Last week, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy story that can be summarized in a sentence: The NBA is doing well in Oklahoma City.
The piece discusses the Oklahoma City Thunder's surprising on-court successes, the city's embrace of star Kevin Durant and how a middle-sized Midwestern city landed a pro basketball team in the first place. And there's this discussion with Oklahoma City's police chief, Bill Citty: This, then, is part of the city’s love affair with the Thunder. It’s more than just a basketball team: it’s the culmination of 20 years of civic reinvention, and the promise of more to come. Over the last five years, the city and its team have undergone a perfect mind meld, so at this point it’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. After all of that sacrifice — the grind of municipal meetings and penny taxes and planning boards, the dust and noise and uncertainty of construction, the horror of 1995 — the little city in the middle of No Man’s Land has finally arrived on the world stage. While it’s there, it fully intends to put on a good performance.A bit of background. For more than a decade, talk of Louisville hosting a pro basketball team someday has repeatedly waxed and waned. In the 1970s, the city had an American Basketball Association team that was left out of the league's merger with the NBA. In recent decades, Louisville had near-hits with the Houston Rockets and the Charlotte Hornets. The construction of the KFC Yum! Center reinvigorated the NBA talk, but the topic has had few significant developments aside from Mayor Greg Fischer pronouncing support for exploring the idea.
Any NBA-to-Louisville proponents emboldened from reading about what the Thunder is doing for OKC may have been disheartened days later with the release of a report arguing that the NBA couldn't work in Louisville. From a white paper on the report: At the present time, this region’s economy is not strong enough to attract and sustain and NBA team and certainly not viable to bounce back should the team depart after a decade of operation.The white paper was pushed out to media by Boxcar PR. The gist is: An NBA team is unsustainable in Louisville, would cost taxpayers and hurt local college sports. A Boxcar executive, Bob Gunnell, would not divulgeto The Courier-Journal's Marcus Green the names of who commissioned the study, which was done by Cambridge Economic Research in Massachusetts. Gunnell told Green that the people who commissioned the study were "favorable" to UofL, but to his knowledge were not approached by the university to have the study commissioned.In an interviewed by WHAS 11's Joe Arnold, Mayor Greg Fischer questioned the objectivity of the study and suggested that Louisville Metro should partner with Greater Louisville Inc. for to study the idea of the NBA in Louisville. He told Arnold: "This is about bigger visions for the city, right? About what kind of city can we become? If an NBA team is part of that or any professional sports, I think that's great. But the important thing is that we take a look at data objectively. We start with a neutral platform. We come together with a fully professional study and then we share that with the community."So that brings us where, exactly?We know that Fischer is intrigued by the NBA. We know that at least some high-profile people in the UofL community don't see it happening. We know that UofL has a restrictive lease agreement in the KFC Yum! Center through its status as primary tenant.We know that othercitiesare interested in landing an NBA team. But we don't know if ateam will be available anytime soon, anyway.WDRB's Eric Crawford, a longtime observer of the Louisville sports scene, suggested in a recent column that the latest study may be right, but he still thinks the NBA could work in Louisville under the right circumstances. Crawford wrote: "It's my belief that this city and state could support an NBA team, the right team, under the right conditions. So far, no such team appears to have expressed an interest, and no such conditions seem to have been arranged. So basically, all of this is one big exercise in grandstanding. That's my opinion. I haven't commissioned a study."The issue won't go away until Louisville either A) lands an NBA team and sees how the matter plays out, B) decides definitively that it's not interested or C) the NBA says thanks for calling, but no thanks. To get to that point, the mayor may do well to ensure that any study by the city and GLI is as comprehensive as possible, addressing not only the feasibility issue but also questions including:1. What OKC has is the best case scenario -- what's the worst case scenario for Louisville, should it land a team? Let's get that out there.2. What's the best estimate for how much the NBA would cost Louisvillians -- for season tickets, for single-game tickets?3. How much support does the NBA have in and around Louisville? Twitter and Facebook groups supporting or shooting down the idea are fine, but they're not legitimate indicators of public opinion.
If anything is to be divined from the Times story on the Thunder, it's that a pro sports team can do wonders for a city's attitude -- under the right circumstances. The Thunder making the NBA finals after justfour seasons since relocating from Seattle surely hasn't hurt attendance.We also know that Oklahoma City seems pretty pleased with the NBA.Here's Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne, an OKC resident and Thunder fan, from the Times Magazine story: “I think people like the idea that, whether you’re a weirdo rock dude or a basketball player, we all have this spirit of the city. Which I don’t think really exists. But I think the Thunder has probably pulled it together more than anything else.”