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Sunday, October 26, 2008

12 Actresses Who Would Have Made Great CFB Cheerleaders

by NextRound

Several months back we did a popular feature on twelve actresses who would have made great NFL cheerleaders. That was easy to compile seeing that all that is really required to be a successful NFL cheerleader is a hot body, a cute face, a killer front court, and marginal motor skills. Well, it’s recently been brought to our attention we never did a similar feature for college football cheerleaders, so here we are.

The prerequisites to be a CFB cheerleader are a bit different from the NFL variety. Not only do the pretty ladies need to be cute and petite, but they also have to convincingly handle elementary memorization and pull off the occasional back handspring. And for all that, they get cut a little slack in the front court department. To keep things manageable we’ve limited this list to anyone who has ever headlined a feature film, regardless of how terrible. Here are our favorites:

Sophia Bush. Sophia almost definitely missed her calling. Just how far can six seasons of One Tree Hill get someone anyway? If she’d been on the squad at our alma mater we wouldn’t have been allowed to attend games due to the restraining order.

Rachel McAdams. We don’t have the exact number in front of us, but we’re pretty sure somewhere around 8 out of Rachel’s first 10 roles involved playing a cheerleader of some sort, which is ironic since she’s Canadian and everyone knows Canada is anti pom pom.

Kate Bosworth. Yeah, we’re man enough to admit we’ve seen Blue Crush. And we walked away convinced Kate would dominate a basket toss.

Isla Fisher. Isla has more than enough spirit to go around.

Mila Kunis. Mila has Pac-10 written all over her.

Elizabeth Banks. Zack & Miri probably should have considered going the fool proof cheerleader/locker room route.

Kristen Bell. We’re of the opinion that Kristen was genetically engineered to be the top of a pyramid.

Natalie Portman. Does the Ivy League even sanction cheerleading squads?

Kate Mara. We Are Marshall would have been a whole lot more depressing if not for Kate in uniform.

Anna Faris. House Bunny Anna, yes. Scary Movie Anna, not so much.

Vanessa Hudgens. The ASU squad is currently holding a spot open for Vanessa. Keep your fingers crossed.

And Jessica Alba. We’re pretty much convinced Alba would have been good at anything, outside of making watchable movies of course.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming “Cheerleaders Who Would Have Made Great Actresses” piece, and, based on the popularity of that, our potential “Actors Lame Enough to Be Male Cheerleaders” follow up.

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A Slew of Staph Infections Tackles the NFL

By Sean Gregory

Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow watches from the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland.
Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow watches from the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland.

The NFL is learning the hard way that a microscopic foe can be much more imposing than a 300-pound lineman, as a sudden slew of staph infections has sacked several players in the game.

Early this week, Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. revealed that staph (short for Staphylococcus) infection had sent him to the Cleveland Clinic for three days, and he accused the Browns of asking him to cover it up. Pro football teams are notoriously reluctant to reveal any information on player injuries, but since six different Browns have caught the bug since 2005 — Winslow has had it twice — the team's medical management looked suspect to some observers. "There's obviously a problem [with staph] and we have to fix it," Winslow told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Just look at the history around here. It's unfortunate, because it happens time and time again." The Browns, who denied that they had kept the news of his infection from his teammates, suspended Winslow one game for his rant, which included his claim that he felt like he had been treated like "a piece of meat."

But the Winslow medical controversy wasn't even the worst of it for the league. In the past week, it has become clear that two of its most marketable stars, marquee quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, had gotten infections. The New England Patriots' Brady has had at least two additional infection-related procedures since his initial season-ending knee surgery in September. It's now possible that his knee will have to undergo another operation, which could delay his return until 2010. Staph seems to be the likely culprit, but neither Brady nor the Patriots will confirm that. During training camp staph infected a bursa sac, which acts as a cushion between bones, in Manning's left knee. The infection required surgery and forced him to miss most of the preseason. Though the Colts released a statement on Friday insisting Manning didn't contract a more perilous staph, the anti-biotic resistant strain known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the incidents should alarm the NFL. "The NFL, and all the leagues, should be diligent, and not let their guards down," says Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of Orthopedic and Sports Rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "They've got to do better. It's got to be one of the top five priorities."

The recent cases have certainly gotten players' attention. "I'm concerned, and wondering why it's happening. It's not some little infection that goes away in a few days, it's pretty serious," says Chicago Bears rookie running back Matt Forte. The league is quick to point out that it has partnered with teams to educate players about the bacteria, while the players' union insists it's alarmed and has contacted the league about further action. Some teams, like the Colts, have posted pictures on training room walls that warn players about staph symptoms and how to avoid contracting or spreading it. For their part, the Browns note that the team has previously used a special anti-staph agent to disinfect the locker room, weight room and other places where players gather.

Staph, of course, is far from just an NFL problem. Two college teams, the '05 Florida Gators and the '03 USC Trojans, had multiple cases. And football is by no means the only sports victim. The infection kept Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Alex Rios out of the 2006 All-Star Game. A few days later another Toronto player caught it, and the clubhouse was disinfected. NBA players Paul Pierce, Grant Hill and Drew Gooden have had it. Staph killed a high school wrestler in California this summer, and last spring 15 students at a Pennsylvania high school were either treated for staph or symptoms caused by the virus.

