In 2013 NBA Legend Bill Russell, who passed away July 31, came to Oklahoma City to induct his friend, Clay Bennett, into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. This was my story from that night. (Photo by Michael Kinney)
By Michael Kinney
The saying goes “One can judge a man by the company he keeps.” That gem of a quote is credited to Euripides, 480 B.C. Yet, it could just as easily apply to Oklahoma City Thunder chairman Clay Bennett.
Since bringing an NBA franchise to his home town, the Oklahoma City native has stayed pretty much in the shadows, letting general manager Sam Presti be the public face of the organization.
However, the business mogul and civic leader gave Oklahomans a rare glimpse into his personal life when he was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. What stood out the most about his induction was who he chose to present him. He went with NBA legend Bill Russell.
Bennett didn’t choose the Hall of Fame center just to show off. He did it for the simplest of reasons. Russell is a friend.
“I have had a very nice relationship with Bill,” Bennett said. “I thought it might be fun to bring him to Oklahoma and let others hear and enjoy him as I have. He was very gracious to accept. I am honored he would be here.”
Russell is one of the most respected and admired athletes to ever come through the NBA. He is known as a man who chooses his friends carefully.
“I am proud to say that Clay is a friend of mine,” Russell said. “The friendship is based on the fact that when we think about each other, we never think about what he can do for me, but what I can do for him, and if I am able to do anything for him. That’s the way friendships are built.”
Building friendships and relationships has been key to Bennett’s success since he brought the Thunder to Oklahoma in 2008. They are the same characteristics he asks of his players in dealing with the community that has adopted them.
Because of this, Bennett was one of seven people inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame last week. The eclectic group featured three football players, a wrestler, a basketball coach and a Romanian gymnast.
“One of the things I am proud of is that in a city that he grew up in, you presented him with this kind of honor,” Russell said. “Because most folks are not acclaimed in their own home town. I would not say Oklahoma City is lucky to have Clay Bennett. Clay Bennett is lucky to have grown up in Oklahoma City.”
While the rest of the inductees made it due to their amazing achievements on the playing field, Bennett’s honor was built solely around a business decision to bring an NBA franchise to a place where most people didn’t think one could thrive.
“I didn’t know it would have this type of impact on the city to the level it has,” Bennett said. “Again, it’s a reaction to the players. It’s a reaction to the league. The experiences of the game. Basketball, particularly the NBA, it’s so personal. You are so close to the players. You see their faces, you see their emotion. We get to know them as people off the court. It’s been far greater than I could have ever imagined this quickly.”
By quickly, Bennett means the Thunder going from the worst team in the league its first year in Oklahoma City to a trip to the NBA Finals three years later. Now, the Thunder have become a perennial title contender with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way.
“We had a sense of where the team would fit in given the experience we had with the Hornets,” Bennett said. “It’s an absolute tribute to the players. A tribute to the guys we have on our team, how they play the game, how they conduct themselves off the court, how they interact with our community, the work they do and the people they are.”
However, Bennett still remembers what it was like for him in those early years when he and the Professional Basketball Club purchased the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006. It was an established franchise with an NBA title under its belt and solid fan base in the Pacific Northwest.
But running a team in Washington State was not his dream. Amid controversy and being labeled a villain by Seattle fans, Bennett found a way to transplant the Sonics to Oklahoma City, changing the name in the process
While that period was difficult, Bennett now cherishes that time because it gave the franchise a foundation to build upon.
“I am gratified by that,” Bennett said. “I am proud of our people. Especially proud of the players who were at the center of the focus when we moved here. We learned a lot in those early days. I think you do learn more through difficult times and we certainly had them. But we are focused on doing better and getting better. Keeping this going.”
Yet, while Bennett is appreciative of the acclaim he has received, the President of Dorchester Capital Corporation says he was just part of a large group of men and women who made everything happen.
“From the beginning, I’ve had some misgivings,” Bennett said of his HOF induction. “This is so much more than me. It’s about many, many people who’ve contributed to this effort. I am honored to be the single recipient. But I am here as a representative of a lot of people who made it happen. I just try to do the best I can in my business career and my civic career. I am really pleased with how things have happened in Oklahoma and how Oklahoma is doing so well. It really makes me proud.”
Yet, despite the success, Bennett is not ready to think about his legacy just yet. Both he and the Thunder still have unfinished business to attend to before he gets to that point.
“My view when I wake up every day is do the best I can at whatever it is I’m focused on,” Bennett said. “We can’t rest. We must continue to work hard, to improve to get better. To make a better city, a better state. The results of these investments we’ve made are continuing to pay off now. The beneficiaries are our young people and our kids. We can’t quit that. We can’t quit focusing on doing good things. That drives me.”
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Got to watch Russell play a few times in his late years with Celtics, then covered his teams as a reporter during his years with the Sonics. Say what you want, nobody changed the game of basketball more than Russ. No elegance to his offensive game whatsoever, but the man dominated the court as a player like no other player then or now. He’d simply break your face.