Big League City, Part II: David Holt discusses OKC history, the decision to pursue a pro team, and SonicsGate

image courtesy okc.gov

Sarah Rogers continues her conversation with Oklahoma State Senator David Holt, who shares some of the unique history of OKC, why getting the Thunder matters, and why they were able to acquire the Sonics.

Yesterday we introduced you to Oklahoma State Senator David Holt, who played a key role behind the scenes in bringing the NBA to OKC. Today in Part 2 of our exclusive interview, Holt explains the historical significance of the Thunder's arrival, the struggle between OKC and Seattle, and the men who were primarily responsible for making it all happen.

You can check out Part I of our interview here.

***

You open the book in your Preface with this quote:

"The arrival of major league sports in Oklahoma City was the most significant positive development in the city's history since the Land Run of 1889."

Can you explain what this quote means?

"The Land Run" is our birthday. Most cities grow more organically than that. If we were a normal city, I might have just ended the sentence by saying [the arrival] was the most positive development ever, because no one would know when the city began. It's generally lost to history, but in OKC, we know the day and we can't top our birthday and say anything more positive than that, so that's why I made that allusion.

"In April 22, 1889 the US Federal Government opened up this Central Oklahoma area, which they called, "the Unassigned Lands," because they had not been previously held by an Indian tribe, which makes us a little bit different than the rest of Oklahoma. Of course this was Indian land if you go back before the government domination, but once the government took over Oklahoma and started moving tribes, here they never moved a tribe to the OKC area.


"In 1889, the government opened the lands up and we went from 0 people to 10,000 people in one day. When I look over our history I think there are two birthdays: one is the day we were created on April 22, 1889, and the second date is when we moved into the first tier of American cities. That's the day the Thunder took the court.

"On some level, we did change minds when we got to host the Hornets, but if they had left and not been replaced, that wouldn't have permanently changed our status. We needed a team that was ours for all time by whatever sports standards there are. Obviously Seattle lost their team, but we hope that'll never happen to us.

"So that was the day I think, in 2008, when we finally had the Thunder, that our descendants will mark all our history as either before or afterwards. It is never going to be the same again and it's definitely felt that way ever since. That is part of the reason why I wrote the book, to remind people what it felt like, to the extent that I can. Because people have this pride in our city now and they take it for granted that we are now part of American pop culture. To feel relevant living here and people knowing where OKC is. That if one of the most famous people on the planet, Kevin Durant, can live here, then obviously it's an important place in America and the world.

"Until that day arrived, from 1889 to 2008, we were not any of those things. We didn't have that same image of ourselves and we often felt like we were in a small town. Even though we had a million-plus people, it just never felt that way. I think that there a lot of great things have happened for our city. The day Tinker Air Force Base arrived, the discovery of oil, all of those have a positive impact on our city, but I don't think there's anything like the creation of your city and the arrival of your city as a first-tier American city, which I believe happened when the Thunder came in 2008."

Can you tell us about the MAPS initiative and how it helped in the progress of the city?

"If you go back to the late 1980s/early 1990s, the city tried to persuade United Airlines facility to come to OKC. We passed a tax and we did everything we could to lure this particular large company to do business in the city. Instead, United chose Indianapolis. Indianapolis didn't have mountains or oceans, but they had two sports teams (Indiana Pacers & the Indianapolis Colts).

"Our mayor at the time (Ron Norick) called the CEO of United and asked what happened and wanted an explanation of why OKC wasn't chosen. The CEO said, "I just couldn't imagine making my employees live in OKC." It was then, but it may have already been obvious, that this was the final wake-up call that the mayor and chamber needed to realize that we lacked a satisfactory quality of life. We had a low cost of living, clean air and water, low traffic, but we had nothing to do. Downtown was dead, people practically lived in their cars, there was no urban living, no culture. Sidewalks were rolled up at 5 p.m. People lived their lives out in the suburbs, which isn't a bad way to live, but it certainly lacked the urban charm that a younger generation looks for and sees on television or movies, and they couldn't experience that here.

"So, the mayor put forward the MAPS tax-initiative, which [implemented] a one cent, five year sales tax that would build nine projects, one of which was a sports arena. It passed in 1993 with just under 54% of the vote, and was the game changer. By the time the last project was built 10 years later, we had a downtown we were proud of. We had a ballpark and a sports arena, but we just lacked a major league sports team. [However] without MAPS, a major league sports team coming to OKC would never have happened because we wouldn't have had a sports arena [to put it].

"When Cornett took office, he emphasized privately the need to persuade a sports team [to come to OKC], which he figured would probably be a team from the NHL. He thought the NBA was probably out of our league, so he privately met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in 2004 during the National Republican Convention in New York. The NHL wasn't playing then because of the work stoppage (2004-05 lockout) and there wasn't really an opportunity there because they weren't playing any hockey, but still Cornett felt it was the best bet. We didn't have a place for an NFL team and we didn't have a venue for a MLB team, but we had a sports arena with suites and 19,000 seats. OKC has a surprising history with hockey. We had a successful minor league team and the NHL had taken a look at us in the late ‘90s, but we failed to get an expansion team. That's where we thought we could compete though because the NHL is the fourth-best league.


"The NBA could play in our arena, but they were a lot more discerning and a much bigger deal. Mayor Cornett met with NBA Commissioner David Stern in early 2005 and pitched OKC. Probably for the first time in his life, Stern thought about OKC. He now understood our population, economy and an arena that was paid for, which is no small thing in arena economics. In April 2005, Cornett met with Stern again. Stern called Cornett, "The mayor that wouldn't go away." They met for several hours, had a nice conversation, but Cornett still left there feeling like it was the NHL or nothing because at the end of the meeting, Stern said "I see an NHL team in your future." Stern, in his way, was saying, ‘All the best, but don't come back here.'