What exactly are staph infections? Staph is bacteria carried on the skin, which can enter the body through a cut or during a medical procedure, causing the infection. Most are minor, but certain strains are particularly resistant to anti-biotics and can cause athletes to miss significant playing time. Athletes are more likely to suffer cuts, and the locker room setting bunches players close to one another in a warm, damp environment, so they are especially susceptible to spreading the bacteria. Since football teams carry some 55 players on their rosters, and tend to have a higher degree of serious injuries to deal with, they are at particular risk. According to a 2005 survey by the NFL Team Physicians Society, 13 out of 30 teams that responded had had a player contract MRSA in recent years, for a total of 60 leaguewide infections.

Though Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Omar Gaither rightly points out that "we're just a naturally dirty sport," there are several basic precautions athletes can take to lower the chance of catching an infection. Many athletes shave their ankles, legs, and arms because they don't want athletic tape ripping hair off their bodies, but experts say they should lose the razor. "No matter how careful the shaving is, you can have nicks and microscopic cuts in the skin," says Dr. Daniel Sexton, an infectious disease specialist at the Duke University Medical Center, who consults for an NFL team and several college programs. "Any time you break that barrier, it becomes a portal through which bacteria can gain access." Staph prevention is pretty low-tech. "You know, this is pretty simple," Sexton says. "Hand washing remains the primary defense against the transmissions of most organisms, including staph. Most people don't think of a locker room as a place where hand hygiene is important, but locker rooms are also mini-emergency rooms."

In 2003, a team of researchers tracked the St. Louis Rams and found five players who caught eight MRSA infections. "We observed a lack of regular access to hand hygiene (i.e., soap and water or alcohol-based hand gels) for trainers who provided wound care," they wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine. Other offenses included "skipping of showers by players before the use of communal whirlpools; and sharing or towels — all factors that might facilitate the transmission of infection in this setting."

In short: use a little common sense, tough guys. But when it comes to infectious germs, even a 245-lb. bruiser like Gaither believes you can't always outrun them. "You can't worry about it to death," he says. "It's not like you can walk around and put gloves on your hand every 10 seconds. Sometimes, there's just not that much you can do." Except hope that these recent cases are a coincidental hiccup, and not an epidemic that seriously tackles the NFL.

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Real: Ronaldo pursuit over ''forever''

By Soccernet staff

Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon has insisted his club's pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo is officially over.

GettyImages

Ronaldo's future was front page news all summer.

Ronaldo, 23, was Real's top transfer target during the summer after his 42 goals helped fire United to the Premier League and Champions League double.

All the attention appeared to unsettle Ronaldo and it prompted United manager Sir Alex Ferguson to claim Real ''have no moral issues at all''.

Ferguson eventually kept hold of his man and now Calderon has maintained Real will not come knocking again until United are prepared to sell.

''It is forgotten, not only for January but forever,'' said Calderon.

''We would only talk about it if Manchester decide they want to sell him.

''But the matter is over. We talked about it last season. Manchester decided not to sell the player and we don't want to do anything against a club like Manchester.

''The player decided to stay in Manchester and we accept it.

''Madrid is not doing anything to disturb a 'friend club' like Manchester.

''We are two very big clubs. We want to be good friends forever. We are in the same market. I have a lot of respect for Manchester. I have a good relationship with David Gill and I want it to be like that for a long time.''

Calderon also provided a brief insight into the value AC Milan will derive from signing former Real midfielder David Beckham on loan, if they can secure the deal.

"He is a very well-known player. He is a player who can give a lot to the club he signs for," said Calderon.

Beckham spent four seasons at the Bernabeu and Calderon added: "I have heard he is going to go to AC Milan.

"We wish David Beckham all the best. He performed fantastically. He decided to leave and now he has a new offer and it is up to him.

"He is a fantastic player, a nice person and we have a lot of good memories. The Real Madrid fans like him very much and he is always welcome at Real Madrid in any sense."

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Interim coaches, divisional battles highlight Week 8 storylines

By Pat Kirwan

Week 8 brings us a new head coach, three divisional matchups, two teams in London that are both coming off terrible losses in the States, new expectations for some teams and a number of ways to look at your favorite team. Enjoy the storylines for Week 8:

1. The Singletary era begins

The NFL has become a very dangerous place for coaches. Three already have been fired, and the season isn't even half over. Mike Singeltary is the latest assistant coach to take over a franchise, as he replaces Mike Nolan in San Francisco. I wonder if the wins this past weekend by Tom Cable of the Raiders and Jim Haslett of the Rams as replacement coaches pushed the York family to make the change with its team.

Paul Sakuma / Associated Press
Mike Singletary takes over in San Francisco. The 49ers are the third team to fire its head coach through seven weeks.

Or maybe, as one GM said, it was a winnable home game against the Seahawks that was the driving force. I spoke to someone very close to the situation this week who said the handwriting was on the wall before the season even started. Seattle comes to town averaging 8.6 points per game on the road with an 0-3 road record. Singletary should get his first win, which is great for the new coach. But Nolan built this team, and he joins Lane Kiffin and Scott Linehan on the sidelines as spectators. I have a problem with that issue. I reminded two of the dismissed coaches that last year's Super Bowl featured two coaches, Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin, who were fired from their first head coaching jobs.

