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MAPS, Sonicsgate, And The Oklahoma City Thunder

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A city's cultural identity is a strange and powerful thing. What happens when everything changes?

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Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

How many great stories have started this way:

"Let me tell you about a great adventure that began with a tax on the American people..."

Like anyone from the age 50+ club, I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. One in particular occurred nearly twenty-two years ago when Oklahoma City voters passed the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) tax initiative on December 14th, 1993.

It is difficult to explain to anyone under the age of 30, or who moved here within the last 15 years how profoundly that event changed their lives.

It all started when OKC lost a contract for a new maintenance facility for United Airlines to Indianapolis. Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick wanted to know how that happened, and more importantly, was willing to do what was necessary to make sure it never happened again.

What young Oklahomans see, and more importantly, what outsiders see when they go into the downtown area is the polar opposite of what they would have experienced in the years before the MAPS initiative. Twenty plus years ago, you only went into downtown Oklahoma City to work or take of business that you couldn't do anywhere else. Otherwise, you did not go to the city, period, especially after dark. Besides not offering much to do, the downtown area wasn't the safest place to visit in those days.

2015 is different. Bricktown, the city's first warehouse and distribution district, established soon after the Land Run of 1889 east of downtown Oklahoma City, is a perfect example. The transformation there alone is remarkable. As a result of Urban Renewal, the area began to decline in the 1960s and 70s. What was once a decaying eyesore in the mid 1980s is now a vibrant and exciting urban entertainment district.


Bricktown Canal

Bricktown Ballpark (now called the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark)

MAPS saved baseball in OKC. Major League Baseball told Norick that every triple-A stadium had 5 years to meet a new standard. The old All-Sports Stadium didn't  meet OKC's code much less the new standard.

Along with improvements to the State Fair Grounds and a future downtown trolley system, other projects included:

Upgrading the Cox Convention Center

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library

Civic Center Music Hall

The Oklahoma River Project

Altering the course of the North Canadian River south of downtown Oklahoma City led to this:

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site

I am so proud of that US Olympic logo. It is another symbol of how far Oklahoma City has come from the days when Ron Norick first took office. The city's financial position was so bad in 1988 that Norick implemented an "Adopt A Pothole" program to help fund repairs for the streets.

The primary component of MAPS:

Chesapeake Energy Arena

The primary component of the original MAPS project, and the biggest obstacle getting the initiative passed, was a state of the art sports arena. Completed in 2002 and originally named the Ford Center, "The Peake" represented the most daring element of Norick's plan. References to the famous line, "if you build it, he will come" whispered to Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, in the 1989 movie, "Field of Dreams", were impossible to avoid.

In the aftermath of the Penn Square Bank closure and the collapse of the state's energy industry, Mayor Norick's plan to build an arena for a nonexistent team was not an easy sale to a city in which underemployed petroleum engineers were working as janitors to put food on the table. Many do not remember that the citizenry was extremely skeptical, opposing the plan by a 20% margin right up to a month before the tax referendum vote would be held. When approached about delaying the vote, or reducing the components of the initiative (read: the sports arena), to win the vote, Norick refused and stood firm.

The United Airlines venture was not the first failed attempt to revive Oklahoma City's dying corporate base, it was just the last straw. Norick also failed to beat offers from other cities for deals with American Airlines and the Department of Defense. When he approached United with voter approved sales tax incentives, Norick knew he had the strongest financial package on the table and it stunned him when he lost the bid to Indianapolis.

After losing the United Airlines bid, Mayor Norick went on the offensive and spent a day in Indianapolis. When he saw how Market Square Arena, home of the Pacers, filled nearby restaurants with sports fans and other urban amenities fueling a vibrant and thriving metropolis, Norick knew what had to happen. In order to compete, Oklahoma City had to up the ante:

"To do what we want to do, to compete with the cities we visited, to get to the level I wanted to be at, we needed to be a major-league city," Norick recalled in a recent interview. "It was either hockey or basketball."

Mayor Ron Norick

Norick determined that to succeed he must have complete support of local civic leaders. There could be no dissension. He knew he was a step ahead because city leaders were already aware of the impact a major professional sports franchise would have on the future of Oklahoma City.

