Monday, December 10, 2012

Death of the Zombie Sonics

Started on December 10; finished on December 12.

Sorry to have been absent in my blogging duties since late August. I've got my reasons. I fully intend to complete the 100 Years of Oklahoma Presidential Elections but that project has proven rather time intensive in both research and writing, so I'll take a small break before finishing that article to give an update on the national social acceptance since the relocation of the Seattle Super Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 and the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder since its arrival in Oklahoma City from its inaugural 2008-2009 season through this point in time, five seasons later. On this very night, December 9, 2012, the Thunder whipped the Indiana Pacers in the Chesapeake Energy Arena for their 8th straight victory this season and achieving the 2012-13 current record of 17-4 through the 1st quarter of this year's regular season.

As will appear below, virtually all vestiges of the Thunder's Seattle baggage has been shorn, particularity when combined with ESPN sports columnist Bill Simmons' remarks about the "Zombie Sonics" and/or "the team which shall not be named" ostensibly being laid to rest. Footnote 1

Please don't misunderstand ... it's not that Simmons' opinions particularly matter in the real world all that much, because they don't ... but Simmons was the last significant national columnist who persisted in the practice of using snide, sarcastic and unfriendly names which were ascribed to my team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Footnote 1. As will be seen at the end of this piece, one must put a footnote to Bill Simmons' "Footnote 1" contained in an article published by him on October 11, 2012, from which footnote some conclude that Simmons has actually turned a new leaf and that he has laid to rest the name "Zombie Sonics" when referring to the Oklahoma City Thunder. At best, whether he has turned over such a leaf must also be qualified with the words, "kinda sorta." I'll get back to his Footnote 1 at the end of this piece. That said, some have interpreted his October post as having abandoned his tirade against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But, the truth is, whether Simmons agrees or not, the words Zombie Sonics are no longer a part of anyone's nomenclature or thought processes (with the possible exceptions of Simmons and die-hard fans of the Seattle Super Sonics).

Where to begin? With ESPN sports writer Bill Simmons who dubbed the Oklahoma City Thunder as the Zombie Sonics way back when? No, I'll hold that to the butt-end of the post, where it rightly belongs.

Instead, I'll begin with the November 8, 2012, New York Times Magazine cover article by Sam Anderson, the New York Times Magazine’s critic at large. Actually, it was within this article that I first learned that Simmons had "retired" the cleverly designed nasty phrase that he earlier coined. Anderson's article is a long one and you can read it from its source, but it is simply too good, too thorough, not to set out verbatim, as it is below.

