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Sounds of Thunder: how OKC coach Billy Donovan is rebuilding a championship basketball machine

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Rebuilding a team, like a muscle car, takes a lot of effort, elbow grease, and patience.

The Professor's class is in session. Take notes!
The Professor's class is in session. Take notes!
Groovy, baby!

The first time I saw Ricky Kates' 1969 Chevy Camaro Z-28 was on a secluded Oklahoma road one scorching summer night in July 1979, and every time I see the Thunder run a perfect half court set, it reminds me of that car. When Kates finally arrived that night, the fastest car in town, a 1970 Chevelle SS with its tricked out 396 "big block" V8 was already sitting on the starting line. Its driver coolly resting his elbow thru the open window, puffing on a Marlboro, waiting to take down his next victim.

He had every reason to be cool. As far as anyone around me knew, that monster of a Chevelle had never lost, and the consensus was that this skinny little piss-ant with greasy shoulder length hair and his "small block," with its itty-bitty 350 cubic inches, didn't stand a prayer.

That's the way it was in Moore, Oklahoma back in the 70's and 80's. We didn't have computers and video games like the kids have today. We had "12th Street" and cars to cruise it with. You could make up a lot of ground on the old social ladder if your car was either the nicest or the fastest. Let me put it this way - the driver of the Chevelle got a lot of dates and Ricky wanted a piece of the action.

The race strip that Kates and the Chevelle were about to run was a quarter mile of newly paved blacktop on S Western Ave between SW 119th ST and SW 104th St on the "then" far southside of Oklahoma City and a just a few miles west of the "12th Street" cruise, NW 12th St in Moore. The cruise is dead now, but it was tailor made for what we used it for in those days.

When you cruised 12th, you started at the Malibu Shopping Center parking lot on the west side and drove east to the Sonic Drive-in just past Broadway. Circled thru Sonic, then back east to the parking lot and start again. Today, it seems like there is a traffic light every 100 feet, but in 1979 there were only 2 traffic lights. One at Broadway and the other at N Janeway Ave.

For those reading this that are too young and inexperienced to recognize the magic here, let me spell it out for you from the young male's point of view in the '70's.

It's Friday night and you don't have a date, so you head to 12th street and cruise it a few times and check out "the scenery," if you catch my drift. Once you see some scenery that catches your eye, you stop at the Malibu parking lot and try to get that "scenery" away from her friends and then cruise to the Sonic for some "casual" getting-to-know-each-other time. If things go well at the Sonic then instead of driving west maybe you drive east 4 miles to the lake for some "serious" getting-to-know-each-other time.

It may sound lame on the surface now, but  you kids can keep your video games. Ricky Kates and I will take smoking engines and steamy windows over defeating the Convenant Empire any day.

I personally did not know Ricky well, but many others did, and our stories congealed into legend. Ricky wasn't a big football jock. His family didn't have a lot of money, and to be honest, Ricky wasn't that much to look at. He was 5'7" and 125 pounds soaking wet. With shoulder length stringy brown hair and typical 17 year old complexion issues, my guess it that Kates wasn't making to many eastbound trips out of the Sonic. In fact, my money says he probably wasn't getting very many opportunities to talk to the "scenery," period.

What Ricky did have however  was an uncle that owned a auto salvage yard in Dallas, Texas, and an intuitive knack for building fast cars.

Ricky spent a summer in Dallas working for his uncle when he was 15 and came back armed with gear that would change his life. Along with the above mentioned '69 Camaro Z28, whose original motor had been blown up by its rich kid owner, his uncle sent Ricky home with a huge stack of car repair parts, the knowledge of how to balance an engine, and a huge stack of auto repair manuals. Fortunately for Ricky, the car also pre-dated any of the emission laws that killed the muscle car era.

When Kates brought the bright yellow Camaro home on the back of a flat bed trailer, he also brought a Muncie 4-speed transmission and a 4-bolt main 350 small block engine out of a 1969 Corvette with it, and went to work. Furthermore, Kates' uncle was always keeping his eyes open for toys Ricky could add to his yellow hot rod.

The interesting thing about fast cars is that many times the people who have the money it requires to build a fast car don't often have the necessary skill to keep it on the road. Slamming the accelerator down on an engine that tips the dynamometer, ("dyno" for short) at 600 horsepower is not the same as punching 150. Things can go sideways real quick if you don't know what to expect.

Which brings us back to that hot night in July.

