The snow fell hard and fast. The roads quickly developed a sheet of white. Oklahoma drivers hesitantly leveled a soft foot on an anxious gas pedal as they traveled north from downtown Oklahoma City towards suburban Edmond, home from work to houses filled with exhausted spouses and excited children, because snow seems to deliver nothing but utter joy to the immature. Meanwhile, a daring few headed south into the heart of downtown Oklahoma City to watch overpaid men play a silly basketball game, because basketball seems to deliver nothing but utter joy to the immature.
On this night, the fourth night of March, in spite of Mother Nature’s attempts to stop anyone in the city of Oklahoma City of doing anything of concrete substance, the Thunder played host to the 76ers of Philadelphia. Because of this parking lot attendants bundled themselves in oversized coats, ticket takers remarked about their unadulterated love of heating systems and slowly the Chesapeake Energy Arena came to life.
They came to watch him on this snowy evening. He plays with a wild abandon, like a lion stalking the plains of the Serengeti. He lets out a ferocious roar and slowly turns in a circle, preparing to stare down anyone trying to question his own domination of his kingdom. But there is a pronounced joy to his rhythm. It’s not so much taunting his competition as it is a sheer self-stupefying amazement at his own brilliance, like the president of the chess club who just scored a date to the prom with the high school’s head cheerleader. It’s a look of utter, “did that just happen?”
On this night, Russell Westbrook is sporting a clear mask around the upper part of his face. It’s to protect it after an accidental knee to the face on the prior Friday night in a loss to the Trailblazers. It was an injury that at least one report described as leaving Westbrook with a “dent to the face.” Despite playing in only three quarters Westbrook finished the game on Friday with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. He then underwent a procedure to repair a zygomatic arch in his right cheek and returned to the court on Wednesday.
His urgency to return could be explained in a variety of ways. First, his team needed him. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant has spent a considerable part of the season riding the bench because of a nagging problem with his right foot. The Thunder is currently in a heated scrape to make the playoffs.
Finally, Westbrook is playing at a level that can only be described as historic. On this Wednesday evening Westbrook is trying to become the first player to record four straight triple-doubles since his air-ness Michael Jordan did it in 1989. Westbrook took to the floor hoping to lead his Thunder to its 13th win in 14 games over a 76ers team that can be categorized as not very good.
Oklahoma City’s population has an emotional investment in the Thunder that is the type that you might worry about if you saw such emotion in a single person. It’s like a mother who yells a little too loud at the little league baseball game. You are thinking to yourself “she knows this is just a game, right?” Meanwhile, she’s berating an underpaid and under-napped high school senior who just happens to be wearing blue and just made a bad call concerning her son at second base.
The Thunder, to the people of Oklahoma City, has developed into something more than just a trivial sports franchise. The franchise has become a part of the family. While the city’s residency might be divided over the ongoing bedlam between the Sooners of Oklahoma and the Cowboys of Oklahoma State, they all agree on one thing: the Thunder. In a matter of years the team has brought an immense pride to the city and to, in reality, the entire state of Oklahoma.
Tonight the Chesapeake Energy Arena seems to be groggy, like a man waking up from a nap. Maybe it has to do with my seat, which is in a good spot about a dozen rows above the Thunder bench. Maybe I’m in a place where I can’t sense the atmosphere correctly, but the arena just seems to lack any real energy, much like the team that it is supporting. With three and a half minutes left in the first quarter, the Thunder trail by 15 points. The 76ers’ Isaiah Canaan is dropping three pointers from every spot on the court.
The Thunder call a timeout and huddle around head coach Scott Brooks. Westbrook wipes the mask he wears covering his face. He sips something out of a paper cup, what I can’t be sure. Maybe it’s whatever flows through the rivers of Mount Olympus, the chosen nectar of Zeus, Apollo and Ares. Maybe its water or a sports drink. Whatever it is, it needs to be bottled and sold.
There is a quiet serenity to the place. In the heart of downtown Oklahoma City, the honking horns and sounds of the city seem to melt away. It’s as if even noise understands that it needs to afford this place reverence. Across the street stands a pale white statue of Jesus with a hand covering his face, weeping.
People have dotted a metal fence line with mementos: teddy bears, number bibs from previous Oklahoma City marathons, pictures and letters that bear no delivery address, because heaven doesn’t provide one.
One such letter, dated April 19th, 2014, begins: “I cannot believe 19 years have come and gone since we last spoke, hugged, laughed, cried or got to be woken up by your heavenly voice instead of our alarms. What I would give to wake up to ‘Good Morning to You!’