A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America

Published: November 8, 2012

      N.B.A. scoring champions are, as a rule, weirdos and reprobates and in some cases diagnosable sociopaths. Something about dominating your opponent, publicly, more or less every day of your life, in the most visible aspect of your sport, tends to either warp your spirit or to be possible only to those whose spirits are already warped. Michael Jordan, when he wasn’t busy scoring, was busy punching a teammate in the face and gambling away small fortunes. Allen Iverson, in his spare time, recorded an aesthetically and morally terrible rap album and gave an iconic speech denigrating the very notion of practice. Kobe Bryant is and shall forever be Kobe Bryant. Wilt, Shaq, Pistol Pete, Dominique, McGrady, McAdoo, Rick Barry — it’s a near-solid roster of dysfunction: sadists, narcissists, malcontents, knuckleheads, misanthropes, womanizers, addicts and villains. While it’s true that plain old N.B.A. superstars do occasionally manage to be model citizens (cf. Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Steve Nash), there is something irredeemable about a scoring champion.
      Kevin Durant, the star of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the youngest scoring champion in N.B.A. history. At 24, he has led the league in scoring for three consecutive seasons, and all signs point to him keeping that up for the foreseeable future. It follows, then, that Durant should also be a prodigy of a head case. He should have been arrested for reckless driving at around age 9, broken his hand in a strip-club brawl at age 12 and accidentally shot his chauffeur no later than age 15.
      Instead, Durant has a reputation roughly on par with Gandhi. He seems to be — not just for a scoring champion, but for anyone — almost inhumanly humble. His motto, which he intones constantly, is “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” His pregame ritual involves kissing his mother, as does his postgame ritual. Once, in college, during probably the greatest freshman season of all time, a reporter asked Durant if he realized that he had just single-handedly outscored the entire opposing team in the second half of a game. Durant answered, with absolute sincerity, “Who, me?” When I asked the Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, to tell me about his superstar, he laughed. “Whatever you say nice, you can print it out and I’ll just say I said it,” he said. “Because it’s true.”
      Durant could be forgiven for wanting to brag a little. He is currently the second-best basketball player in the world — a category in which he trails only LeBron James, who is four years older, and whose Miami Heat beat the Thunder last year in the finals. The budding rivalry between KD and LBJ (off the court they’re friends, Olympic teammates and sometimes, controversially, workout partners) is the kind of thing the N.B.A. has been fantasizing about for decades, a yin and yang as tightly balanced as any since Magic and Bird.
      LeBron and Durant are, conveniently for storytelling purposes, opposites. LeBron looks like something out of a Marvel comic: a sentient pile of muscles. Durant looks like something from a Pixar movie — a humanoid praying mantis. He is 6 feet 9 inches tall and almost disturbingly skinny, with disproportionately long arms. Sportswriters, struggling to describe him, have compared him to capellini and a pterodactyl. His body looks almost like an engineering mistake, and early in his career it seemed as if it might actually be one: before the 2007 draft, there was a minor kerfuffle when it was discovered that Durant couldn’t bench-press 185 pounds, the standard predraft litmus test, even a single time. (The next pick in the draft, Al Horford, lifted it 20 times.) LeBron entered the league as a teenager and promptly knocked around all of the grown men who tried to guard him. As a 19-year-old rookie, Durant drifted around, shooting jumpers and trying to avoid contact, and still spent much of his time picking himself up off the floor. Although he won Rookie of the Year, he wasn’t particularly efficient in doing so, and his team was horrible.
      Despite their discrepancy in visible muscle tone, Durant has strengths that LeBron will probably never have. LeBron’s jump shot, for instance, is funky-looking, jerky, angular and streaky. Durant’s is natural, pure, quick and stunningly accurate — somehow, his ridiculous arms manage not to get in the way but to amplify his power, so it looks as if he’s shooting with zero effort even from 30 feet away.
      Durant’s real advantage over LeBron, however, is civic. LeBron infamously held a prime-time TV special in the summer of 2010 to announce that he was abandoning Cleveland for the glamour of Miami — a P.R. debacle known as the Decision. When he arrived in Miami, he took part in a histrionic rally at which he promised, on a stage surrounded by a W.W.E. -style light show and smoke machines, that his new team was so good it was going to dominate the rest of the league without even trying.
      It’s impossible to imagine that kind of behavior from Durant. In the middle of the overheated summer of 2010, the day before LeBron’s Decision, Durant announced quietly, on Twitter, that he had just signed a contract to stay in Oklahoma — the third-smallest market in the league, a place devoid of beaches and celebrities and night life — for another five years. You got the feeling he would have committed to the Thunder for the rest of his life if only the Players’ Union would have allowed it.
      Durant, in other words, seems to have been invented in a laboratory beneath the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce to serve as the international face of Oklahoma — a state known for its citizens’ kindness, levelheadedness, work ethic, community spirit and, above all, humility. (The mayor of Oklahoma City told me that he thinks Oklahomans are humble because of their proximity to Texans, who will never stop bragging about anything.) Led by Durant, the Thunder has become one of the N.B.A.’s best and youngest and most popular teams, an international icon of brotherhood and good will that has helped to usher in golden ages in both Oklahoma City and the N.B.A., an electric blue Trojan horse inside of which Oklahoma has managed to smuggle its ethos to the rest of the world: good folksy folks humbly helping other folksy folks stay humble and helpful.
