Kevin Durant’s exit hurts an Oklahoma mourning much more than basketball

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The success of the Thunder in the NBA had been a tonic for a state hit by natural and economic problems

Throughout the 20th century, my home state of Oklahoma was known for misfortune: the trail of tears; the Dust Bowl; the Oklahoma City bombing; the Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Despite a penchant for producing country music superstars, Oklahoma remained a tragic diversion en route to greener western pastures. A bathroom stop on Route 66. Flyover territory.

This dynamic now applies to Kevin Durant in light of Mondays announcement that he will end a frustrating tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder in order to pursue a title with a Golden State Warriors team that recently bested the only healthy playoff team OKC has had since the 2012 finals.

If the 20th century was rough on the Sooner State, the young 21st century had been shaping up unbelievably kindly. An oil and gas industry that had teetered on the verge of collapse for decades experienced a resurgence thanks to the advent of hydraulic fracturing (more commonly referred to as fracking) turning ghost towns into hubs replete with hotels and Outback Steakhouses. Flush with cash, a team of Oklahoma City energy billionaires purchased the NBAs Seattle Supersonics in 2006 under strict conditions not to move the team, a policy that was soon to be reversed.

Dizzy at the windfall, Oklahomans packed the Ford Center to watch exciting young players like Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, and Durant. Seemingly overnight, the most common conversation encountered by Oklahomans abroad ceased to be, Youre from Oklahoma? Ive seen your musical. Clayton Dorris, a digital marketer with Oklahoma Citys BigWing Interactive, noted that, It didnt matter which part of the world I was visiting, a mention of being from Oklahoma would elicit Oh, Kevin Durant!

To hear Oklahomans speak of the early days of the franchise is to hear variations on a singular sentiment: in contrast to other middling Plains states, the presence of a sports franchise filled with once-in-a-generation talent leant Oklahoma a sense of cultural validation. Kids around the world donned OKCs signature blue and orange.

Boom-bust economies are cyclical and residents understand this. Whats different about the 2016 cycle, however, is that this time the entire fraught dynamic of prosperity, promise and collapse has found expression in the words and actions of a single person: Durant.

With few exceptions, American popular culture is created on the coasts and trickles inland into the obscure places that serve as sacrificial spaces necessary to maintain the rest of the country. A genuinely American fear of living and working in obscurity drives the young and upwardly mobile from these places where culture is often preserved rather than created, preventing change and permeating communities with self-deprecating humility. The feeling of locational inadequacy is especially palpable in prairie towns where, as my grandfather, a born and bred Okie, put it: People shower after work, not before. Equally strong is the relief that arises within citizens once their overlooked home receives national recognition.

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The Bricktown are of Oklahoma came a symbol of the citys resurgence. Photograph: Alamy

In Oklahomas case, the seeds of resurgence grew out of tragedy. Tired of the citys status as rundown cow-town, Oklahoma City officials began attempts at revitalizing the capitals depressed downtown depot in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and by 1998 the area dubbed Bricktown had become a pristine entertainment district. Seemingly overnight, Oklahoma City had acquired the amenities people in places like Dallas take for granted or even mock: chain restaurants, retail shopping, places to host bachelor parties.

The second indication that Oklahoma was to enjoy a cultural ascendance came about as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In the storms aftermath, the NBA sought a temporary home for the displaced Hornets, and Oklahoma City seemed like a natural destination, boasting an NBA-ready arena and the kind of sports fans that seem to exist exclusively in out-of-the-way places. Despite a dismal .470 win percentage during the Hornets tenure in OKC, local support was ravenous, prompting rookie-of-the-year Chris Paul to tell the Houston Chronicle that playing in Oklahoma gives you get the feeling youre part of something special.

David Stern and company took note, and with Chesapeake executives Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon already in talks to purchase the Supersonics the NBA brass began working to get a team into a hungry market.

The bond between Durant and his new city wasnt immediate, but Oklahomans fell for the lanky superstar, who seemed as unassuming of his physical resources as the state itself. In 2013, when Durant donated $1m to relief efforts in the wake of a devastating EF5 tornado that cut a Manhattan-sized swath of destruction through suburban Oklahoma City, his status as local hero was cemented. According to O Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and contributor to The Atlantic, Theres no question that KD represented more than basketball to Oklahoma. Between all the local work he did and his vocal identification with the city as his home many people cant think of Oklahoma City without thinking of Kevin Durant. He gave us something to be proud of and enjoy through economic downturns and natural disasters. We were proud that he played for our city and we were grateful to be able to be his fans. His attitude felt Oklahoman. Quiet, but confident. Kind, but deadly.

