Oklahoma stands in the spotlight as our capital city’s fledgling “little NBA team that could,” the Oklahoma City Thunder, prepares to take on the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals tomorrow night. Most of the attention has been good, with basketball fans from all over the country, who probably wouldn’t think twice about Oklahoma otherwise, cheering us on in our Cinderella story.
(Well, there is at least one exception to that rule.)
But Mike Lopresti, writing for USA Today, told a different tale: one of remembrance and of a city still rising from the ashes of a 17-year-old tragedy. He begins with a chilling lead:
Once, when the whole world was watching, Chris Fields became the face of Oklahoma City, something like Kevin Durant is now. Only that day, there were not roars and basketball, but screams and blood.
He goes on to compare Oklahoma City’s “best of times”—a winning season and a chance at an NBA title—to its “worst of times,” when a firefighter at Engine 35 held Baylee Almon, a 1-year-old baby, as she died amid the rubble of the country’s then-worst terrorist attack in history. The photograph captured of that scene would win a Pulitzer Prize and become the national symbol of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“You wanted to know how the Miami Heat were feeling on the eve of the Finals? Fine. I wanted to know how the major at Engine 35 was doing,” Lopresti wrote.
Fields, who’s working on his 27th year with the fire department, told the writer how he struggled in the weeks and months following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and how he’s still haunted by the sights, smells, and sounds he encountered that day. “I look back now and wish I could change it, but I can’t. All I can do is make it better from this day forward,” he said.
This in no way is to equate a best-of-seven basketball series with a bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children. But you could make the argument that the NBA Finals have given Oklahoma City exposure not seen since that darkest of days.
Chesapeake Energy Arena will be a noisy party Tuesday night. Seven blocks away, there is a quiet reflecting pool and memorial, where the bomb went off outside a federal building.
It is impossible to fully understand the Oklahoma City passion and civic glue that Finals watchers will note, without understanding the echoes from that day.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum told The Oklahoman it expects a boost in attendance thanks to Charles Barkley’s recent visit—and his deposit of the signed, custom-made, lizard-skin boots gifted to him by Gov. Mary Fallin—valuating the publicity he gave the museum at $270,000.
Though you probably couldn’t monetize Lopresti’s story, you couldn’t get Barkley to better expound on the meaning and the pervading emotion of the event that backdrops Oklahoma City as it prepares to host the impending basketball games.
Life goes on. The Finals are coming, (Fields’) family are all avid fans. Oklahoma City celebrates a new day.
But the past is still easy to remember. In April, Baylee Almon would have been 18.
—Holly Wall, News Editor