2. Finally, a division game for Buffalo

There are teams in the NFL that already have played three of their six division games. The Redskins already are done with all of their NFC East road games. The Bills, meanwhile, are preparing for their first divisional game -- they are the only team in the league yet to play such a game this season. As it turns out, the Bills have put together a very solid team, and their young QB, Trent Edwards, has completed 106 of his 152 throws and is walking around with a 98.8 passer rating. Edwards is ready for the divisional challenge, and it will be interesting to see if he can lead his team to a win at Miami this weekend. The Bills face three division opponents in the next three weeks. We will soon find out exactly what the 5-1 Bills have really built in 2008.

3. Must-win for Colts

Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Colts, called this game in Tennessee a must-win situation. His team is already three games behind the Titans, and a Tennessee win would give Jeff Fisher's squad a 3-0 division record and a four-game lead. The Titans are an "old-school" team that wins the game in the trenches with its linemen and a very physical style. Combined, the Colts and Titans have given up only 13 red-zone touchdowns in 36 trips. This should be a low-scoring, physical game, to say the least.

4. Who's hot, who's not

Once we get past the opening week or two, I start to look at NFL teams in terms of what they have done over the last month or four games. Anything beyond that one-month window is a waste of time. The Titans are the only 4-0 team over the past month and thus the hottest team in the NFL coming into the weekend. Eight teams playing this weekend -- Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Jacksonville, N.Y. Giants, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington -- are 3-1 over the past month, and they are considered dangerous. On the other side of the spectrum, there are three 0-4 teams over the past month (Detroit, K.C., Cincinnati) and that's as cold as it gets.

5. A game across the pond

Last year, the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in London. Despite the fact that both teams had a bye upon their return to the States, most football experts expected some kind of hangover. Sure enough, both teams lost their next game. The good news for the Giants was that they went on to win the Super Bowl -- so there's no crying allowed from the teams in this week's London game, San Diego and New Orleans. I expect a low-scoring game on a slow surface, with the players somewhat sluggish from the whole experience. But eventually, the Chargers and Saints will put on a good show.

6. The perfect storm

Each week, I like to select four players who are hoping for the "perfect storm." This week, I go to the running back well once again. I expect these four ballcarriers to finish with close to 550 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns as a group:

Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images
Thomas Jones, fresh off a big game in Oakland, faces a shaky Chiefs run defense.

Thomas Jones, N.Y. Jets: After carrying 24 times for 159 yards last week, Jones faces the 32nd-ranked run defense in Kansas City. The game is being played in the Meadowlands.

Clinton Portis, Washington: The Redskins play in Detroit against the No. 31 run defense. Portis leads the NFL in rushing with 818 yards, which is 134 more than the next back. Portis should collect close to 150 yards on the ground this week.

Willis McGahee, Baltimore: McGahee was limited in practice this week but should churn out the yards against the 26th-ranked Raiders defense that has to travel across the country.

LenDale White, Tennessee: The Titans are facing the 28th-ranked run defense, and White is coming off a big game in which he had a now-famous 80-yard touchdown run. One more big play for White and the comparisons to Jerome Bettis will start.

7. West-to-east still firing a blank

It continues to be rough on the teams in the Pacific time zone when they get to the Eastern time zone. Some want to brush it under the rug, but it really needs to be studied. Last week, another three teams went down for the count. After seven weeks, not one team that traveled three time zones from west to east has won a game. This week, Oakland visits Baltimore and the Cardinals fly to Carolina. I get the feeling the evidence will continue to mount that there is something out of balance about extended travel when the clock is working against you.

8. Can Haslett keep rolling?

Jim Haslett is a fine NFL coach, and what he went through with Hurricane Katrina to keep his Saints level-headed has gone a long way to helping him understand how to put the Rams on the map after a terrible start. Haslett already is one third of the way to gaining the six wins he needs to remove the interim tag from his title as head coach. The players love the guy, and they are constantly telling me how much they believe in the "new Rams." St. Louis already has beaten the Redskins and Cowboys under Haslett, and now they look for more of the same against New England. Good luck.

9. Beware the 20-yard plays

Explosive plays are the demise of most defenses. Defensive coordinators warn their players constantly about athletes and teams that find a way to generate plays of 20-plus yards. Teams that have allowed the most 20-yard runs this season: Kansas City (14), Denver (9), St. Louis (9).

When it comes to allowing 20-yard pass completions, the teams that lead the league in this dubious category are: New Orleans (24), Miami (23), Denver (20), Seattle (20) and Detroit (19).

It is almost amazing that the Broncos have a 4-3 record while they have already given up 29 plays of 20 or more yards. Any team that gives up at least four such plays a game should not win more than they lose.

10. Time to drop a bad habit

It's not even midseason just yet and it is time to clean up a bad habit. The two most-penalized teams in the NFL are the Packers (67) and Cowboys (65). Green Bay has let the officials walk off 534 yards against them, while Dallas watched the refs walk off 460 yards. That is more than the total yardage either team produces on offense for a game. Imagine giving back a game-and-a-half of field to the officials and still having a winning record. I say clean up the penalty habit and really start winning.

