On January 20, 2010, some friends and I went to a meaningless NBA game. The then red-hot Charlotte Bobcats (this was the year they made the playoffs, but still weird to read that sentence) were facing off against the Miami Heat (before the Big Three). We got the tickets through our school for the price of $10 for our upper deck seats and travel for the two-plus hour drive to the Queen City (In comparison, my food, a bucket of popcorn and a drink, cost me $12). Apparently, 14,212 people in the Time Warner Arena that night… apparently. Julius Peppers was courtside and left midway through the third as, get this, the Bobcats CRUSHED the Heat, 104-65. Worst game I’ve ever seen.
What does any of that have to do with the picture above? On our ride to the stadium, a debate sparked in the van my friends and I were riding in. We began debating basketball on our way to the game and got on the topic of the most surprising team of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Heading into that night, they had already matched their season’s win total from the 2008-09 season (23). I began to debate that this team was for real, that they had a young nucleus with serious star potential, that could really do some damage sooner rather than later. One of my other friends adamantly disagreed. I don’t know if it was watching more basketball than I had since I watched almost every Knicks game in the mid to late 90’s, or if I was reading so much Bill Simmons columns (he was also very high on OKC at the time), but I KNEW I was seeing something special with the Thunder. Watching Kevin Durant play basketball was breathtaking, as he quickly became my favorite player in the league. I saw the promise in Russell Westbrook and thought he could be an elite point guard in a league that’s never been deeper at the position. I loved the moves Sam Presti put together. Rebuilding was no longer necessary for OKC.
I wasn’t just satisfied with playoffs that season, no. I believed the Thunder had bigger aspirations than that. I saw championships in the near future. I got some weird looks in the car at that point. My friend Jonathan had my back, but everyone else seemed a little more than pretty skeptical about my comments. People weren’t buying this team. And while it’s hard to remember now, their concerns were understandable.
The franchise had gone 109- 219 in the four years since Nate McMillan brought them to the playoffs last in 2004-05, finishing last in the past three seasons. Kevin Durant was being called “too skinny” and a chucker. How could they win when playing a small forward in Jeff Green at power forward? People wondered why Presti hadn’t selected players like Kevin Love instead of reaching for Westrbook at #4, who was considered a HUGE reach, and either Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, or Stephan Curry instead of James Harden at #3. And who were they to take on a project like Serge Ibaka with a 1st round pick?
But I looked at OKC and saw great promise. I saw guys who gave a damn. Guys who hated losing and having their only on-camera time in the postseason come during the lottery special. They were done with ping-pong balls and they were sure done with excuses. They were young, but they were hungry. They understood team basketball for the most part (Pros: KD sharing the Sports Illustrated cover the next season with Nenad Kristic and Thabo Sefolosha as a way to share the press; the Cons: Russ’ old tendency in with trying to be a hero at times). They had the eventual Coach of the Year in Scott Brooks. They had the best GM in the league in my opinion. I was ready to put my name on the Oklahoma City Thunder and their eventual success.
So I did.
I wrote up my self-made prediction “contract” on the car ride to the game. In case you can’t read the writing above, it says: “In 3 seasons the 2012-2013 campaign, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be a championship contender in the Western Conference and a top 4 team in the West. They will build on Durant (who will finish top 3 in MVP voting at least) Green, Westbrook, Harden, (Eric) Maynor*, and others. XGregory Brzozowski
*I was really big on Eric Maynor at the time. So I didn’t get everything right.
It took even less time than the three years. That season, OKC won 50 games, won the 8 seed in the west, and gave the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers an incredibly tough challenge in Round 1, as they were a missed box out away from forcing a Game 7.
Next season, the team advances to the conference finals, where they lose in five to the eventual NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks.
Durant has won the scoring title each season since my contract, finished 2nd, 5th, and 2nd in MVP voting, was an All Star all three years, was the best player on Team USA when they when the FIBA World Championships, and has become in most people’s opinion the 2nd best player in the NBA and a bona fide superstar. Green was traded to Boston for starting center Kendrick Perkins, giving the Thunder championship experience and toughness inside they didn’t possess beforehand. Westbrook is a two time All Star and a two time All NBA 2nd team award winner, also won a world championship with Durant in 2010, and is arguably the most athletically gifted player in the league. Harden has blossomed into the best 6th man in the NBA, a superstar throughout the course of this season, a future All Star, a prospective member of Team USA, and possesses the best facial hair in all of sports. Ibaka led the league in blocked shots with 3.7 per game, despite only playing 27.2 minutes on a daily nights basis, has developed a nice jump shot, and is still improving. Sefolosha has improved his already strong reputation as a shut down defender with his performances in these playoffs against the likes of Kobe Bryant and especially Tony Parker. Derek Fisher adds more championship pedigree than anyone outside of Kobe in the league and is never afraid to take the big shot. Nick Collison is one of the best hustlers around. One icon. Three superstars. A supporting cast that knows and embraces their roles. All of this has led the Oklahoma City Thunder from bottom dweller to championship contender in three seasons.
Starting Tuesday night, this young team, whose starting lineup’s average age is 24.6 years old, will be faced with the greatest challenge of their young careers. They will square off against the best player in the world, LeBron James, and his Miami Heat for the NBA Title. As LeBron has shown all playoffs, he has matured in the course of a year since his failures against Dallas and he is hungry for his first ring in nine seasons. But so is Durant in only his forth, Westbrook and Ibaka in only their third, and Harden in only his second. Perkins wants to taste winning for a second time. Fisher, a sixth. Youth is not an excuse, and losing is not an option to the Oklahoma City Thunder this NBA Finals.
To this day I still have that note I wrote on the back of a Charlotte Bobcats roster page printed off the web, kept locked up safe in my room as my “proof”. I know how difficult it is to actually hit on a prediction in a world where the media is called upon to pull them out of nowhere about every series, every game, and every sequence. I know that I will never be this right about a team or a group or a game or anything than I was on that January night about OKC. I knew they had the potential in them to win faster than everyone else expected. It’s funny though, because they knew they could win even faster than I thought.