It was likely this attachment that led Durant to repeatedly state that he wasnt a someone who looks for shortcuts to success. A recently unearthed 2010 Durant tweet is emblematic of his rhetoric: Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Lets go back to being competitive and going at these peoples.

Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 16, 2010

Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!

To citizens of a state whose economic well-being had so often been rocked by tough decisions and esoteric global trends, this was especially reassuring.

Oklahomas
Oklahomas natural resources have brought boom and busy to the economy. Photograph: Alamy

Fracking money brought a professional sports franchise to Oklahoma, but oil and gas money are certainly not new to the region. Though the area was initially dismissed as Indian territory, federal interest in the land renewed in the 1890s with the discovery of vast amounts of crude petroleum waiting to be drilled beneath what is now Oklahoma City. Oklahomas 1907 statehood occurred within a decade of the territorys first producing well.

The subsequent story of the state is a story of peaks and valleys. There was the original statehood oil boom that lasted throughout the 1920s and then the dust bowl exodus that drove thousands to California. Following two more diminishing boom-bust cycles, a variety of factors cinched demand to the extent that the number of new producing wells in Oklahoma reached lows in the late 1990s not seen since statehood. Unfortunately, attempts to solve this problem would inadvertently create many others.

The ticket out of the late 90s oil crisis, according to Chesapeake Energy co-founder McClendon, lay in the use of fracking a controversial technique that transformed previously unreachable shale deposits into drillable real estate. McClendon was right: new technologies for obtaining oil and gas changed the industry in a variety of unintended ways.

These methods revitalized American oil, but also lowered the amount of capital required to drill, which removed a significant barrier to the industry for many startups and gave a previously excluded segment of the population a shot at the action. Historically high oil prices began to incentivize increased drilling investment just before the Thunder came to town. New companies began to change the way business was done, borrowing heavily to purchase equipment and thereby capitalize on the influx of newly reachable, unprecedentedly profitable oil and gas.

The problem is that this type of high-risk business model almost never works out in the long run. Heavily-leveraged drilling enterprises quickly felt the strain of debt, struggling to repay loans on rapidly depreciating drilling equipment. As new ventures began under this aggressive model, the market flooded with oil, prices plummeted, and companies suddenly had to produce twice as much in order to make payments on equipment, further exacerbating the surplus. An era of stable supply and demand had been thrown out of whack, angering OPEC, which subsequently slashed oil prices in order to flush out American fracking upstarts and protect its historically powerful selling position. Per barrel prices reached historic lows.

This imbalance between supply and demand tore into Oklahoma, where the workforce has become disproportionately involved in energy. On the one hand, major players in the American industry shut off wells, sending workers home indefinitely while waiting for demand to rebound. On the other, heavily leveraged upstarts succumbed to the unsustainability of their business model, with many Oklahoma ventures closing shop. Residents who had experienced a recent surge in the value of their labor now found themselves sitting at home without a paycheck or other viable career options.

The ramifications of the downturn have been brutal: Oklahomas economy was the worst or second worst in the nation throughout 2015-2016. Sales tax revenues subsequently plummeted to 17-year lows as 11,300 jobs disappeared within a 12-month span, including nearly a fifth of McClendons Chesapeake Energy Corporations 2,500 Oklahoma City employees. Oklahoma now faces a $1.3bn budget shortfall, leading to a nation-topping 23.6% drop in per-student education funding and deep cuts to law enforcement. While its not like the sharpshooting forward killed off the energy industry, the fact remains that Durant played his final game in Oklahoma City during a season in which even basic tasks like funding education seem impossible, before heading for an infamously cosmopolitan destination. For those marooned back on the plains without work, the cruel tidiness of the narrative continues to sink in.

