Overseeing the rise of a team and a city

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Mick Cornett went to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Golden State Warriors April 3rd, he sat in his normal spot. The first seat on the back row in suite 31 on the second level of the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The space belongs to Oklahoma City, which in turn means the Mayor and City Council members make use of it. Since the arena became the official home of the Thunder, that has been Cornett’s vantage point for the majority of games he has attended.

So, it made sense that at the final Thunder home game of his four terms as Mayor of Oklahoma City, he would be in attendance overlooking the world he had helped create. It allowed him to reflect on just how far Oklahoma City has come since his first days in office and just what bringing the Thunder to his hometown has meant to the state.

“Well, I spent a lot of time changing the perception. I just wanted people to be thinking positively about us,” Cornett said in an interview while watching the Thunder play. “And, one thing the Thunder’s done is made us culturally relevant. So, no matter where you are, Oklahoma City’s basketball team is playing teams like Chicago and Las Angeles, and tonight, Golden State. You know, we’re on the same page of the scoreboard with them. There’s kind of a superficial level of equality that comes with having that pro sports team. And, maybe you didn’t deserve it in any other metric. But, you’re there. That’s important to us.”

While Cornett has left the mayoral office, he is not done with politics. He has thrown his hat into the race for Governor and will be one of the Republican candidates vying for the office during the primaries later this year.

At his final game as mayor, Cornett once again saw a sold-out crowd as his Thunder were playing on national TV with millions of people watching. It was a contest between teams with the sixth largest media market in the country (Oakland) against one with the 41st (Oklahoma City).

But, at the same time, Cornett’s mind was in other places.

“I think of all the memories. You know, where Oklahoma City was in 2004, when I became mayor and where we are today, and just to watch how far the city has come,” Cornett said. “Nearly 100,000 jobs have been created. Nearly 10,000 new business. And, I’ve been around to welcome in a lot of people in the town … Dell Computers, Boeing, and a lot of technology companies. And, you know, we’re in a sense just kind of building off the generation that came before us. They did a lot of the heavy lifting, and we’ve been there for a lot of the really good times.”

Cornett’s final day as Mayor was April 9. The transition from him to the newly elected David Holt was low key.

However, low key was not what Cornett was thinking when the idea of bringing a professional sports franchise to Oklahoma City first popped into his mind.

“You know, I wanted to bring an NBA team or an NHL team to Oklahoma City, but even I knew it was a long shot, and I was the most optimistic person in town,” Cornett said. “But, to see the way that unfolded and to see the way the city responded when we had a chance to prove ourselves with the Hornets … you know, we sold out every seat, and our business community leads the league in sponsorships in that first year. And, of course, that set the table for everything that Clay Bennett brought to us with the Thunder.”

Cornett gives most of the credit to the people of Oklahoma City. They were the ones who voted in favor of the Maps 3 initiative that allowed the city to transform itself. And it continues even through today.

“We’re about to break ground on a new convention center,” Cornett said. “We’re in construction on a new streetcar, and the new park is under construction. And, those … all three … individually each one of those projects should be amazing and have all three of them here unfolding at once is pretty dramatic. We think a lot about what Oklahoma City’s done the last 10 or 15 years, but based on where I sit, the next 10 or 15 are going to be even more dramatic than the last 10 or 15. We’re set up to succeed in a lot of different ways.”

For Cornett, the epicenter of Oklahoma City’s transformation began on one of the most devastating day’s in American history. The April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City by terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols was an event the entire state was still feeling the effects of nine years later when Cornett won his first election for Mayor.

Cornett knew something had to change or that act of terrorism would be the only thing Oklahoma City was going to be known for.

“I think we had a wounded brand when I became mayor. As I was going around the country trying to talk about us, I could see that people were thinking about the bombing from 1995, and you can’t build an economy on sympathy,” Cornett said. “It’s nice that people felt sorry for us, but I knew we had to do something about the brand, and I figured a sports team would be the fastest way to do that. So, I started working on the NBA and NHL aspect of that. And, I think just how well-known the city is now, mostly because of the Thunder, but from a lot of other things, too … you know, now, when you’re traveling around the country and you say, ‘Oklahoma City’, people probably think about something positive instead of that awful day in 1995.”

As someone who grew up in and around Oklahoma City, Cornett knew his town and state was more than just about tragedy. From his days as a sportscaster for KOCO, he was able to travel the state and saw the spirt of his fellow Oklahomans.  As Mayor he wanted to find a way to get those outside of the state to find out just how special his home was.

“I grew up in Oklahoma City, and you know, I thought it was a good place to live and a good place to raise a family and all those things,” Cornett said. “But, we weren’t a great place to visit. We knew people weren’t traveling across the country to come see us. But, you know, now, people do. There’s a lot to do in Bricktown and six million people a year now come to downtown Oklahoma City. The river has water in it. How cool is that?”

Oklahoma City’s growth under Cornett’s administration was expansive and stunning. From the Oklahoma River to Midtown, to the Plaza District to the Paseo, most sectors around the city felt the effects.

But nothing tells the story of the turnaround like bringing the NBA to Oklahoma. And once again, it was another tragedy that lay as a foundation for the revival of Oklahoma City. This one hundreds of miles away in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina.

Even today Cornett is still amazed how it has all played out.

“Commissioner (David) Stern really enjoyed my passion for what I was trying to do. He told me that he just didn’t have a team for me, and was willing to help me try and get a hockey team,” Cornett said. “And, that’s kind of where it was left when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans (2005). Suddenly, through this bizarre series of circumstances, we realized there’s an NBA team with no place to play. I mean, that’s never happened, and we just happened to be right there with an arena with 35 open dates. You could see that it made all the sense in the world, but I just couldn’t believe it was happening, you know? So, I mean, to a certain extent, that’s how it happened. Knocking on doors, and then all of a sudden the opportunity presents itself, and we take advantage of it. Like I say, the fans bought every ticket. You can’t get much better than that. They bought every ticket there was.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Writer with Eyeamtruth.com


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