On this same fence line someone deposited a list of the names of the victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary under a line from the lullaby “Away in a Manger:” “Bless all the dear children. In Thy tender care. And take us to heaven. To live with Thee there.” It is a reminder that though they are a half a continent apart, two places are pulled together close by the geography of heartbreak. Above this is a poem written by a woman to a loved one dated March of 1997. The final stanzas read:
But your Mom and Dad are hurting.
So much I cannot say.
They need the power of healing.
Of hope and wholeness today
So take some time out.
While skipping through your cloud.
Ask God to sprinkle peace about.
With joy to your parents, so proud.
The grass is perfectly manicured. The reflecting pool lies motionless. 168 statues line the ground. They resemble chairs. In this atmosphere of silence, it’s easy to forget what they represent: 168 empty seats at the dinner table, 168 lonely sides of the bed and 168 heartbeats lost in time.
Across the campus, watching over the grounds, stands firm a well-rooted elm dubbed The Survivor Tree, a tree that has survived everything the world has thrown at it over the last hundred plus years.
I see a young boy, with messy blonde hair, playing around a much smaller and younger tree than The Survivor Tree. He looks up at me, smiles an enormous smile and says “hello.” In that moment, for that one brief second, surrounded by a wave of human emotion, standing on a place built above a foundation of devastation, my soul somehow lifts, and my heart fills with an inexplicable sense of hope. I am reminded that even on ground once infected by terror the sun still shines, a tree still grows and a child’s smile can still provide an indescribable warmth.
This is now a tranquil place, a place of reflection and remembrance. It is a far different place from what it was before April 19th, 1995 when a zealot named Timothy McVeigh drove into it with a Ryder truck, lit a fuse and left a gaping hole in the heart of humanity.
This ground is now the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Twenty years ago it was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It was nothing more than a bustling government center in the heart of a growing city in the middle of a placid nation preparing for just another usual Wednesday. It’s this moment in time that the tour inside of the memorial attempts to capture in its opening chapter. You are herded into a silent room. A recording begins to play. It’s of an Oklahoma Resource Water Board Hearing that was quite suddenly adjourned in the morning hours of that April day.
A woman’s matter-of-fact voice is interrupted by an explosion. The lights in the room flicker violently. There’s panic, a twinge of absolute fright in the muffled expressions echoing around the room. It’s 9:03 am on April 19th, 1995. The world will never be the same.
For many people who have never visited Oklahoma, it’s not Oklahoma it’s Oklahoma! Oklahoma appears to be this fantastical place straight out of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, with citizens named Curly McClain and Jud Fry. It is territory where farmers and cowmen still get in fights at the square dance. This is a gross exaggeration of people’s perceptions, I know, but in all honesty Oklahoma does still possess a certain uncertain reality to those who live outside of it.
For some, it evokes a place where Tom Joad would rather nearly starve to death in California than remain in residency.
One building dwarfs the skyline of Oklahoma City. It is the Devon Tower, standing 50 stories tall it ranks in the top 40 of the tallest buildings in the United States. The building is an anchor of Oklahoma City’s revitalization of its downtown. In 1993, voters approved a sales tax for high profile capital improvements including renovation of buildings in its historic Bricktown as well as the Oklahoma River, which runs through the heart of downtown.
In 2014, Forbes listed Oklahoma City seventh in its Best Places for Business and Careers List. Simply, the city has a low cost of living, coupled with low unemployment and now a few extra bars for residents to mingle in on a Saturday night. All of this has been spurred on by black gold. 3% of those employed in the city’s metro area work in the energy sector, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
That number feels somehow low. The image of energy company Devon’s building towering over the city is a pretty adequate metaphor: oil drives the engine. Meaning while some are celebrating gas prices falling to under $50 a barrel, Oklahoma City is collectively biting its own nails.
The city’s newest pitchman is Thunder center Enes Kanter who was pushed into a serendipitous forced relocation from Salt Lake City to Oklahoma City during this basketball season thanks to a pretty heady trade by the Thunder front office. “The fans are amazing. I love the city, it’s a clean city,”
Kanter was quoted in March gushing about his new hometown prior to a game against his former squad. “Everything there is just professional. Everything they do is just for the players, you only focus on the basketball and just go out there and do your job.” While praising all things Oklahoma City, he had some less than positive words about playing in Utah. He pretty much rubbed a little more salt into The Great Salt Lake. “I think the difference is, I like playing basketball [with the Thunder]” Kanter said. “I think that’s the most important thing. I never liked playing basketball before in my NBA career, and this is the first time I felt like playing basketball there, for my team, for the fans, for my teammates for my coaches, for everybody. So, that’s the first time.”
