Monday, July 21, 2008

Rhymes With "Blunder!"

I have a great deal of affection for Oklahoma City. Once a year, growing up, my brothers, mom, grandma, aunt and my cousins would all pile into the car (sometimes two cars) and drive from Minnesota to the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, where my grandma's sister and mom's cousin both lived. They had kids as well, two older boys and a girl around our age. For about a week we all ran around, played games, went shopping, played with their schnauzers (dude... they had two pet dogs. Don't be gross), jumped on their trampoline; it was a highlight of the summer, something we looked forward to every year. This could have been accomplished almost anywhere, of course, and half the fun was the road trip, but, nonetheless, Oklahoma City is dear -- if not often, these days, near -- to my heart.

So it was with a measure of revulsion that I learned the Oklahoma City NBA franchise, which passed the last several decades as the Seattle SuperSonics, will be called the "Thunder."

I suppose I understand the connection to the old nickname, and thunder is a distinctive part of life in the Midwest (though certainly not just Oklahoma). Still, calling your team the Thunder is undeniably stupid, and it's a further indictment of the character of team owner Clay Bennett, who almost certainly would have had to sign off on the name.

As even the most casual sports fan knows by now, Bennett essentially hijacked the beloved Sonics from Seattle with the tacit blessing of NBA commissioner David Stern, buying the team and making no realistic, good-faith effort to allow it to stay put. When e-mails Bennett had written to this effect came to light, he lied about them. Former Sonics owner and Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz, who sold the team to Bennett, even tried to sue to regain it, claiming Bennett made fraudulent promises that he would try to keep the team in Seattle. Bennett almost certainly made these promises, and then lied about that. So far we're just dealing with standard rich asshole behavior; no big deal.

But you don't get "Can Afford a Sports Franchise" rich by being stupid, and only a stupid person (or a little kid; you can't really expect little kids to know any better) would think that "Thunder" is a good name for an NBA team. Since that's the name that was chosen (and since Bennett must have approved it), we can deduce that Clay Bennett is not stupid, but most assuredly thinks that you are.

In the very beginning, professional sports teams started playing and then got their nicknames based on the characteristics of that team. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (so called because a number of their players were married at around the same time) became the Brooklyn Trolleydodgers, after the way their fans had to negotiate crowded streets around the ballpark before and after the games. The Pittsburgh team, accused of "stealing" a player away from a rival, embraced the role of the villain and became the Pirates. The Chicago squad had a bunch of young players; they became the Cubs. At the risk of belaboring an obvious point, the basic conceit of a team nickname is that, for instance, each man who plays for Pittsburgh is a pirate; therefore that collection of men may understandably be called the Pirates.

In more recent decades, though, an annoying trend has emerged, more than likely ushered in by the NBA's New Orleans Jazz (now Utah Jazz), in which teams are occasionally named after a single entity or a single concept (like the Colorado Avalanche or the Tampa Bay Lightning). These team names are not only silly on their face, because they seem new and trendy to those who enjoy them and will therefore necessarily seem outdated and ridiculous to those same people before too long; these names also represent a complete paradigm shift in team naming.

What you have in a team is an assembly of athletes; conceptually, the athletes themselves are nicknamed and the pluralization of the nickname provides the appellation for the assembly ("Minnesota Vikings"), but the other way of thinking names the assembly itself ("Minnesota Wild"), leaving no acceptable way to refer to the individuals themselves.

What would a member of the Miami Heat be called, for instance? Before Shaquille O'Neal was a Phoenix Sun, he was... a Miami Heat? At the beginning of his career, he was... an Orlando Magic? How can you "be" a "magic?" You can be magic, certainly (as Shaq himself proved to my satisfaction in Kazaam), but you can't be "a" magic, let alone an Orlando Magic. The idea is nonsense, and such phrasing should grate upon the natural sensibilities of any reasonable person.

Team names are not necessarily permanent, but they almost never change without a relocation of the franchise (the only examples that spring to mind in recent -- or even distant -- memory are the Washington Bullets and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who became the Wizards and the Rays, respectively). So saddling your team with a dumb name that sounds catchy at a moment in time is shortsighted, like a lower back tattoo. In a matter of years (or even months), you will be looked upon as trifling and unserious. And probably kind of slutty.

So I have little choice now but to be preemptively disgusted with the good people of Oklahoma City, who will no doubt eagerly snap up Thunder t-shirts, Thunder jerseys and any matter of product bearing the Thunder name and logo (this coming from a man who owns a Minnesota Wild replica jersey; do as I say, not as I do).

The fans of Oklahoma do, of course, possess the wherewithal to reject this name. They could ignore Thunder merchandise en masse, and in a week Bennett and his minions would be forced to reconsider. But this won't happen, of course; like college football fans, who have for years endured a nonsensical bowl structure that constantly fails to crown a champion (which is, it could be argued, the main -- if not the only -- purpose of postseason play) and have refused to stay away from the sport for even the few weeks it would take to force an overhaul of the system... like those people, Oklahoma fans will be so excited to have a professional sports franchise that they will cave in.

Or, at least, the smart ones will. The incompetent, the easily amused, the slow and the witless, they will think that "Thunder" is a great name for the team. Those who know better will -- like one who is living under the thumb of a totalitarian regime and is aware of the weight of the oppression crushing down on him but can't bring himself to say anything as long as he's getting his bread every day -- just shut up and buy their Oklahoma Thunder mini basketball. Because while sports aren't quite as vital as food, to a lot of guys the distinction is negligible. Clay Bennett undoubtedly knows this and is shrewdly (if dishonorably) counting on it.

(it should be noted, of course, that the comparison of Clay Bennett to the rulers of a totalitarian regime is not meant to be taken literally. Leaders of totalitarian regimes typically imprison and sadistically torture those who are even suspected of disagreeing with them, whereas I have been unable to prove conclusively that Clay Bennett does this. So far)

In any case, however you came by it, congratulations on the new team, Okies. I'll continue to regard you fondly. But have fun trying to convince your daughter it's a bad idea to move in with her boyfriend right out of college, when you yourself are still sporting what amounts to a garish, statewide tramp-stamp.

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