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Where the Thunder Comes Dribbling Down the Plain

Matthias Clamer for The New York Times Hoop dreams, realized: Oklahoma City goes major-league.

By BRUCE SCHOENFELD

On the far northern edge of Oklahoma City, in a converted fitness center off a desolate road past a lumberyard, the National Basketball Association’s newest team has been holding its practices. One morning earlier this month, Clay Bennett, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s controlling owner, was standing beside a stack of free weights, his elbow resting on a chest-high dividing wall, watching a preseason workout. Despite his size — 6-foot-5, close to 300 pounds — he seemed to cast almost no presence. Later that day, the Thunder would fly to Billings, Mont., for its first exhibition game and make history, after a fashion: no sports franchise permanently based in Oklahoma had ever competed in one of North America’s four major leagues. Bennett stayed quiet as he pondered these high-priced athletes in their cornflower blue jerseys who were now representing his state and his city. “There’s a word for this, and it’s an overused word and not quite the right word,” he told me, “but the word is ‘surreal.’ ”

I’d been thinking exactly the same thing. For more than 40 seasons, the Thunder played in Seattle as the SuperSonics. The team captured an N.B.A. title in 1979, reached the finals on two other occasions and, at one point in the 1990s, sold out every home game for more than three consecutive seasons. With Seattle on a roll — it’s home to Microsoft, Amazon.com, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom — it is difficult to fathom why any team (or business, for that matter) would leave the city and its famous quality of life for a metropolitan area one-third its size. And why Oklahoma City? Even in its own state, Tulsa would seem to have greater national prospects, with its rolling hills, mansion-filled neighborhoods and cultural accouterments of a serious place, as opposed to flat, brown, insular Oklahoma City, where unseemly oil wells blight even the Capitol grounds. Farther afield, metropolitan areas without N.B.A. teams include San Diego, St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville, Tampa and Anaheim, big-league markets all. So it’s not surprising that Oklahoma City wasn’t even on the N.B.A.’s list of potential candidates for expansion or relocation three years ago. It is, as Bennett admits, almost the archetype of the minor-league place: “When they first started looking at this, and the idea of the team moving from Seattle, a lot of the other owners said to me: ‘I like you, Clay. But when I hear Oklahoma City, I think Des Moines and Omaha.’ ”

Perhaps nobody finds the metamorphosis of the SuperSonics into the Thunder harder to accept than many of the citizens of Seattle. Every relocation of a big-league franchise begets a certain amount of hand-wringing and recrimination, but this one unfolded with remarkable acrimony. It ended in July, at least officially, when a suit brought by the city of Seattle seeking to keep the Sonics in town until 2010 was settled for $75 million. (The payment will be substantially reduced if Seattle gets a replacement team within five years.) But the emotions invested in keeping the Sonics appeared to be less about a consuming interest in professional basketball than the humiliation of a smart, sophisticated city losing a franchise to a perceived cow town. “There wasn’t much excitement about the Sonics, to be honest,” Nick Collison, who is beginning his fifth season as one of the team’s players, told me. But the idea of the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City, he adds, “said something about Seattle that people there didn’t want to believe.”

The same attitude manifested itself in antipathy toward Bennett, one of four principal partners and several minor investors who together paid $350 million to buy the team from Howard Schultz, the Starbucks chief executive, and his partners in July 2006 and then tried in vain to get public financing for a new arena. With his brush cut and beefy build, his lifelong Republicanism and partners made rich by fossil fuels, Bennett pushed all the wrong buttons in liberal, urbane, health-conscious, ecologically sensitive Seattle. In fact Bennett is substantially more nuanced than his image suggests. He is polite almost to the point of courtliness. He and his wife, Louise, own a literary bookstore outside Aspen, Colo. His office is decorated with glossy books featuring the work of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Far from being a stereotypical cowboy from the plains — “I don’t even own a pair of cowboy boots,” he says — he was raised by a Jewish mother and celebrated a bar mitzvah, though he now attends his wife’s Presbyterian church. But Bennett didn’t show any of that worldliness, and Seattle wasn’t looking to see it. “Everybody there but me knew I was heading down the wrong path,” he says. “Hindsight suggests I was not going to be successful.”
Yet given the way professional basketball has evolved, the Sonics’ move may have been inevitable. As I spent time in both Seattle and Oklahoma City, it became evident that the intense passions on both sides — Oklahoma City has been as feverish about the team’s arrival as Seattle was about its departure — were obscuring a larger issue facing the N.B.A. It may be that a midsize market like Seattle, with its big-league baseball and football teams and a wealth of recreational and entertainment options, has outgrown professional basketball, or at least the desire to fight terribly hard to keep it. A more appropriate home for a franchise these days seems to be a smaller city on the rise, with maybe a million to a million and a half people, plenty of money, local and regional art museums and a few ambitious restaurants but not too much else for its population to do, and an excess of civic pride ready to be harnessed. A place, in other words, exactly like Oklahoma City.

