Giving back a way of life for Thunder

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — After more than three seasons with the Utah Jazz, Enes Kanter thought he had a good idea of what it meant to be in the NBA. But when he was traded to Oklahoma City in February 2015, Kanter quickly found out the organization does things a little differently than other professional franchises. While the Thunder strives to compete for championships and banners, the team also wants to be a leader in the community.

“We really didn’t do that much community work in Utah,” Kanter says. “I get to the Thunder, and we have something to do almost every other day.”

Kanter’s experience is not an outlier. This was evident in September 2016, when the Thunder held its annual Blue and White Scrimmage at Oklahoma City’s John Marshall High School. Each year, the team picks an Oklahoma high school to host a scrimmage on its basketball court. At the game, the Thunder Cares Foundation—the team’s nonprofit arm—donated $5,000 to replace John Marshall’s broken scoreboards. But the event was even more meaningful—in 2015, John Marshall student C.J. Davis was killed in a car accident, and the sixteen-year old football player’s death devastated his family and the student body.

“I know that family very well; that was the worst day of my professional life,” says Edith Vickers, athletic director at John Marshall.

At the scrimmage, the Thunder honored Davis. General Manger Sam Presti, who set up the program, presented his family with a framed number sixteen jersey.

“I was thinking on my son and all the great things the Thunder had done for him,” Cletus Glenn Davis Sr., C.J.’s father, says of that moment. “I’m very humbled by all of this and want to say thank you personally. This is more special than I can have words to say.”

But the Blue and White Scrimmage is just one of many ways the Thunder and its players help communities around the state. The team takes part in more than 200 charitable events each season.

“Our overall philosophy is organization-wide,” says Christine Berney, the team’s vice president of community relations. “It’s not just one person, and it’s not just the players. The whole organization has bought into the importance of being a good community partner.”

Some of the team’s biggest events include the Thunder Day of Giving, in which players and staff volunteer throughout the community, and the Holiday Shopping Spree, in which every player is paired up with grandparents who are raising grandkids for a trip through Target.

“The families get shopping on us,” Berney said. “The kids go off and have fun with the players, take them to the toy aisle. The grandparents also get a chance to shop for themselves. I’ve never gotten through that event without crying.”

It’s not just the franchise that seeks to give back. Several players have charitable foundations doing good work around the state. For Russell Westbrook, that includes his Why Not? Foundation, which has hosted Thanksgiving Diners for underprivileged

families, given away cars to single mothers, and created Russell’s Reading Room, a literacy initiative created to provide children access to books and a safe environment to read with friends.

“I feel blessed and honored to see my name and pictures around,” Westbrook said after opening his first reading room at North Highland Elementary in Oklahoma City. “Especially for young kids, I think it’s important for them to have access to different books and to be able to come into my reading room. It’s my job to be able to encourage them to read more.”

Other players who either have foundations, camps or host events, include Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Anthony Morrow, Victor Oladipo, Cameron Payne, Andre Roberson, and Kyle Singler. But the entire organization—from owner Clay Bennett down to the youngest ball boy—takes community outreach seriously.

“We live in a special place,” Berney says. “We feel the support of the fans and the community here. As the only national team in Oklahoma, that’s a responsibility, but it’s something we love to do. We like to think of ourselves as part of the fabric of Oklahoma, so it’s important to us to give back.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com

Story ran in The Oklahoma Today.

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