While the basketball implications of Durants departure are clear enough OKC is losing a former league MVP the organizational prospects may be even darker. The prosperity that enabled Bennett and McClendons (imaginatively named) Professional Basketball Club LLC to move the team in the first place has dissipated, leaving behind a state in which bridges crumble and public schools operate only four days per week. Franchise founder Aubrey McClendon died in March after crashing his car into a wall hours after prosecutors announced intentions to indict the owner on charges of conspiracy to suppress land prices. Within hours of the crash, crass speculation began, with some locals arguing that the energy tycoon took his own life after federal investigations revealed McClendons financial situation to be eroding. Conventional wisdom holds that these ownership difficulties could compound the Thunder front offices troubles in the wake of Durants departure, leaving the franchise on shakier footing than fans realize. Whether or not this is true, it is no stretch to say that OKCs value as a small market franchise has been thus far inflated by general manager Sam Prestis preternatural ability to draft undervalued talent, and that in the absence of bankable new superstars, the city may not be as able to sustain a rebuilding period as larger markets.

Others have pointed to Prestis penchant for dealing players in trades before they leave for nothing in unrestricted free agency, arguing that the Thunder GM will now lean even more heavily on the strategy of at least getting something back for exiting players in light of Durants (arguably) duplicitous departure. This makes recent reports of Westbrooks unwillingness to extend his time in OKC all the more disconcerting for Thunder fans. What if a spurned Presti calls Westbrooks bluff the way he called James Hardens in 2012? Worse, what if Westbrook, like Durant, initially communicates a desire to stay only to be seduced by a sexier city with immediate title hopes, leaving the Thunder with nothing? If any one of those worst case scenarios coincide with continued difficulties for Bennetts energy holdings, theres a small chance that Oklahoma City might not have a team at all in the future.

Kevin
Kevin Durant works the checkout register during a community service event in 2015. Photograph: Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

What stings fans most about Mondays news is the realization that despite all appearances, they had not, in fact, found a kindred spirit, someone with whom they could weather the floods, tornados and fracking-induced earthquakes. Perhaps this was an unfair assumption for fans to make in the first place, and one that surely seems quaint and nave to those on the outside, but it was the dominant local perception. O Alan Noble doesnt blame fans, noting an inherent contradiction: What draws fans is when they can identify with a player. But its also a business, and players have the right and responsibility to make the best decision for themselves. We cant have it both ways. If the NBA wants to encourage a tight bond between local fans and a player, we should expect those fans to be hurt when the player makes a decision that is good for himself but not that community.

For his part, Durant eagerly leaned into his role as signifier of state values, tweeting criticism when players left small markets to join other superstars and emphasizing loyalty in multiple interviews. His decision to join the Warriors comes as a contradiction of a decade worth of self-presentation. Predictably, the enthusiasm that once led Oklahomans to describe Durant as representative of the states homegrown work ethic has turned to bemusement and even rage (for instance) at what is locally perceived, fairly or not, as a decision to abandon Oklahoma for the easy way out, a guaranteed shot at a title with a team located close to Americas most self-congratulatory gold mine Silicon Valley (even if Oakland itself has its own economic problems).

While Durant could probably have won a governors race in Oklahoma, his status in Oakland may more closely resemble that of historical footnote to Golden States continued success a versatile scorer who helped revitalize an already-thriving team (think Clyde Drexler in Houston, 1995). Rather than having the hopes of an entire state resting on his shoulders, Its possible that the absence of messianic pressure is actually one aspect of what helped lure him to Golden State in the first place. After all, the man never asked to become a signifier of statewide success for three million people.

Meanwhile, Oklahomans remain unable to control their states destiny, weathering one more in a long line of letdowns as a result of financial concerns that leave citizens beholden to state governments and corporate whims. The sense one gets when discussing the implications of Durants departure with residents is that theyre saddened by Oklahomas inability to hold on to good things. Theyre frustrated by the outsized financial and cultural pressures that drive prosperity out of the center of the country and toward the coast. Oklahomans loved the way the presence of an NBA superstar made their state matter to people who had only ever flown over it. And while they begrudgingly respect Durants decision from a labor v management perspective, theyre blown away by the departure Mondays news represents from the image and ethos he spent a decade cultivating, an ethos so many bought uncritically took at face value.

Perhaps saddest of all for those reflecting on the ups and downs of the past eight years is that residents of the Sooner State are once again left to kick themselves for buying lines that were too good to be true while they pick up the pieces. For better or worse, Kevin Durant had come to serve as the last vestige of a brief era of prosperity. Likewise, basketball had been an oddly reliable outlet for catharsis in a community whose citizens seem to suffer more than their fair share of hardship. So while it is inevitably tempting to sneer and wonder what could cause otherwise functional adults to shed tears over basketball, its worth remembering that Oklahomans are, in so many ways, mourning much more than basketball.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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