For delivering the Thunder, Bennett has gained the status of a civic benefactor. To older residents, he lives in the shadow of his father-in-law, Edward L. Gaylord, who before his death in 2003 amassed an empire that included newspapers, luxury hotels, a television network and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Bennett’s own, under-the-radar business success — he runs Dorchester Capital, a private investment company whose size he refuses to disclose — has been modest in comparison. His identity is now that of N.B.A. owner. He was inducted into Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame last year at the age of 47. That the N.B.A.’s commissioner, David Stern, flew in to make Bennett’s introduction shows how much that honor derives from his bringing big-league sports to the state.

Economically speaking, the Thunder will cause barely a ripple in Oklahoma City, where two energy companies with combined annual revenues approaching $20 billion, Devon and Chesapeake, are headquartered. The average N.B.A. team generates $120 million or so in revenue. The psychological impact, however, will be much greater. Never mind that the N.B.A.’s television ratings are slipping or that it doesn’t generate nearly the buzz that it did when Michael Jordan was taking the sport worldwide. When the Thunder begins its regular season against Milwaukee this Wednesday, Oklahoma City will find itself listed in the league standings among Dallas and New York and Los Angeles. “It will enhance public perception of the entire state,” gushed Brad Henry, Oklahoma’s governor, when we spoke. “We’ll be on SportsCenter every night.”

Almost unanimously, it seems, Oklahoma City’s establishment — businessmen and columnists, Democrats and Republicans — believes that the N.B.A.’s presence will validate a community that seemed hopelessly downtrodden only a short time ago. In April 1995, a bomb ripped through the Murrah Federal Building, killed 168 people and added a horrific climax to both an economic slide that started with the decline of oil prices in the late 1980s and a self-esteem problem dating to the Great Depression.

But even during its boom times, when oil barons were spending freely, Oklahoma City had no reason to believe that it would ever be major-league. For Bennett, as for most Oklahomans, the home team was the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys, who play three hours down the highway. As an adolescent, he once dreamed of owning the Cowboys; though he’s built like a former defensive lineman, with a belly spilling over his belt, his main interest in sports has always been administrative. He still follows the Cowboys, and University of Oklahoma football, but he’s not one to quote statistics or know much about the subtleties of various players, even his own, and it’s impossible to imagine him pulling on a team sweatshirt and heading off to a sports bar. At one point, he considered moving to New York to pursue a business career in sports. But he’d already fallen in love with Louise Gaylord, whom he started dating in high school, and Edward Gaylord’s daughter wasn’t going anywhere.

After attending O.U. for two years and Binghamton University for one, he began work at his own family’s business, which manufactured windows and doors for residential construction. The company was successful, but it couldn’t contain Bennett’s ambition to somehow act on a larger scale. Based on contacts he’d made in the local business community, and boosted by his Gaylord connection, he landed the job of running the U.S. Olympic Festival, which had been awarded to Oklahoma City for 1989. A multisport event for U.S. athletes that at the time was held in non-Olympic years, the occasion ended up being the first great thing to happen in the city since the bottom fell out of oil in the mid-1980s. “Writers from papers around the country were saying, ‘Oklahoma City did a great job,’ ” Bennett says. “For Oklahoma, that was significant.” The event put Bennett on the city’s radar as more than the mere suitor who landed Gaylord’s daughter. It also rekindled his enthusiasm for sports. Seeing precious little on the local landscape beyond minor-league franchises in baseball and hockey, he decided to make Oklahoma City the amateur-sports capital of America.

In 1992, the city passed a referendum calling for a new minor-league baseball stadium, a new arena (the Ford Center, where the Thunder now play), gentrification of the downtown warehouse district and other revitalization projects. One of these was a rowing facility that Bennett intended to be the first step toward attracting the national governing bodies of various sports. But by 1995, civic support had waned. Then the Murrah Building was bombed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. “The bombings galvanized the average person to realize that the city needed to make a statement,” Frank Keating, then the state’s governor, told me. “There was a sense of pride and optimism and faith that bordered on the spiritual. It was quite remarkable.” Nearly 200,000 residents went to at least one funeral; 75 percent of the population volunteered or gave money. “It brought us all to our knees,” Bennett says. “We all became connected.”

Caught up in the spirit of goodwill, business and City Hall agreed to supplement the original revitalization effort, called MAPS, with further initiatives. Oil and gas recovered. Transforming the city into a hub for national amateur sports bodies wasn’t working — Indianapolis grabbed that distinction — but Bennett, working on Gaylord’s behalf, helped keep the Class AAA baseball team, the 89ers, in town by buying it. (The team is now called the RedHawks and owned by someone else.) When Gaylord became a major investor in the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs, Bennett participated in the ownership group, at one point serving as its representative to the league’s board of governors. Gaylord sold his interest in 1996, and Bennett came away with a keen awareness of what the N.B.A. had done for a minor market. “For the first time, I recognized the role a team could play in the visibility and marketability of a community,” he says. “I became aware of just how important to a place a big-league team could be.”

FOLLOWING THE DEPRESSION, about the only display of excellence the state of Oklahoma had to offer was O.U. football. When George L. Cross, the institution’s president from 1943 to 1968, told the state’s Legislature that he wanted to build a university that the football team could be proud of, that wasn’t misplaced priorities on display but an acknowledgment of the standard that football, and only football, had set. “It was the dominant program in the country,” Joe Castiglione, O.U.’s current athletic director, says. “It gave Oklahoma an identity it didn’t otherwise have.”

