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Clay Bennett is an exemplary NBA ownerJune 11, 2012 @ 6:04 pm (Updated: 5:41 am - 6/12/12 )
"Clay is an exemplary owner."
That statement about the guy who snatched our Seattle Sonics and made them the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn't come from someone in Washington. It couldn't.
"He doesn't try to get in the spotlight, he doesn't get involved in personnel moves and he's created a first class operation with the Thunder. You would have the same thing if the team had stayed there," says Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoma resident and sports writer for The Oklahoman.
With the Thunder heading into the NBA finals against the Miami Heat, I'm not sure if hurts a little more or helps to know Seattle coulda, shoulda, woulda been in the same place. As Seattle sulks over the team's bitter departure, I wanted a different perspective on the team - from two OKC sports writers.
Clay Bennett photo (take a deep breath Sonics fans, don't let the image bother you) by Layne Murdoch.
Tramel credits three people with the Thunder's growing success since they left Seattle.
"They got lucky that Kevin Durant fell into their laps," he says. But the real key was when Clay Bennett hired Sam Presti as General Manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Presti "changed the culture, changed the mindset of the organization and really changed them from being the Sonics to becoming the Thunder."
"The team as the Sonics didn't have vision or commitment or plan. Sam Presti most definitely has a plan," says Tramel. "He's committed to treating players a certain way, doing everything in a first class manner, holding everyone to a certain accountability standard. Plus he has a great eye for talent. He and his staff have a very good working knowledge of the salary cap, been able to do all kinds of trades to be in position to make other trades and really build a roster that works."
If Bennett had hired Presti - the real brains behind the operation - and if they'd stayed in Seattle, Tramel says we'd "be watching the same winning team on the court." If. Although people in the Seattle area don't like Bennett much, he says as an owner he's done everything right because he gave Presti the "wallet" and control of the personnel moves.
The Thunder have been a unifying team in Oklahoma, which is a state normally divided by college rivalries. When one college team has a successful year "a big chunk of the population" doesn't want anything to do with it.
"This team, the Thunder, has been able to get everybody on the same page," says Tramel. "Sooners and Cowboys locking arms and cheering together is something I've never seen before."
He says the NBA resonates with non-sports fans in Oklahoma too, further driving television ratings in all the markets in the state.
"Part of it is the personal nature of basketball," he explains. "With football pads and helmets you don't even know what the stars look like unless you're a hard core fan. When you start watching a basketball team you feel like you know the players, you see their expressions, people feel a connection with basketball players who are out there in their skivvies."
Tramel feels for sports fans in Seattle and he understands our angst, but he also hopes we'll be able to root for the Thunder.
"It's becoming America's team. The whole dang nation is interested in them because they're so young, four of the best players are still under 24 years old, and they're exuberant," he says. "Plus people can get behind the frontier nature of Oklahoma City, playing the big villains of the Miami Heat with their scandalous ways."
Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant celebrates against the San Antonio Spurs during Game 6 in the NBA basketball Western Conference finals. On to the NBA finals, game one Tuesday night against the Miami Heat. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Oklahoman sports writer Jenni Carlson also sympathizes with Seattle basketball fans.
"Listen, I understand why some folks in Seattle are still mad. They had basketball there for decades. They had a proud history. To have that taken away from you? You don't just snap your fingers and get over it," she says.
Her empathy only goes so far though because she doubts Seattle could have created the Thunder.
"Had the team stayed in Seattle, would it have had the resources to go out and get Kendrick Perkins, who changed the toughness on this team? Had it stayed, would it have been able to offer max deals to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are pillars of the present and the future? Had it stayed, would it be in position to try to do deals later this summer with James Harden and Serge Ibaka?" she asks.
It's impossible to know, but Carlson thinks "it's hard to see how THIS team would've been assembled in Seattle."
By LINDA THOMAS
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