So while Kanter may soon be hosting some Oklahoma tourism videos, the 22-year old is as welcome as a buzzkill in the Beehive State, a place where he has admitted he unhappily spent the first three and a half years of his NBA career. Regardless, Kanter is now thriving in Thunder blue, adding a much needed offensive spark to the squad.
Meanwhile, Kendrick Perkins, who was moved away from Oklahoma City to Utah in the above mentioned trade, had this to say about leaving the city: “We are going to miss this wonderful place and all of you guys hold a special place in our hearts,” Perkins wrote. “ThunderUp for life.”
PHILADELPHIA 32 OKLAHOMA CITY 17 3:30 1st Quarter
With the Thunder currently trailing 32-17 to the 76ers with 3 ½ minutes left in the first quarter, Westbrook receives an inbound pass, flies across the court like Lindbergh over the Atlantic and flushes home the basketball with a soaring two handed jam. The Thunder now trail the 76ers by 13.
There is a photo that has been circulating around the internet recently of Russell Westbrook eyeing teammate Kevin Durant’s MVP trophy at the award presentation. Westbrook has a look that seems to have the words “I got next” attached to it. This season Westbrook is all grown up. A year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder was unquestionably Kevin Durant’s team. He owned the franchise. Today, in Oklahoma City, people are having frank discussions of if it came down to it which player would you rather have? The argument is not nearly as one sided as it used to be, although people in the OKC still regard Kevin Durant like a 14-year old girl does Justin Bieber.
Westbrook is currently playing with the confidence of a baby Superman lifting a car off of Jonathan Kent. I use this metaphor because he tends to hurl himself around like a child who doesn’t understand the limitations of his body. He is also currently playing with a child-like joy that is just damn fun to watch.
Just shy of two years removed from the bombing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma native and country music superstar Garth Brooks released “The Change.” It’s may be the most beautiful song he has ever recorded, and that is saying something considering he once sung “The Dance.” The song was written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester. Brooks turned the song into a tribute to the victims of the domestic terror attack that touched the state of his birth.
The chorus still rings as true today as it did nearly two decades ago, maybe more since the 9/11 attacks, America’s ensuing lengthy and costly war on terror as well as the sudden insurgence of a brutal organization known as ISIS: “I hear them saying/you’ll never change things/and no matter what you do it’s still the same things/But it’s not the world that I am changing/I do this so this world will know that it will not change me.”
PHILADELPHIA 34 OKLAHOMA CITY 35 :03 1st Quarter
In the closing seconds of the first quarter the Thunder have a one point lead over Philadelphia. Westbrook drives through the lane like a Sherman tank onto Normandy, threads a pass to Mitch McGary through three 76ers defenders who gives the Thunder a three point lead with a layup.
If you ever find yourself wandering around the video section of an Oklahoma City library, you might be lucky enough to stumble across cinematic gold. In 2012, Kevin Durant suited up to star in the feature film ThunderStruck. In it Durant plays himself, nothing more than a lunch-pail carrying professional athlete that eeks out a living on the plains of Oklahoma.
Durant told ESPN that the acting was easy; the hard part was missing field goals for the cameras. The plot of ThunderStruck, in a nutshell, revolves around one of the best players in the NBA losing his basketball powers magically to an awkward 16-year old boy. Like the movie, Oklahoma City’s current season has certainly contained a bit of the surreal.
Flashback to this year’s All-Star weekend in New York City. During a media session, Durant was asked about the job status of head coach Scott Brooks. Durant teed up. “You guys really don’t know s—,” he told a gaggle of reporters in Gotham.
“To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to,” Durant continued. “So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y’all.” Later that weekend, Durant’s teammate Westbrook would score 41 points and pick up All-Star MVP honors, beginning an unbelievable streak of eye-popping play on the hardwood.
This is far from the first time Brooks has been openly criticized or his job security questioned. Following last year’s Game 3 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs (a series Oklahoma City would rebound to win), Durant’s brother tweeted about his desire to see Brooks replaced. Durant, to his credit, quickly and publicly chastised his brother for the less than thought out tweet.
Brooks has led the Thunder to three of the last four Western Conference Finals, but has only one NBA Finals appearance to show for it (an appearance in 2012 that led to a loss to the Heat). This year Brooks has been the captain of a ship with a quite a few leaks in it. At times, the Thunder bench has looked more like a MASH unit than a basketball team. At times this year the most prominent logo on the Oklahoma City bench has not been that of the Thunder but that of Giorgio Armani.