Growing up in Oklahoma, Mick Cornett appreciated the renown the Sooners brought to the state. He spent 17 years as a sportscaster before turning to politics, and then he was elected mayor in 2004 on a pro-business platform. In office, he had a keen awareness of how outsiders perceived his city. “We had a branding problem,” he says now. “We have allowed ourselves to be branded by our tragedies. If you said ‘Oklahoma City,’ chances are the next word out of your mouth was ‘bombing.’ ” Determined to use sports to change the city’s image, he turned to Bennett, whose investment business was beginning to provide him with, as he puts it, “significant money.” Armed with Bennett’s interest in leading an ownership group, Cornett started pitching the people who could get him a team. Oklahoma City had failed before in a bid to land a National Hockey League expansion franchise, but Cornett visited Gary Bettman, the league’s commissioner, anyway. And he lobbied Stern; the N.B.A. commissioner was sympathetic but hardly optimistic. The N.B.A. had no plans to expand, he told Cornett, and no teams looking to relocate. “After a while, he started calling me ‘the Mayor Who Won’t Go Away,’ ” Cornett says. He remembers standing on a sidewalk in New York after a meeting in Stern’s office in 2005, painfully aware that he had no logical reason to return again.

That August, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. Within hours, Cornett called Stern to propose that the N.B.A.’s suddenly homeless New Orleans Hornets play at the Ford Center. Stern dimly recalled that he knew a wealthy investor in Oklahoma who once represented the Spurs. He couldn’t remember Bennett’s name, according to Cornett, which shows what shallow footprints Bennett must have left his first time around the league, but he had positive recollections. That Saturday, Stern tracked down Bennett in a luxury suite at an O.U. football game. Bennett took a phone into a janitor’s closet and, amid the mops and pails, agreed to guarantee $40 million in sponsorships and ticket sales, hire a local staff, make temporary arena enhancements and do whatever else was necessary to attract the Hornets for a year and perhaps longer, depending on the extent of the storm’s damage.

George Shinn, the Hornets’ owner, didn’t have Oklahoma City on his radar screen. “I was getting calls from around the country, Vegas and on and on, and David threw out Oklahoma City,” Shinn says. “And I said: ‘David, I don’t think I want to go there. I’ve never even been there, and it doesn’t sound like — do they even have an arena?’ But David’s got a way of recommending that sort of pushes you.” Stern had a hunch that it was the right place for the Hornets to go. “Clay Bennett, Mick Cornett, the attempt to get an N.H.L. team, the arena — it seemed like it could work,” Stern says. More important, perhaps, he had the right man. “Clay was the leader,” says Larry Nichols, who runs Devon Energy, one of America’s largest producers of natural gas. “He knew how to do it. He called a few friends and said: ‘O.K., here’s what we need.’ We all signed up.” Within hours, Bennett had his $40 million.

The Hornets’ relocation was supposed to be temporary. Seats were expensive, and the team was terrible. Bennett pushed the city’s executives not merely to buy advertising and sponsorship deals but also to spend freely at the box office, which he knew the N.B.A. would notice first. “He knows exactly how much he — ‘window-dressed’ is the term I heard — the market,” says Ian Edmundson, a sports consultant who has worked with the Hornets. In New Orleans the previous season, the Hornets drew 11,299 fans per game. But in Oklahoma City, with ticket prices $13 higher on average, they managed 16,330 and brought a carnival atmosphere to downtown. “It was an almost euphoric response,” Castiglione says. “A unique set of dynamics that made for an incredible run.”

Convinced that the city was ready to go national, Bennett tried to buy the Hornets and keep them in Oklahoma. According to a letter Shinn subsequently wrote to Stern, Stern recommended that he sell. “You pressed me to sell the team,” Shinn wrote. “You even told me that owners were asking you, ‘What’s wrong with George — why doesn’t he sell his team[?]’ ” Shinn’s response made it clear that he, too, coveted the new territory. “We need to immediately begin laying the foundation for what I believe will be great relationships in Oklahoma City,” he wrote. “I believe there are several options that we have, none of which involve returning to New Orleans.” And just as Shinn had designs on Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City had designs on the team. “The Hornets are ours,” the sports columnist Berry Tramel proclaimed in the Gaylord-owned Oklahoman.
But sports in New Orleans was about to take on metaphoric significance. Swaggering and self-confident before Katrina, the city now looked to its teams to bear out its recovery, in the same way that Oklahoma City was seeking a franchise to trumpet its own transformation. “We look at sports teams as businesses, and they are,” says Hugh Weber, Shinn’s brother-in-law and the Hornets’ president. “But they’re also community treasures. They can rally people around ideas.” The N.F.L.’s Saints returned to the Superdome in September 2006, shortly before the Hornets began their second season in exile, and amazingly, illogically, began to win as never before. With each victory, it felt as if another ward of the city had been restored. After that, the Hornets could hardly sneak away. Shinn returned the Hornets to New Orleans, which had never much cared for them. He negotiated a new lease (with an attendance-based escape clause to keep his options open), then watched the team catch fire, both on the court and at the ticket window.