Ricky had spotted the Chevelle at the Malibu Shopping Center and pulled in. After the usual posturing and banter about what each other had under the hood, Ricky asked the driver of the Chevelle if he wanted to race. Of course! was the reply, when do you want to run 'em? Ricky said to meet him on Western in an hour. Cool, see you then, and they both left.

As you can see on the map, Ricky lived a few blocks north of the Sonic on the east end of the cruise, and the Chevelle lived somewhere north of the Malibu Shopping Center.

The reason they didn't head straight to Western was simple. You can't legally drive a car on the street when you have it ready to race. Here's why. After leaving the Chevelle, Ricky drove home. Jerked off the rear tires and replaced them with a set of racing slicks. Better traction for racing, but illegal to drive on the street because they hydroplane so easily. He also dropped his tail pipes to reduce back pressure. This is called running with open headers, and the effect is like sitting inside a subwoofer. Without mufflers and tailpipes a car, especially a hot car, will rattle every window for a half a mile around it. Listen carefully to what you hear before and after in this "open header" video:

Yeah, it's that loud.

Neither Ricky nor the Chevelle lived very far from where they planned to run, and swapping tires and opening the headers was done within minutes.  The main problem was that easing the cars from their homes to Western required going the back way very, very slowly so as not to attract every cop within a 5 mile radius.

Ricky had farther to drive, so the Chevelle was there waiting for him.

Street racing is extremely illegal and thus done in secret. Generally you hear about the results later, and the only reason I saw Ricky's run that night was simply because I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Remember, no cell phones those days. When someone told the friend I was talking to that Kates was going to take on the Chevelle at 10 o'clock, I knew where I would be.

There were only about 20 of us that saw Ricky pull up that night. The consensus... and that consensus was among the other street rodders in attendance, i.e. gearheads who knew things, was that Ricky had bitten off more than he could chew.

But there is no hype and no time wasted in a street race. Ricky pulled up, both cars heated up their slicks, one of the watchers checked they were even at the starting line that had been hastily painted across the road, he pointed at both drivers, got a nod from both, and lifted his arms.  The night exploded with a deafening roar as both drivers revved to the red line as the starter dropped his arms and it was ON!

This video was the closest thing I could find to give you an idea of what it's like. Shiny Cragar mag wheels replaced with plain rims and racing tires and open headers baby! Let's do this!

Double the volume of that video, but it is that fast. Under 10 seconds had passed and the cars had already hit speeds of up to 140 miles per hour.  Ricky's '69 Chevy took the Chevelle by a full car length.

I only spoke with Ricky about that race one time. When I asked him what he was running that night, he said his uncle hooked him up with a intake manifold that could handle 3 Holley 500 carburetors and a Vertigate straight line shifter. The beauty of the shifter was that it eliminated the awkward transition from second to third gear when crossing the neutral zone area of a typical 4 speed shifter, and the manifold and carbs were, as Michael Cage might say about a Westbrook slam, "just nasty."

I asked him how long it took to set it all up. Ricky said it took about 3 months of tinkering with different mixtures and cams to get it to balance out.

And that is why the Oklahoma City Thunder make me think of Kates' car.

I can only guess how many hours it took adjusting this and tweaking that before Ricky was ready to run it. I knew Ricky was working with a dual point distributor, and any old school mechanic will tell you there isn't anything harder to get right than one of those old dual point systems, especially in a home garage with limited diagnostic equipment available.

According to Ricky, it took a lot of trial and error, some common sense, and a ton of patience to get the job done. But in the end, he said it was worth it. I'll never forget what Ricky said when I asked him why he hadn't just put in a bigger motor like everyone said he should. Here is what he said.

"What the hell was the challenge in doing that? Anybody could do that. Besides, what those 'rat' boys don't realize is that I can max out my rpm's faster than they can because my little 350 has a shorter stroke, I just had to figure out a way to push enough ponies (horsepower) to get me to the the top end of the high gear so I could finish them."

Donovan is doing the same thing with his lineups. An adjustment here, a tweak there, take a DJ out there, put a Cam in here, looking for that balance where all the parts will work together when it counts the most. It's not easy because, just like that small-block Kates built, the Thunder are a high powered machine. Make a bad choice, push something too hard, go too heavy on the foot, and you've cracked a block or thrown a rod and the race is over before it ever started.

As for the future of that '69 Camaro? Well, Ricky met that piece of scenery he was looking for. He married her. Cut his hair, took all the tricked out cams and carburetors on the small block and set it back stock. He sold his racing slicks. Ricky then gave that wonderful piece of machinery to his new bride as a wedding present. She drove it for years and it never once needed a rebuild and never leaked a drop of oil.