This is all proof of the Thunder’s current predicament. There’s an urgency in Thunderland that hangs like a thundercloud, which can be felt from Lawton to Bartlesville. It is a feeling that right now is the Thunder’s best opportunity to bring a championship to Oklahoma and that time is not on the team’s side.
In October of 2014, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry sent out a pretty innocuous tweet about how she’d like to see Durant return to his hometown of Washington D.C. (the interpretation of to do what I will leave up to you).
Moore, Oklahoma rests just south of Oklahoma City buttressing against Interstate 35. You are welcomed to Moore with the sight of a water tower with the words: MOORE/Home of Toby Keith. Keith is a country music superstar who once sang a song titled: “How Do You Like Me Now?”
Moore earned its name when a railroad employee named Al Moore got irritated at not receiving his mail, so he painted his last name on a board and nailed it to the boxcar he lived in. The name stuck.
May 3rd-4th, 1999 is a period that the National Weather Service refers to as the Great Plains Tornado Outbreak. During the afternoon and evening hours of May 3rd, multiple supercell thunderstorms produced many large and damaging tornadoes inside central Oklahoma. It would lead to nearly 60 tornadoes being formed becoming the largest tornado outbreak in the state’s history. The most deadly of these tornadoes cut a path right through southern Oklahoma City and then into Moore. At its peak, this tornado was categorized as an F5 and measured ¾ of a mile wide. It would kill 36 people and leave 583 injured.
In the early afternoon hours of Monday May 20th, 2013 a tornado touched down in Newcastle, Oklahoma. The storm became violent within minutes. At the Orr Family Farm in Oklahoma City, the tornado picked up two storage tanks weighing about ten tons and deposited them one half mile away. After picking up EF-5 intensity the storm cut through Briarwood Elementary, yet miraculously no fatalities occurred. The tornado continued its path east-northeast into Moore, where the damage became catastrophic. At Plaza Towers Elementary School, a teacher’s aide told local newspapers that the tornado sounded like “somebody was going through with a mower and hitting a tin roof.” The bodies of seven children were found in the rubble.
Stuck in the storm’s path at the Moore Medical Center, a pregnant patient remarked, “I could feel the floor shake, and I looked up and I saw the ceiling shake and the insulation started to fall down. By that time, I closed my eyes so stuff wouldn’t get in them. I just turned my head and I heard hail falling. And me and the nurses were just sitting and praying.” When she opened her eyes, the walls of the operating room had disappeared.
In all the tornado killed 24 people and the monetary cost of the storm was estimated at $2 billion. Before nightfall, hundreds of volunteers began streaming into Moore and south Oklahoma City, volunteers like an OU nursing student who traveled from nearby Norman to help: “I just thought ‘what am I doing sitting on the couch while this is going on?’…I’m just trying to lend a hand any way I can.”
On March 25th of this year, another tornado cut a path through Moore, nearly the same path of the devastating 2013 tornado. It was the city’s 10th tornado since 1998. Although that tornado brought no fatalities, there were injuries and significant infrastructure damage. It also left some people wondering if Moore is somehow cursed. Meanwhile Moore resident Chase Rhodes found a more heavenly sign amidst the debris.
During the same week that the Thunder battled the 76ers and Oklahoma City battled snow, a few students at Edmond North High School, located in an OKC suburb, received a series of alarming text messages from a fellow student. Two students came forward to the school’s administration to report the texts.
It was discovered the 16-year old student who sent the texts had plans to kill several people. While nothing was found at the school, at the student’s parents’ home police found components and blueprints of explosives and plans. Police and administrators believe that the students who came forward and reported the texts may have prevented a mass casualty event.
PHILADELPHIA 99 OKLAHOMA CITY 106 2:15 4th Quarter
Fourth quarter, the Thunder now lead by seven. Westbrook’s stats read like a bullish stock portfolio: 31 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Westbrook hurls himself down the paint, somehow, with a head-jarring act that defies Newton’s Laws of Motion, stops his body of all forward progress while tossing up a shot as soft as Romeo’s kiss. The chants ring out from across the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the building shaking with the acronym: “MVP! MVP!”
In 1936, photographer Dorthea Lang took a photo. It was a black and white image she would title “Migrant Mother.” The photo shows two children covered in dirt and grim, wearing ratty clothes and clinging to their exhausted mother. The mother’s expression and appearance tell of a harrowing journey as hauntingly vivid as the one John Steinbeck chronicled of the Joad family’s odyssey from Oklahoma to California in The Grapes of Wrath.