To that end, OKC civic leaders had attempted to persuade voters to fund a domed football stadium at State Fair Park in 1986 but failed. Seven years later Nordick convinced civic leaders that now was the time to move forward and used that 1986 failure as a model for what not to do.

Norick started by refining the failed single stadium approach into a list of dream projects. He then recruited an experienced urban development pitch man, Rick Harrow, to help him sell his vision of becoming a major league city to his constituency, and pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. It was now or never, and it was all of MAPS or bust.

With no promises of getting either a NHL or NBA team, and only the guarantee to voters that if MAPS failed it would never be possible, Ron Norick's inspirational team helped voters see MAPS as an investment in their children and beyond. Finally, on December 14th, 1993, the original MAPS initiative passed with 54% of the vote.

For more details of his time in office, on the twentieth anniversary of MAPS, Ron Norick conducted this interview.

Norick began looking for a team for the future sports arena the same year he was campaigning for the passage of the MAPS initiative, but once the initiative passed, his work began in earnest and when the NHL announced it would add 4 teams in 1997, Oklahoma City was one of nine cities that applied. When the announcement came that OKC was one of six finalist, the excitement grew. Unfortunately for Norick's dream of a major league city, the NHL decided then was not the time to put a team in Oklahoma City.

When Oklahoma Sports Commission President Clay Bennett opened a June 17, 1997 press conference with the words, "I wish we had better news...", a dark shadow was cast on Oklahoma City's hope of ever becoming a major league city. Norick said that television market size was the city's primary stumbling block and added that city officials would have to "review" plans for the indoor sports arena to "maintain" credibility among the voters and added:

"Clearly we do not want to build a building that will put a big drain on the city's general fund. There are some critical issues we have to address -- do we build it now, do we delay it, or do we build it at all. The main thing is we have to be honest with the public."

Mayor Ron Norick, June 17, 1997

City officials and Oklahoma City voters again followed Norick's lead and construction began on what is now called Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 11th, 1999.

Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. Although New Orleans Arena had sustained only light damage, the flooding that resulted from the failure of the hurricane surge protection levees made it impossible to use and the Hornets relocated temporarily to Oklahoma City, returning to New Orleans in 2007.

The Hornet team that came to Oklahoma City in 2005 was not very good. Chris Paul was just a rookie then and fan support the previous season had been waning. That all changed when the young Hornets hit Oklahoma City. Playing in front of sellout crowds every night. Paul recalled his reaction to the fan support for preseason games last February in an interview with the Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson:

"Preseason games were crazy, every game we played, I've never seen fan support like that.... nothing like it, nothing like it."

In the 1997 press conference announcing the NHL's failure to award OKC an expansion team, Clay Bennett said:

"The NHL has lost an opportunity. We feel like the NHL and Oklahoma City could have been a great success. We could have been one of those dark horse success stories."

He was right and while Chris Paul was experiencing the fan support in Oklahoma City the NBA was paying attention to the regional television market feedback and supported Bennett's purchase of the struggling Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and his decision to move the team to Oklahoma City in 2008 when a new arena deal was not secured.

Nordick's Dream Comes True

The Oklahoma City Thunder

When Clay Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and the newly named Thunder played their first game in the Ford Center in 2008, Ron Norick's vision for Oklahoma City's future took a giant step forward. Many believe the team itself was the dream. It wasn't.

State Senator David Holt chronicled the true nature of Norick's dream in his book "Big League City: Oklahoma City's Rise to the NBA". Welcome to Loud City did a series with Senator Holt in 2013 and you can read it here.

Norick's dream was for Oklahoma City to become more than just a spot on the map. He knew the perception outside investors had of Oklahoma City must change. The team was not the goal, but their presence here proved that Oklahoma City was now a viable option for investments by corporate America and beyond because their presence proved when it had to, Oklahoma City could play hard ball.

In the oft-times zero-sum business world you generally either win or you lose. When an opportunity arises you act before someone else beats you to it. Norick and Bennett tried to play nice and failed. There is a reason for the saying that nice guys finish last because they generally do, especially in business.

