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News » Seattle transplants mark 1st year in Oklahoma City

Seattle transplants mark 1st year in Oklahoma City

Seattle transplants mark 1st year in Oklahoma City
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - After spending more than a decade with the Seattle SuperSonics, Pete Winemiller's transition to Oklahoma City isn't quite complete.

A full year after the NBA franchise announced it would be relocating, Winemiller is among a handful of employees who are still making a 2,000-mile commute - from home with the family in the Pacific Northwest to work at the Thunder's downtown office.

Winemiller's typical schedule features about three weeks in Oklahoma City every month, and either a week or a couple of long weekends in Seattle. Only now is he working to find a house for himself, his wife and his two daughters.

In the meantime, he has become extremely well-acquainted with the Renaissance Hotel.

"We've just been running so hard," said Winemiller, the team's vice president in charge of guest relations. "It's been one of those discussions that hasn't taken place probably as expeditiously as it needs to."

Like the rest of the team's employees, Winemiller has been wrapped up in making the relocation a reality. He was first among those in charge of overseeing the physical move of the SuperSonics' belongings to their new home, and afterward assembled a staff and established relationships with concessionaires, ushers, police officials and others who play a role on Thunder game days.

About 50 employees - including players and coaching staff - from Seattle made it through the first season in Oklahoma City after the ownership group led by Clay Bennett reached a settlement on July 2, 2008, to move the team.

"It was an amazing situation to be down here in the middle of July and then basically you're playing basketball in October," said Winemiller, who still keeps as a memento the basketball that rolled off the first moving truck to arrive in Oklahoma City.

"If you ask how did that happen, it's one of those situations where you just sort of get things done."

It all started when senior vice president Brian Byrnes was dispatched to Oklahoma City a few days before a federal judge was expected to rule on whether the team had to remain in Seattle or was free to break its lease at KeyArena. Instead, the settlement brought conclusion to a testy final two seasons in Seattle.

"The contingency plan became an action plan. From that day, for really the rest of the month, we just went 100 miles an hour on building our business," Byrnes said.

"In my case, I spent a lot of nights in hotels, commuting on the weekends back to Seattle and really just focusing on the work."

It took 61 truckloads to carry the 786,000 pounds of freight the franchise moved halfway across the country - piling up 110,000 miles. The franchise also paid to relocate the employees who wanted to stay with the team, which wouldn't reveal the total cost of the move.

The early days of the Oklahoma City NBA franchise - then without a new name or colors - were centered in a plain, second-floor conference room at the Skirvin Hilton downtown. What would become the Thunder's office at the Leadership Square building was still unfinished, with wires hanging from the ceiling.

Staff meetings consisted of a few dozen employees packing into a cramped conference room during the sweltering days of summer.

Eventually, the former Sonics employees were joined by a mix made up of three primary groups: locals with knowledge of the Oklahoma City area, employees who had worked with the New Orleans Hornets during their two-year temporary relocation to the city and professionals recruited from elsewhere.

"I don't know if it was a concern when we first started, but it was something that we thought perhaps there could be some cliques that are formed," said director of corporate communications Tom Savage, who also relocated from Seattle. "But there really wasn't."

The Seattle crew has had to get used to a smaller city and surroundings where the man-made Lake Hefner is the closest thing to an ocean, the greenery often isn't so green and the terrain is much flatter.

"I miss Seattle. It's just beautiful. My wife misses it a lot," Savage said. "But it wasn't nearly as difficult a decision as some people think."

Over time, the SuperSonics have become but a memory.

Less than a week after the settlement was announced, new black-and-white Oklahoma City jerseys arrived while players were going through summer league practice at Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, Fla.

"I remember thinking that the last time in the 41-year history of the franchise that the last time you'll ever see the green and gold is at a little Catholic high school on Sunday morning," Savage said.

Since then, the franchise has turned the page and rebranded itself. A new name and colors were announced in September, and roster turnover has the number of former SuperSonics players dwindling.

Thunder workers talk openly about the rare chance to create a franchise from the ground up.

"For us, it really was starting up a brand new organization and doing that with a lot of good people to start it with, but also having to ask yourself: 'We're doing this differently this time because it's a different situation; are we going to make it better?"' Winemiller said.

One thing is clear, he is certainly going to great lengths to do his job.

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: July 3, 2009


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