BY JOHN ROHDE
Feb. 11, 2017
With Kevin Durant breaking hearts and Russell Westbrook mending them, it raises a question. Which player will have his Thunder jersey raised to the rafters first?
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Stunned Thunder fans met denial head-on last July 4 when Durant chose to leave OKC and join the already overloaded Golden State Warriors.
Durant’s decision was so shocking, denial lingered longer than usual. Anger might never leave. For many fans, acceptance might never arrive.
Durant turned his back on a state that instantaneously embraced him despite playing for the University of Texas his lone collegiate season. More than seven months later, with that gaping wound still fresh, raw emotion no doubt will greet Durant tonight when he returns to OKC for the first time.
As an unrestricted free agent, Durant could sign with whatever team he pleased. Yet it seemed ludicrous for Durant to leave the place where for eight years he expressed his unwavering devotion to a crazed fan base that did the same in kind.
On Aug. 4, exactly one month after Durant’s fireworks, Westbrook agreed to a three-year extension with the Thunder, a re-commitment that prevents the Thunder from losing two of the world’s top-5 players to unrestricted free agency in back-to-back seasons.
At that precise moment, Westbrook took a significant step toward supplanting Durant as the most cherished Thunder player in history.
Durant’s backdoor cut to join the Warriors left Westbrook and forward/center Nick Collison as the Thunder’s only remaining charter members.
This 9-year-old franchise figures to hang several jerseys, but which will be hoisted first — Durant’s No. 35 or Westbrook’s No. 0?
The answer is neither.
No jersey should be raised when a player is active, so timing is everything. Durant and Westbrook are both 28 years old and somewhere around halftime of their NBA careers. Barring injury, their jersey ceremonies are roughly a decade away.
This is why Collison’s No. 4 will be the first jersey hoisted.
“One of the things we have always embraced as an organization that is still so new and aspiring is that we are in the midst of continuing to build our legacy,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “The opportunity to retire the first number in franchise history will be a significant milestone in our evolution. We look forward to that moment because it will allow us to acknowledge an individual who has been critical to building the foundation of an identity that we are proud of and that our fans have come to rely on and appreciate.”
Presti might as well have been wearing a No. 4 jersey while sharing these words.
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double so far this season and collected his 26th triple-double in Thursday night’s 118-109 home victory over the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Westbrook also has finished either one rebound or one assist shy of having five more triple-doubles.
But a player who never averaged double-digits in any stat his entire career — including shots attempted per game — will become the first Thunder player in history to be memorialized inside OKC’s home arena.
Nicholas John Collison is in the final year of his contract. The 36-year-old previously said he will evaluate his potential retirement at the end of this season. Given the lack of playing time (just 80 total minutes in 13 total games this season), retirement seems imminent for Collison, who promptly will be offered a job somewhere in the Thunder front office.
Whether it’s real or imagined, Collison essentially has had a no-trade clause since Presti took office in Seattle in June of 2007. Collison is emblematic of Presti’s desired environment. Collison is the gold standard. He is everything Thunder – loyal, wise, unselfish, reliable, determined, steady and humble. Team always comes first with Collison. He accepts his role and embraces the dirty work. He is the glue.
His most impressive career stat is total charges taken, though the precise number of which is uncertain because tabulation through the years has been vague at best.
Collison has played for one franchise, even one that relocated. He persevered despite opportunities to go elsewhere.
Collison’s NBA career began with double-shoulder surgery, forcing him to miss his entire rookie season (2003-04). The Sonics were 60 games under .500 and made the playoffs only once during Collison’s five seasons in Seattle.
The Thunder started out 3-29 in its inaugural season of 2008-09. Since that following season, OKC has assembled the NBA’s second-best winning percentage (.657) behind the San Antonio Spurs (.727).
Through it all, Collison’s commitment has been unwavering. This is why the rafters will have to wait for Thunder jerseys No. 35 and No. 0, because jersey No. 4 will go up first.
And it should.