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Originally published Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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How I learned to kinda, sorta like Oklahoma City

Despite taking the Sonics from Seattle, a trip to enemy territory teaches a lesson in forgiving and letting go.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Editor's note: Second of two parts examining the impact of the Sonics' move. Wednesday, changes at KeyArena. Today, the effects on Seattle and Oklahoma City.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Easiest assignment ever: Go to the town that abducted the Sonics and write some impressions.

Or, in other words, sip some Hater-ade and let 'er rip.

But a crazy thing happened on this disdainful mission. I learned to tolerate Oklahoma City. Then I learned to kinda, sorta like the place. And then, shocker of all shockers, I learned to accept it as an NBA city and stop connecting the Thunder with the Sonics.

For my next trick, I plan to fix the relationship between the United States and Iran.

After this unlikely journey, anything is possible.

It helped that one of my best friends, Cara, lives in the area. It helped that her husband, David, is a native Oklahoman and one of the most affable people you'll ever meet. They served as tour guides and influenced my perception of a city I had only visited once. But even without their help, the charm of this place probably would've won me over.

Clay Bennett and his partners, who were allowed to fleece Seattle a year ago today, are still the Oklahoma Raiders. I still think the market is too small for long-term NBA success unless the Thunder becomes a perennial contender. Nevertheless, I'm now convinced that Oklahoma City deserves an NBA franchise. It's just too bad it had to be ours.

The community embraced its pro team in a manner that made me wonder if this is what Seattle was like when the Sonics came to town in 1967. There's a civic pride here that had evaporated in Seattle because of the shady way the Sonics' relocation happened.

It starts with the general kindness of the people here. I needed to meet some Oklahoma City jerks to write the kind of column I wanted to write, but I didn't find any. Instead, I met people like the waitress at Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill who wouldn't stop staring at me. She whispered to her co-workers and pointed. Finally, after a couple of minutes, she approached the table and revealed why she had been spying.

"I'm sorry to ask this, but I have to know," she said in a Southwestern twang. "Are you Wayman Tisdale's brother?"

Me? Kin to Wayman Tisdale, the late, great Oklahoma basketball star and musician? Never heard that one before.

"No, I'm not," I told her.

"Well, I just had to ask," the waitress replied. "Wayman's a legend in Oklahoma. It would've been great if you were his brother."

That's Oklahoma City for you. It's endearing.

The Thunder has benefited from the kindness. Despite losing 12 of their first 13 games and finishing with a 23-59 record, the ex-Sonics ranked 11th in the NBA in attendance this past season (18,693 fans per game). The novelty will wear off if the team keeps losing, but hope for the future remains. Ric Bucher of ESPN even went as far as dubbing the Thunder a team on the rise and possible playoff team next season.

Don't know about the playoffs, but general manager Sam Presti is amassing talent. He has four top-five draft picks since taking over in 2007 and turned them into Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the former Arizona State star guard who will be an excellent pro. In addition, the Thunder will have salary-cap space to make a move this summer or next. Presti is a few wise decisions away from building a winner and finishing the task he started in Seattle.

Which is the most painful part.

As long as the Thunder remains an NBA afterthought, the loss won't be as hard to take. But if Durant starts making All-Star Games and playoff appearances, the pain will increase.

"They've got a chance to be really good," said David, my friend's husband. "Oklahoma is already behind 'em, but if they start winning a lot, watch out."

It's a positive thing for Oklahoma City and for the players who languished in uncertainty during the final years in Seattle, but it's hard not to think of the Thunder's potential success as a downer.

It gets better (or worse): Even though most national media types speculate that players will hate playing in Oklahoma City, the team's young stars — Durant, Green and Westbrook — haven't expressed any dislike of their new residence. In fact, Durant, the key to the Thunder's sustainability in OKC, has been very complimentary.

"Hopefully, I'll spend my whole career here," he told Yahoo! Sports earlier this year.

In professional sports, money and competitiveness are great equalizers. If Bennett pays to retain his players and Presti creates a winner, the Thunder will have a chance to be more than just the average small-market team.

And Oklahoma City will become more than the city that took Seattle's team.

"Seattle can't hate on Oklahoma forever, can it?" David asked.

I told him that we have bigger issues than Oklahoma, that we've moved on, that Seattleites are too worldly to let OKC get to them.

"Yeah, but bitterness gets the best of everybody sometimes," he replied.

Touché, David.

But bitterness is an improvement on hatred.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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