It was just after 9 pm and I was driving south on Interstate 35 through the south side of Oklahoma City. I remember looking down at the speedometer and realizing two things. I was ripping along at almost 100 mph on the highway, and I wasn't passing any other cars. I was also feeling nauseous from the overwhelming odor of methane gas that was getting stronger with every mile I drove.
I was terrified. Not because I was traveling at such a deadly speed, or that if I got pulled over I would probably go to jail. I was terrified because it was May 3rd, 1999, and I knew my house had been destroyed by the strongest tornado in recorded history, and that my wife and three children had been in that house.
Forty-six Oklahomans perished from the tornadoes spawned on May 3rd, and I thank God every day that He didn't take 50. When I finally got the news about the storm, I called my home. I will never forget that call. The phone rang once, and I listened as a robotic groan that faded to a slow raspy moan. That sound will always haunt my memory. It sounded like my house gasping its last breath, begging for help, imploring me to come home.
I immediately hung up and phoned my folks. My mother answered and immediately began to sob and I braced for the worst. Thankfully my Dad stepped in and knew what I needed to hear most: "Son, your family is safe. Your house is destroyed, but Stacey and the kids are fine and at her mother's house."
"I'm coming home."
This year marks the sixteenth anniversary of that May 3rd tornado, and one day I will ask the Almighty why I was blessed multiple times on that night. First, my family survived, and I'm still around to play with my grand babies. Second, even though I can offer no explanation and was furious about it at the time, the two hour delay before getting the news of my home kept me from driving straight into the teeth of the tempest. I also can't explain how I was able to make back to back phone calls when the lines were gridlocked with calls from frantic friends and relatives trying to reach their loved ones. I can only say, it happened.
After hanging up and racing home, I found the nearest place to park was 3 1/2 miles away from my the home of my in-laws. To reach my family, I would have to cross a mile wide path of debris. All access to the damaged areas had already been blocked by emergency personnel, but I didn't care. I was obsessed with one thought: I have to get to my family. I was willing to die if that is what it took to get there.
I brazenly marched across a stretch of destruction strewn with the fractured and broken pieces of a neighborhood gone forever. Of course all of the street lights were gone. I witnessed the horrific images of devastation I passed through only in flashes, lit only by the sparks of downed power lines, like black and white still frames from some post apocalyptic horror film. To me they were not a source of danger; I saw them only as a source of light.
When I arrived at my in-laws' house, I burst into their home without knocking. I was a wreck, but my family was just as I had left them hours earlier. Beautiful and perfect.
I'll admit it, I went a little nuts that night. My Dad told me everyone was safe, but I had to see for myself. I laugh at myself a little now because I put myself through all that simply to count fingers and toes. That's what I did when I got to hug and kiss them all. I think I would have counted every hair on their heads if my sweet wife hadn't stopped me.
Sure, I know its crazy, but that is what your willing to do when you love someone more than you love yourself.
That idea is something Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan understands all too well. Sadly, from a much more poignant lesson than mine.
After watching Billy Donovan's opening interview at Chesapeake Arena, I came across an old article about Coach D written in 2011. What I read reminded me just how lucky I am, because my little story of desperation is nothing compared to the loss Billy Donovan and his wife Christine suffered.
On November 2, 2000, Billy and Christine's unborn daughter Jacqueline Patricia Donovan passed one week before her delivery due date. Her umbilical cord had somehow gotten tightly wrapped around her little ankle and as a result, her flow of oxygen was cut off and she was gone so fast it absolutely staggers the imagination. Her death shattered the Donovans' lives.
I don't know where I would be today if the words, "Son, your family is safe" had been replaced with an approximation of the tragic news Christine tearfully had to give Billy that November morning. I lost it, and that was after knowing family was okay. I cannot fathom my reaction to such a loss, much less how the Donovan family survived it. It is a true testament of strength, love, and devotion to their faith and one another, and a critical part of what makes Billy Donovan and Christine Donovan who they are.
It has been said that the "Oklahoma Standard" was born on April 19th, 1995. However, the people of Oklahoma know this was simply the formalization of an idea that has always been a part of our everyday lives. The world simply saw this characteristic for the first time on that terrible day, and Billy Donovan told us he experienced it while attending an AAU tournament held in OKC and that he was still amazed by what he witnessed.
The world saw the standard again after the May 3rd, 1999 tornado, and I experienced it when my family was pulled from the wreckage by people I have never met and who never asked for a 'thank-you' for their efforts. Their help was never asked for; it was freely given. That is what the people from Oklahoma do when their neighbor is in trouble. That's who we are, that's what we do.
The Oklahoma City Thunder proved they were willing and able part of the Oklahoma Standard after the latest F5 tornado struck Moore, OK on May 20, 2013. Kevin Durant and other members of the Thunder walked through the aftermath of the storm doing whatever they could to help. No matter what decision Durant makes regarding his own future, no matter where his career may take him, as a citizen of Moore, I want thank him. He needs to remember he and all of the Thunder organization, past, present, and future, are a part of the Oklahoma Standard forever.
Coach Billy Donovan introduced some of the guests in attendance at his news conference because they join his past with his future. Former player and current OSU Cowboy head basketball coach Travis Ford sat next to Donovan's predecessor at Florida, OU head basketball coach Ron Kruger. Donovan fondly remembered the note of encouragement Kruger left for him in the desk in his new office at Florida, and Donovan still respectfully refers to Kruger as, "Coach." The Oklahoma ties to Donovan's coaching past run still deeper. In 1996, Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops was hired as the defensive coordinator the same year Billy Donovan was hired as the head basketball coach at the University of Florida.
Coach Donovan has an impressive coaching resume and expectations are very high that he can elevate the Oklahoma City Thunder to a higher level of achievement. Only time will tell us if those expectations will reach fruition. However, there is one unspoken expectation of Billy Donovan I have no doubt he will not only achieve but also surpass, and that is the relationship he will have with the citizens of Oklahoma.
Billy Donovan visited the Murrah Building bombing site before the Oklahoma Standard was given its formal name. As Donovan said in his interview, he saw how "paralyzed" downtown Oklahoma City was in the terrible aftermath of America's worst domestic bomb attack in history.
Is it fate that a young 29 year old coach that experienced first hand the aftermath of that 1995 devastation, faced the very same paralyzing pain of loss in his own life, is now going to be one of the public faces of the Oklahoma Standard 20 years later?
Using a Billy Donovan twist of phrase, I "very, very" much doubt it. Coach Billy Donovan and "his family," Christine, Connor, Bryan, Hasbrouck, William III, and yes, even little Jacqueline Patricia, will tell you that it was something "much, much" more.
Christine and Billy Donovan will tell you there is indeed a time and place for everything. A time to live, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh. They know there is a time to sow and a time to reap.
Twenty years ago, two seeds were planted. The plants that grew from those seeds have survived the tempest and grown strong. Now it is time to celebrate the fruits from those seeds. It wasn't fate that brought Billy Donovan here, it was destined to a happen... a "very, very" long time ago.
Welcome back to the Oklahoma family Coach D. Take off your coat and sit a spell, we're proud to have you.