Hurricane Katrina was bad, but it presented an opportunity to prove that the NHL's assessment that OKC was not a viable major league market was wrong. Kansas City, San Diego, Louisville and Nashville were all ready to host the Hornets for that same opportunity, they lost, and OKC parlayed that opportunity into their own NBA franchise.

The Thunder give a worldwide audience a front row seat to what Oklahoma City has to offer, right in their own living room. MAPS made that happen. Oklahoma City is not just a sleepy little cow town, when it comes to business, Oklahoma City is a "player".

Here is an example:

Preconceived notions are difficult to overcome. In the past, many people that had never been to Oklahoma had their impressions shaped by depictions such as the musical "Oklahoma" or the Great Depression novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." It is not uncommon for an Oklahoman to be asked if it is true that everyone wears cowboy hats and boots.

Those types of misconceptions are cute and harmless and not totally unfounded nor unwanted. The National Cowboy And Western Heritage Museum sits just a few miles away from the state capital, and Cattleman's Steakhouse in Historic Stockyard City is world famous.

If you visit, TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley highly recommends Cattleman's lamb fries. Barkley didn't always perceive Oklahoma in a positive light, but those misconceptions changed in his first tour of the city. A tour that would have never come about if the Thunder didn't play at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Barkley Before Coming To Oklahoma City:

Current Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's Playful Response:

I chose "Sir Charles"  as an example of a celebrity dismissing our city because the man who once proclaimed "I am not a role model" in a 1993 Nike commercial and described Oklahoma as "a vast wasteland", has now become a leading voice, a role model, if you will, in bifurcating the difference between the unwanted perceptions of Oklahoma City and the enriching reality.

Upon arriving in Oklahoma City in 2012, Barkley was given 2 pairs of custom-made cowboy boots. After visiting the various sights of the city for three hours, he went to the Oklahoma National Memorial and Museum. Barkley's schedule included only a quick 20 minute tour, but he chose to stay for an hour. After his tour, Sir Charles autographed and donated for auction one of the gifts he had received upon his arrival in the city.

The following night, TNT aired a pre-recorded segment chronicling Barkleys "festive romp around the city".

© Mark D. Smith/USAToday Sports Images

When the segment got to Barkley's visit to the Memorial Museum however, his tone became somber:

"This is very powerful, very powerful," an obviously moved Barkley said as he stood on the memorial grounds. "I'm glad I took the time. I'm very glad I took the time."

When fellow analyst Ernie Johnson commented after the video he told Barkley that "powerful" was a perfect choice of words to which Barkley responded,

"Ernie, it's one of the most intense things I've ever done in my life. If you come to Oklahoma City or you should make a special trip here, it is unbelievable."

The memorial has never auctioned those donated boots, and it never will. Instead, they placed the size-16 lizard skinned boots in a glass case just inside the entrance to the museum. They represent not only the "powerful" emotions one feels upon visiting the Memorial, but also the "powerful" spirit of a state that came together and rose above it. You can't put a price on that.

When every NBA fan on the planet that watched that segment on their TV got a chance to meet the city, maybe for the first time, Ron Nordick's dream for his city and its people came true.

Change Is Inevitable

Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.

Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook), Wall Street, 1987

For the people of Oklahoma City, it may be tempting to sit back and merely enjoy the fruits of Ron Norick's dream. That passive repose would be misplaced. Vigilance and flexibility are the keys to maintaining the momentum garnered from the MAPS initiative, and the Thunder are an important catalyst for that momentum to continue.

Players we love come and go. And now we learn, so do coaches. Every NBA team goes through cycles, and since the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, the theme has been, "Rise Together." Except for the hiccup of this tumultuous past season, the team has continuously risen to meet new challenges, and that identity is what Thunder fans have known, supported, and identified with. Present season excepted, times are good.  But...the day will come when the Thunder will have to rebuild.

Team building is difficult, but made easier when presented with both a blank slate as well as otherworldly young talent on which to build. Team re-building is harder. It is a long and painful process because it is an admission that you must leave the past behind and search for the unknown once again, where the shifting odds swing like a pendulum each game for nearly 100 oscillations every single year. When the pendulum swings unfavorably, and in time it inevitably will, Thunder fans will either stay vigilant and "Stand Together," or risk losing their team.