"The timing of the meeting was impeccable because in August, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Since OKC was fresh on Stern's mind and Cornett and Stern had built a relationship, Cornett was able to pick up the phone and offer OKC to Stern for the New Orleans Hornets to play. Who gets the opportunity to host a team temporarily and prove that you can do it for real? So, we were never impressive on paper and very few team owners or leagues would've taken a risk on an unproven market [to place a professional team]. But for one to two years, why not? So, the Hornets came to OKC and you can say the rest is kind of history.

"Within weeks, we had sold more season tickets than they had in New Orleans, and had several million-dollar sponsors for the team locally from the corporate community. It wasn't two weeks into the season that Stern came to OKC, probably for the first time in his life, and said OKC was now at the top of the relocation or expansion list. It was an incredible turnaround from when Cornett had spoken to Stern earlier in the year and Stern had said "I see an NHL team in your future," but everything worked out.

"We had put the arena in place, Cornett had established relationships, and had an unfortunate disaster not occurred in New Orleans, we wouldn't have been there to host that team. We were ready and willing to do so, and that changed our image and gave us opportunity and credibility."

Can you talk about the role Clay Bennett played and what you think of the public perception toward him?

"Of course the Hornets ultimately returned back to New Orleans, but [we needed] business leaders led by Clay Bennett, who went out and bought the Seattle Supersonics and ultimately fought to relocate the team to OKC. If they hadn't [done that] we'd still be talking about will OKC ever get a permanent NBA team. But it all fell in place with the help of our business leaders, led by Bennett. I think that [negative national media coverage of the Thunder owners ] just a hangover with what happened in Seattle. I think he never desired a public life, but by buying a sports franchise, you inherit a public life.

"I think he's happy to let [Thunder GM Sam] Presti and others speak for the team. I think the coverage he maybe gets from Seattle and the outside media is an alternate universe from the reality of who he is as a person. I think it's always going to be that way because some of the people who are communicating that are people who didn't want to see the team move.

"I don't think there is anything he can do or say to change peoples' minds, and I think he's the guy people blame and I think it's just always going to be that way. But I think what he can do and does do is run the team with integrity and in a way that demonstrates Oklahoma values and his family's values. I think that's all he can do, is demonstrate through his actions who he really is. I think he's probably seen, as the years go on, a tempering of that attitude by the media as they have seen how the Thunder operates, which I think they greatly respect. And they have to understand on some level that's a reflection of who he really is."

Have you seen the fan-made documentary "SonicsGate: A Requiem for a Team," and what is your perspective on it?

"Yes, I've seen it. The story of the departure is pretty easy to explain. A core group of people loved that team and wanted to keep it, but there just weren't enough of them. In the end, the politicians at the city and state level could count noses and could tell that not that many people would do whatever it took to keep the team. Of course if they could have it for nothing they'd prefer to have the team, but what it took was certain investments in their infrastructure that they just weren't willing to make.


"Right about the time that Oklahomans bought the team, the people of Seattle passed a referendum saying that, by an overwhelming majority, Seattle could basically never participate in any kind of sports infrastructure plan.That made the situation extremely difficult. That is why Bennett and his partners had to go to the state, because the city basically took themselves off the table at the very beginning, and then they never got a vote in the state legislature on their proposal. There was just no support for it.So it's kind of case that people wanted something for nothing, wanting something because they had it before. We were just hungrier in Oklahoma [for this team], whereas they were in their city passing a measure that would defeat any potential for investments for a sports facility. Our voters, 64% of them, said, "We want to put another $120 million into the Ford Center and into a private practice facility for the team, owned by the public. Those were things Seattle voters were not willing to do.

"For all the hubbub about it, it's a pretty simple equation. People in Seattle didn't want it bad enough. They had two other sports teams, invested in them greatly, and the Sonics probably suffered from that because by the time they came to ask [for improvements], Seattle had just built stadiums for a baseball and football team. It was just kind of bad timing in that regard. And again, SonicsGate probably places far too much blame on outsiders and doesn't accept enough of the blame internally. There just weren't enough people or taxpayers to do what it took to keep the team in Seattle. Right or wrong, the team was bound to depart in that situation. Other cities have had this happen to them. Sacramento went to the table and they did a lot more than what Seattle was willing to do and they saved their team as a result."

Other than Clay Bennett, Who else was most responsible for bringing the Thunder to OKC?

"I'd say Bennett and then Mick Cornett. One had vision to create a scenario where the Hornets coming here was not only possible but likely. The Hornets coming here was the first critical part of story. The Sonics wouldn't have had the opportunity to come here if the Hornets didn't blaze the trail, and Cornett's role throughout was so critical [for that to happen]. By the same token, Cornett without Bennett means we'd never have an NBA team here permanently. Cornett can do all he wants to, but someone had to buy the team and bring it here and that's a lot of money.

"Bennett, Aubrey McClendon, Tom Ward, Jeff Records, and their other partners spent a lifetime making the money that would make it possible for them to spend $350 million on the Thunder. The same amount of money that was put into MAPS by the people of OKC was put into a team by four guys and their friends. Without that and Bennett's leadership through the whole Seattle episode of this story, we wouldn't have the NBA either, so they both had to play their role. So many other people of course did other things that had to happen and a lot of people deserve credit and so do 500,000 residents of OKC who voted for the initiatives and bought tickets and it wouldn't have happened without them either. But if you are doing Mt. Rushmore or a statue downtown, it'd be those two men."

***

Return tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview with Mr. Holt.

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