that refused to lose hope.
Isn't it ironic, then, that just as Oklahoma City had risen from its ashes, it became the "foster home" to a team from another city just buried in its own.
Oklahoma City and New Orleans will be forever linked not only for the similarity and magnitude of disasters endured, but also for their two-year linkage in NBA archives as the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets.
Until then, no one would have considered Oklahoma City a major league venue in any sport. Who would have thought there would be any oxygen left in Central Oklahoma for any team that didn't wear red and dance to "Boomer Sooner"?
But something emerged from that kinship of sorrow with New Orleans.
It's true that by the time the Hornets arrived, the Seattle Sonics had been purchased by a group of Oklahoma investors. Ford Center had been built in hopes of luring the NBA.
But you can lead a Sooner to a backboard, and still they may not shoot.
The opportunity to be a refuge to a strange team from a strange sport created a permanent space for the NBA in a way that just absconding with the Sonics could never have done.
In a way, it's a pity they didn't just keep the Hornets, since New Orleans had been lukewarm toward the team in the first place.
After all, if they'd wanted cagers in Cajun Country, it would have been easy enough to keep the Jazz. (And will someone please explain why they didn't re-name the team in Salt Lake. Something like the "Choirboys" makes more sense in Tabernacle Town than "Jazz.")
But we digress.
Oklahoma City, as it turns out, used the Hornets' two-year exile as a dress rehearsal for things to come.
Exit, Hornets. Enter, Thunder.
Once one of the league's most successful franchises, the Sonics were a shell of their former selves. Ironically, given the presence of the FAA training center and Tinker Air Force Base in OKC, they could have, perhaps should have kept the Sonics name.
The new name has given rise to an unflattering nickname that rhymes with it—"Blunder."
More blunder than thunder in the first season there, the cellar-dwellers are challenging OKC fans' stomach for futility, and their capacity for loyalty. But given their fire-tested ability to survive and revive from devastation, we have no doubt the fans will endure and the Thunder will roll, and when they do, underdog fans everywhere will cheer... and salute.