Rebuffed by Shinn, Bennett found another option. The SuperSonics had been trying to replace outdated Key Arena for almost a decade, spanning two ownership groups. I attended one of the last games the Sonics would play there last April and felt as if I were visiting my old elementary school as an adult. Hallways were cramped and narrow, and the arena lacked the amenities — upscale restaurants, retail areas, meeting spaces — that serve as profit centers for today’s pro franchises. What’s more, it was widely acknowledged that the Sonics’ lease was the N.B.A.’s worst. It gave the city a large percentage of revenues from luxury suites, club seats and concessions, income that teams leaguewide routinely keep for themselves.

For four years, Howard Schultz (who declined to be interviewed for this article) had been trying to persuade government officials to build him a new facility. A Seattle celebrity, the man who made the city’s coffee famous, he pulled every string at his disposal, without success. Largely against their will, taxpayers had recently financed two expensive stadiums, one for Major League Baseball’s Mariners and one for the N.F.L.’s Seahawks. They were in no mood to finance another. Defeated, Schultz offered the team to wealthy executives around town. Then he sold it to Bennett.

Because the new owners came from Oklahoma, locals assumed they were intent on moving the Sonics there. Unaccustomed to the glare of big-city media, Bennett reverted to his default position in almost any endeavor: Be circumspect, say little, acquire information. “People interpreted his reticence, his quietness, as ‘He must be holding something back,’ ” says Peter von Reichbauer, a council member in King County, which includes Seattle. “Decisions were made instantly, both in the media and in the bars and taverns, ‘This is a guy from out of state who wants to take this team out of state.’ ” But while Oklahoma City was always an option, Bennett insisted that the group’s preference was a new arena somewhere in greater Seattle. “We had to make the business work,” he says now. “It wasn’t like we bought it for $20 million two decades ago. We’d just spent $350 million.” He coveted the business potential of a metropolitan area of 3.3 million people and a long-established franchise that had lacked the means to maximize its revenue. And after years of shielding his three children from the public fascination of what it means to be Gaylord heirs, he was wary of subjecting them to the scrutiny that putting his team in Oklahoma City would invite.

Bennett says he thought that negotiating as an outsider would be a strength, not a weakness. “Howard didn’t have leverage,” he says, whereas he had an arena waiting. Watching his Sonics lose a nail-biter to Portland before a sellout crowd in the first game of what the newspapers were calling the Bennett Era, he felt giddy. “I remember thinking: We did it. We saved basketball for Puget Sound. I had this vision of our new building. I could taste it.”

HOW TO DETERMINE WHICH CITIES are best suited for big-league sports seems obvious. Notwithstanding various local and regional affections (Edmonton’s for hockey, Green Bay’s for football), shouldn’t franchises be located where the largest fan base and greatest corporate presence can support them? And yet, the competitive and financial success of some small-market franchises indicates that other factors also matter. “The Yankees don’t win the World Series every year,” says Aubrey McClendon, the C.E.O. of Chesapeake Energy, who owns 20 percent of the Thunder. “Los Angeles doesn’t have an N.F.L. team. It isn’t just about size.”

Still, Seattle, the nation’s 14th-largest television market, isn’t merely far larger than Oklahoma City, the 45th. It’s the home of several major corporate players in America’s Internet economy and of manufacturers and top brick-and-mortar retailers, a diversity that would seem to protect it from the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued Oklahoma City. Seattle is regarded as the gateway to Asia and all those nascent basketball fans in China. And it’s a terrific place to live, or even visit. Few N.B.A. players, executives or beat writers are excited about swapping their Seattle visits for road trips to Oklahoma. “When a city’s in the league for 40 years and everyone really likes it, it’s going to be missed, no question,” says P. J. Carlesimo, the Thunder’s head coach, who came to Seattle before last season to lead a rebuilding effort centered on the lanky, 6-foot-9 sharpshooter Kevin Durant, the second player chosen in the 2007 draft. Those with historic ties to the franchise are especially saddened. “There’s a soul and a history to basketball in Seattle,” says George Karl, the Denver Nuggets’ head coach, who previously coached the Sonics. “I know owners want to make more money, but is the way to do it really by making the sport more business-oriented?”

But does the Sonics’ move to Oklahoma City make sense from a business perspective? For the fourth time since 1985, the N.B.A. has traded down to a smaller market. That trend risks shrinking its television footprint and stunting the value of its other franchises. If a substantial number of fans follow the sport because a local team provides a vested interest, then the league has lost millions of potential viewers, T-shirt wearers and ticket buyers. “It’s important to have bigger markets,” Shinn told me. “That increases the chances for television revenues, that’s obvious. And the bigger the market, the better the chance that you succeed.”

Such logic isn’t lost on Stern. He remains adamant that N.B.A. franchises must remain in the nation’s largest cities. He ticks them off: “Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles. . . . If I’ve forgotten one, I don’t mean to. The Top 10.” But he also acknowledges that the other dozen and a half teams might be better situated as the lone big-league option in a small market rather than fighting popular baseball and football teams for corporate and fan support and media attention. That means successful N.B.A. markets like San Antonio, Sacramento, Portland and Salt Lake City. It doesn’t mean Seattle. “I wake up every morning thanking the Good Lord that we’re the only game in town,” says Peter Holt, who owns the San Antonio Spurs.

