Oklahoma is a football state. Always has been, always will be. No discussion necessary. But Oklahoma City – the capital of our gridiron state – just might be building its own reputation as the homeland of hoops.
The first seed was planted a long, long time ago when legendary coach Henry Iba started the All-College Basketball Classic in 1936. The tournament quickly grew into a marquee event in men’s college basketball that drew some of the best teams in the country as well as throngs of hoops fans.
But the draw to OKC was not just reserved for men’s basketball. As a little girl growing up in southern Oklahoma, no destination loomed sweeter than the Big House at the State Fairgrounds. Every little kid who grew up dribbling a ball dreamed of going to OKC to represent her school and play for a title one day. Oklahoma City was where champions were crowned.
In the late 1990’s on the wings of the MAPS project, came a state of the art arena – a magnet for collegiate basketball games and conference tournaments and NCAA regional playoffs. Our city was one of the few in the country that sported two capable arenas so closely situated that salt could be passed window to window.
It was novel.
It was FUN.
Bricktown had a vibe. So basketball took up residence in all its various foster forms, and people enjoyed it.
They came – to women’s and men’s games alike – and then they came back with two friends, and then they came back with two more. It was like ‘Strengthfinders’ – the sports’ savvy metropolitan area migrated to its match.
Then the Thunder rolled into town. And it became clear: OKC loves basketball, and basketball loves OKC.
I began this hopscotch backward down memory lane when on the cusp of my 20 years as the head ball coach in Norman, I was asked about my all-time favorite games I had coached. Ironically, three of my top five occurred in OKC.
I just can’t get enough of ‘Basketball City'. Here's a little reminder of why:
#1 Oklahoma 67, Iowa State 60
2007 Big 12 Tournament Championship
Leah Rush played 37 minutes, Courtney Paris had 23 points and 21 rebounds, Iowa State made 11 3-pointers, and the then Cox Center was a rowdy sea of crimson for 40 solid minutes. 12,413 people watched that game – the largest crowd ever for Big 12 women’s basketball championship. I can’t remember ever having so much fun trying to win a game.
Part of the magic undoubtedly sprang from the quality of the game itself. Bill Fennelly coaches his Cyclones as well as, if not better than, anybody in America. His kids played hard, and they played the right way. Our squad was full of lunch pail guys and a sensational but green double-double machine. Iowa State shot 3’s and sometimes went inside. We went inside and sometimes shot 3’s. We had Leah Rush’s determination; they had Lyndsey Medders’ refusal to lose. It was everything that is good about women’s basketball played out in a venue befitting of the show.
Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that’s why this battle from almost a decade ago still reverberates with such vibrancy – the people of Oklahoma wrapped our team up in a proud hug from day one of that conference tournament and they loved us all the way through the trophy and confetti at the end.
#2 Oklahoma 74 vs Purdue 68
2009 NCAA Elite Eight
On March 31, 2009, Courtney Paris became the first ever four time AP All-American, but what made her so special is the fact that if you asked her what happened on that day she would say, “We beat Purdue to go to the Final Four". Both occurred in poetic synchronization, but she only ever cared about the latter.
We played well enough that year to earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma City had won the bid for a regional and based on our resume, the committee sent us up I-35 for our shot at the Final Four. After defeating a pesky and very talented Pittsburgh team, we faced Purdue in front of 11,529 fans with a ticket to St. Louis on the line.
Whitney Hand put the Sooners in the lead with an early second half 3-pointer against to Purdue to help OU earn a spot in the 2009 Final Four.
We took the floor at The Ford Center (now Chesapeake Energy Arena) carrying backpacks full of four years of expectations. Subsequently, we seized and jerked our way through our worst first half of the year, shooting 24 percent from the field. We found ourselves down five at halftime staring right down the barrel at 20 minutes that would—fairly or unfairly—define us as a team.
What I love most about this particular game is what happened in that definitive span of time.
Danielle Robinson, our fast and feisty point guard took the wheel of the car. She found our freshman rock star, Whitney Hand, for a 3 that Whit literally willed into the basket. Then DRob took it to the rim herself in a flurry of points that gave us not just the lead, but some much needed separation. We caught our breath in that window, sat our backpacks courtside and rode Whitney’s joy on to a Final Four berth.
I was once told that what you remember most about going to the Final Four is the moment you know you are going. Nothing could be truer. Late in the second half when we answered yet another Purdue charge, I remember it being so loud in the arena that my assistants couldn’t hear me as I screamed into their ears. The whole place went slow motion in my mind, and I knew we had made it happen.
We were going back to the Holy Land of our sport, and we were traveling there on the wings of 11,000 Oklahomans. We hugged and yelled and laughed and cried in the middle of the court until they made us leave.
Nothing about our journey to that moment had been easy. Unfortunately, sometimes wings come with invisible anchors. But our gritty team found a way. And we had OKC to thank for the push.
#3 Oklahoma 80, Tennessee 70 (Feb. 2, 2009)
It was billed as the game of the year. Pat Summitt had won a staggering 999 games. The whole country was poised to watch her win one more to become the winningest coach of all time. Not in women’s basketball, but in ALL OF BASKETBALL. The proverbial circus was coming to OKC and the world would be watching.
Before the game, Tennessee asked for 10 game balls to be alternated at each timeout for historical memorabilia, managers filled Gatorade coolers with confetti and ESPN sent Bob Knight to commentate (I know, right?). To add to the drama, our own Courtney Paris had an NCAA record 112 straight double doubles heading into the game. Looking back I’m in awe that any of us could do what we were supposed to—their team or ours.
After getting off to a rocky start, our team settled in and began slicing up the Lady Vol defense with back door cuts from every angle imaginable. Tennessee got frustrated, and we got loose balls en route to a 41-36 halftime lead. We had our way the second half, dominating virtually every phase of the game.
When the buzzer sounded we had ten more points than they did. Though Courtney’s double-double streak came to a surprising halt that night, Bob Knight fell in love with Danielle Robinson, America fell in love with Whitney Hand (20 points on 8 of 9 shooting) and Pat’s 1,000th win had to wait for another day.
Sunday we’ll play Texas A&M at Chesapeake Energy Arena. And then March 4-7, the Big 12 Conference Women’s Tournament will take up residence in Bricktown for a full week – the first of a four-year run in OKC.
Between this and the NBA schedule, downtown will beat to the bounce of the ball almost every night this spring. And the people of Oklahoma wouldn’t have it any other way. They ‘get’ good basketball and they appreciate ‘team’ in the purest sense. ‘Basketball City’ is open for business!
Please join us on December 20…..we’ll leave the light on.