Just ask Seattle Supersonics fans how quickly something you thought would last forever can disappear. If ANY Thunder fan thinks they cherish their team more than Seattle fans adored the Sonics, just click here.

A common sentiment I see in Sonic fan discussions is that Oklahoma City deserved a team, just not their team, the Sonics. I'm sure Kings fans felt the same way when they thought they were losing their team to Seattle: "They deserve a team, just not ours."

When I was researching this post, I watched Sonicsgate. I get it. I get it as well as any non-Seattle person can get it. Sonic fans were and are still outraged, and feel betrayed by a number of the stakeholders involved. They know their team got plucked away from them just like a red delicious apple picked from a tree.

Sonic fans do deserve a team for which they can once again cheer. Fans have doggedly committed to a near decade long battle to get the arena they need to attract an NBA team back Seattle. If you don't believe me, spend some time at our friends' site, Sonics Rising. Unfortunately they are still fighting the public funding battle. Nearly nine years have passed since the sale of the Sonics, and according to, they are just getting past  a Final Environmental Impact Statement. According to the Seattle Times, the city is about to run into Initiative 91 legal issues with the proposed Sodo Arena.

Ironically, the Kings got the financing for the arena they had to build to keep the Kings not just once, but twice. They also received remarkable support from their fan base, including our other sister site, Sactown Royalty, where they helped promote public campaigns of support to keep their team. Sacramento broke ground on their new arena in late October, 2014. Sacramento's flexibility kept their team. That is a valuable lesson for Thunder fans to remember.

I consider Sonicsgate required viewing for any Oklahoma City fan that does not want to see their team come to the same fate as the Sonics. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the NBA knows it has cities waiting in line to fund sports arenas.

Howard Schulz put the Sonics up for sale because the team was operating in the red. Businessmen don't like to lose money and he wanted his team in a venue with luxury corporate suites under better terms to make a profit and asked for $220 million in public funds to upgrade Keyarena and a better lease. His requests were repeatedly denied and right or wrong, fair or unfair, the NBA agreed with Schultz and Clay Bennett recognized an opportunity and acted upon it. Schultz accepted Bennett's offer because it included a one year window for Seattle to get a deal in place.

In a July 16, 2006 edition of the Oklahoman, Chris Van Dyk, the head of Citizens for More Important Things felt strongly that public opinion in Seattle would not change and said:

"I can’t believe anybody from the state of Oklahoma is dumb enough to think the (people of) city of Seattle are going to change their minds at that threat"

Well Mr Van Dyk, I guess this dumb old Okie only has one response to that... thanks for the team and Go Thunder!

When Seattle City Councilman Nick Lacata declared  that the Sonics provided no value to the local economy and voters approved Van Dyk's Citizens for More Important Things' Initiative 91 in October of 2006, it destroyed any chance to simply upgrade Keyarena and for all intent and purposes, sealed the fate of the Seattle Supersonics.

A Warning to Thunder Fans

Norick's MAPS model is being emulated and tweaked in other cities. When the Kings were for sale, Virginia Beach, Va. was in the mix trying to buy the team and I didn't choose the hyperlink for my reference to "The Peake" by accident. It came from the Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI.

When Oklahoma City voted to support MAPS in December, 1993, they agreed to a one cent sale tax for 60 months and voted to extend that tax for 6 more months in July, 1999. In those 66 months, $309 million was collected, an additional $54 million was earned in interest. Those monies funded MAPS.

That $309 million dollar commitment in 1993 had resulted in roughly $3.1 billion dollars in capital investments by 2009 with another $1.9 billion in future investments announced at the time of the Redevelopment and Renewal Award article. Five billion dollars in 22 years! Not a bad chunk of change for a town that used to have to sell potholes to fix the streets.

Remember that when, not if, the NBA says the Thunder need a new arena or they are gone.

Don't kid yourself Thunder fans, the world is watching Oklahoma City. Mind your business. The abyss is looking back at you.