Like Oklahoma City, Seattle once craved the status that comes with a big-league designation. In 1967, it secured an expansion franchise to play in a five-year-old arena that had been upgraded with taxpayer money to attract a team, a situation almost precisely analogous to Oklahoma City with its Ford Center. Seattle was different then, pre-Starbucks, pre-Nirvana, on the fringe and without the Seahawks or the Mariners. Getting the N.B.A., the city’s hierarchy felt, would put the region on the map. Once it gained a reputation as a desirable place to live, and entertainment choices multiplied, the Sonics found themselves struggling to generate the depth of interest they had previously taken for granted. “The Seattle of today is not the Seattle of the 1980s or even the 1990s,” says Anne Levinson, a former deputy mayor who heads the group that owns the Seattle Storm of the Women’s National Basketball Association. That arc of maturation has left the N.B.A. behind.

As in every market on the continent with franchises in multiple leagues, Seattle’s football and baseball teams have been its priority. The Sonics, tradition-rich as they were, ran a distant third, and the civic and corporate resources needed to support big-league sports may not have extended that deep. In Oklahoma City, by contrast, the team will have almost no competition for the sports-entertainment dollar beyond college programs, and residents are hungry for a team. “The voters in Oklahoma City passed $126 million in improvements to the arena,” says Gavin Maloof, whose family owns the N.B.A.’s Sacramento Kings. “That shows me they really want the team.” Maloof understands the allure of uncontested territory. The Kings struggled alongside baseball and football teams in Cincinnati and Kansas City, finding prosperity only in 1985 when Greg Lukenbill, then the owner, moved the team to Sacramento, a growing city devoid of big-league sports. “The owner of a franchise has to be able to make money,” Maloof says. “I’m for whatever the owner wants.”

ONE WARM TUESDAY IN OKLAHOMA CITY last spring, Bennett presided over a presentation to N.B.A. executives and three members of its relocation committee. First they toured the Ford Center, which Bennett had gussied up with a showcase suite, an expanded shopping concourse and other improvements. “I wanted to show them that we knew what the N.B.A. standard was like, and we were prepared to go even further,” he says. Later, the group convened in a hotel ballroom that had been transformed into a stage set. Seated in an arc around the participants were Mick Cornett and his two predecessors as mayor; the state’s last two governors; C.E.O.’s of local corporations; the athletic directors of O.U. and Oklahoma State; even the Sooners’ football coach, Bob Stoops, and Tulsa’s mayor. The unanimity was striking. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Stern says. Soon after getting the committee’s recommendation, the league’s owners voted on Bennett’s plan to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma. It passed 28-2.

These days, Oklahoma City is exultant. “You’re going to be hearing about Oklahoma City now in a way that you’ve never heard about it before,” McClendon says. On the radio and in The Oklahoman, the talk is of the Wunderkind general manager, Sam Presti, who is 31, building a winning team around Kevin Durant and succeeding on the model of the Spurs, a small-market franchise that more than holds its own against the competition. Yet Bennett still seems reluctant to celebrate his — and the city’s — good fortune. As he walked me through the team’s hastily constructed office space, past empty boxes and earnest young executives peddling sponsorship packages, he seemed more like a disinterested tax assessor than a city father who has pulled his hometown into the upper echelon.

One explanation for such detachment could be the lingering effect of the abuse he received in Seattle at the hands of talk-radio jocks, newspaper columnists and outright wackos, jarring attacks that ranged from shouted insults to death threats. “It tested both my faith and my own self-confidence,” he says. Another is his temperament: for the public face of a sports franchise, he’s almost preternaturally private. Don’t expect Bennett to rant like the Dallas MavericksMark Cuban or spend like the New York KnicksJames Dolan; he runs his basketball team with the same measured strategies he uses to manage his investments.

And I couldn’t avoid the sense that, despite selling 13,000 season tickets in five days and reaching the first-year target for merchandise sales at the Thunder’s downtown store in less than a month, he’s daunted by his investment in Oklahoma City. What if, after all the chest-pounding and horn-blowing, it isn’t ready to support a team for the long term after all? “The worst thing we could do,” he admits, “is to bring a team to Oklahoma City and have it fail.” Such an outcome would be disastrous financially for Bennett, and especially for his partners, who have suffered heavy losses in the ongoing financial crisis. More tellingly, it would also undo much of the work this generation of civic leadership has done to alter the city’s image.

When I asked him if that was his concern, he answered by talking about the pride and enthusiasm with which Oklahoma City has embraced the team. “Anything we ask of anyone in this city, it’s done,” he told me. “And it’s done in the right spirit, and it’s done professionally, and with respect.” He shook his head. “We have an awful lot to live up to.” Whatever the result of Wednesday’s game, Oklahoma City will have won something, at least symbolically. But though the template is there for N.B.A. success, and a team that contends within a few years is likely to continue to be received warmly, the market remains small for big-league sports, and the current economic conditions could hardly be worse. Perhaps Bennett is wise to be circumspect. It may well be that taking a team from Seattle, as improbable as that seemed, was the easy part. n

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