The image has become a visual representation of the devastation of The Great Depression. The photograph was taken long before the cultural repercussions of television, 24-hour cable news networks, and the internet. We live in a world today in which we are so anxious to move on to the next moment, that often we forget we are living in one right now.
Photographs have a way of freezing time and capturing a single moment in history, one single moment, one breath, one heartbeat, which seems to resonate for eternity: John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket, Muhammad Ali sending Sonny Liston to the canvas, colleagues pointing towards the sound of the gunshot that would kill Martin Luther King, Jr., US soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima, and a firefighter holding the almost lifeless body of a baby in his arms.
On April 18th of this year, Baylee Almon would have turned 21. She would then be old enough to legally taste her first sip of alcohol. Maybe today, she would be in the midst of her junior year of college. Maybe she would be backpacking through Europe. I suppose only God knows. Baylee had just celebrated her first birthday the day before the bombing in Oklahoma City took her life.
Photographer Charles Porter captured firefighter Chris Fields carrying Baylee away from the devastation. Her life ended shortly after. The photo would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The single photo became a worldwide symbol of the day it was taken. Symbols are forced upon the people who become them. Rarely, especially in times of tragedy, do people ask to become these symbols; they are thrust into these roles by others who want to define something that’s undefinable.
Did Baylee ask to become a symbol? No. Did Fields want to be remembered eternally for one single heart wrenching moment? No. Fields struggled after the bombings, coming to grips with the emotion of it all. He has bravely admitted that he sought counseling to deal with the grief of that day and the ensuing and unwanted publicity he received from the photo.
In 2002, California native Preston Dunn pleaded guilty to stalking the family of Baylee Almon. The photo of Fields and Baylee drove Dunn to some very erratic behavior. Then 26, Dunn had moved to Oklahoma and enrolled in school at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. Baylee’s mother Aren Almon-Kok says she met Dunn at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial where he told her that he had moved to Oklahoma to be closer to Baylee’s body. He set up a website devoted to Baylee and sent letters to her grave saying he wished to be buried with her. Court records say he went as far as buying a plot next to Baylee’s grave.
In the last two decades, Baylee’s mother married and welcomed two more children into her family. Her growing family honors the memory of the daughter Aren lost two decades ago.
A photograph captures a breath, a single heartbeat. It tells a story, but that story is different for every person who views it. Like a painting or a sculpture the definition of it is in the eye of the holder.
Baylee was one of 19 children who died in the explosion that ultimately killed 168 people. Families were left to wonder what might have been, to overcome unthinkable grief and find a way to honor and hold dear the memories of their lost loved ones. This is a process, I would imagine, that is never-ending.
PHILADELPHIA 110 OKLAHOMA CITY 113 1:59 1st Overtime
Extra period, Thunder up by three. Westbrook hurls himself down the court again, through three 76ers defenders, and hits a lay-up while drawing a foul. Kevin Durant, rises from the bench and waves his arms in the air, willing the arena to show its appreciation. The fans dutifully rise together. The Thunder will win 123-118. Westbrook finishes the contest with 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
After the game, Westbrook praised the Thunder faithful: “We have the best fans in the world, in all of sports. They do a great job of coming out and cheering us on, even tonight with the weather being bad. They still came out and supported us, which shows you how much commitment they have to us. Our job is to go out and play as hard as we can.”
Later this week the thoughts of the United States and, to an extent, the world will turn to Oklahoma City and the anniversary of a day that has come to define it. The city will fill with politicians who will give speeches. Heroes and the ordinary alike will be remembered for their bravery and for the lives they led that were cut down all too quickly. Tears will be shed, prayers will be prayed and a flag will be lowered. All of this will matter greatly, but not as much as the 7,300 days that preceded it.
It’s not the days where the flag stands at half-mast that define us. It is instead the days where the flag flies high into the sky, flapping in an Oklahoma wind, its majestic gaze keeping a watch over just another city inside of just another state inside of the those great states united; it’s those days, in the end, where you truly find freedom, where you discover hope, where you fully witness the indescribable glory of spirit. It’s on the days when nothing more than a basketball score will make the front page of the next morning’s paper. It’s when a young boy can toss on an oversized Thunder jersey, sit down next to his father, and scream into the unsuspecting ears of neighboring spectators an off-key rendition of the classic DEFENSE! cheer. It’s on those days when you realize that whatever this world can throw at us, whatever evil we have to endure, whatever fight lands on our doorstep, we will persevere. Because, in the end, there is no other option. We carry on because the only other option that we have left is to surrender to unthinkable defeat.
The words ring as true today as they did when they were recorded into human history nearly two decades ago, maybe even more so now.
“What I do is so this world will know that it will not change me.”