      Oklahoma sits right in the middle of the country: it’s not the cultured East or the wild West or the frigid North or the humid South but exactly where all those things meet. The mountains touch the prairies, which touch the plains. This has created, over the millenniums, crazy animals and crazy weather and crazy 25-car pileups of culture. In 1889, the almost unbelievable land run sent tens of thousands of ragtag settlers from all over the country literally racing to claim tracts of practically uninhabitable land. Oklahoma, in other words, is the Hadron supercollider of states: it slams disparate things together, over and over, producing endless crises of cohesion. Even tornadoes, the region’s defining devil winds, are a result of a meteorological collision: a convergence of three different weather systems that happens with freakish regularity in Oklahoma and its immediate environs. Meteorologists in Oklahoma are basically rock stars.
      Professional athletes, on the other hand, have rarely had much of a presence here. That began to change in 2006, when a consortium of wealthy Oklahomans, led by the financier Clay Bennett, bought the Seattle SuperSonics — a once-proud franchise that had been stuck for years in the drain-swirl of mediocrity. Most people assumed, cynically, that Bennett was buying the team in order to move it, as quickly as possible, to Oklahoma City, his hometown. He had pledged to make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle — an effort that came into suspicion shortly after the sale, when the new owner demanded that Seattle come up with nearly $300 million to build a new arena.
Doug Dawgz Note: Anderson's article is a bit weak on this important point. In fact and at the very instant, on July 18, 2006, that the Sonics sale to Bennett's group was announced in a press conference attended by the Sonics former Howard Schultz owner and by Bennett, Clay Bennett made explicitly clear that his intention to leave the team in the Seattle area was contingent upon two things occurring by October 31, 2007, about 18 months later: (1) Seattle and/or Washington must agree to build a new NBA arena, and (2) a contract which would make it possible for the team's owners to make a profit must be agreed to. This pair of items was not hidden ... they were straightforwardly stated by Bennett from the get-go. The same comments apply to a few of Anderson's comments which follow. In his article, Anderson glosses over a good bit of what transpired during the Sonics' rupture from Seattle, as do most commentators. Not very many have taken a really close look at what occurred during this transitional period of time.
Seattle refused, at which point the ownership group announced, regretfully, that it was going to have to move the Sonics to a city with a suitable arena — a city that also happened to be Oklahoma City. The fallout was intense: lawsuits, protests, scandal. Even Oklahomans who love the team admit that they were uncomfortable with the way it was acquired. The sportswriter Bill Simmons, in solidarity with the people of Seattle, referred to the Thunder exclusively in his columns as the Zombie Sonics.
      One of the miracles of the modern Thunder — and there are several — is how quickly they’ve made people forget the stain of their origin. The re-branding of the franchise has been quick and efficient: the team is now widely perceived as principled, well run and — above all — thoroughly Oklahoman. ESPN recently named it the No. 1 sports franchise in America. This fall, it seemed like a step toward closure when the Seattle City Council approved a plan to build a new basketball arena there. Simmons announced, just a few weeks ago, that he was officially retiring the phrase Zombie Sonics. In almost no time at all, the Oklahoma City Thunder had achieved escape velocity.
      Much of the credit for this turnaround goes to Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager. Presti took over the team the year before they left Seattle. He was 29, the youngest G.M. in league history. His first move was to draft Kevin Durant, which anyone would have done. His second, less obvious decision was to strip the roster of all the veterans and big contracts that would have prevented him from rebuilding from scratch. When the team moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City, Presti found himself in charge of not only the worst team in the league but also one of the worst in the history of professional basketball. The Oklahoma City Thunder won 3 games out of their first 32. This record, 3-29, is now a kind of touchstone in the organization — almost everyone I talked to invoked it at some point, and many of them even exaggerated it to 3-30.
      Most G.M.’s would have panicked, but that isn’t Presti’s way: he moved patiently, methodically. He overhauled not only the roster of the team but also the culture of the organization. This involved rethinking everything, no matter how small, from meeting times to media policy to the decorations on the practice-facility walls. Everyone soon became familiar with the Presti buzzwords: process, system, patience, sustainability. He made a habit of promoting people within the organization so that, from top to bottom, the Thunder became very young and tightly knit. He stressed community outreach to an unusual degree. He devoted extra resources to the development of the young Thunder players and, on the marketing side, refused to call attention to any single player apart from his teammates, even Durant, who was quickly becoming an international superstar. Meanwhile, Presti used high draft picks to surround Durant with other promising young players — Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden — all of whom overachieved, relative to the rest of their draft classes, to an almost amazing degree.
      The Presti rebuild, a meticulously rational plan, now looks a lot like a fairy tale. The Thunder has improved, year by year, exactly on schedule: they made the playoffs in their second season, the Western Conference finals in their third and the Finals last year. If the Thunder doesn’t win the title this year, it will seem almost unfair — a violation of the basic laws of narrative. Among basketball fans, Presti has become a mythic braniac legend, the managerial equivalent of Kevin Durant: young, focused, dominant and improbably humble.
      I met Presti two weeks before the start of training camp at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a site that commemorates, powerfully, the city’s defining tragedy: the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Presti shook my hand in the lobby, quickly and firmly, and then proceeded to say nothing for many minutes. The museum’s director was giving us a tour, and Presti seemed relieved to cede the floor completely to her. He wore a polo shirt, casual pants, fashionable glasses and hip sneakers. He was very slim — no excess — and was fidgeting a lot, bouncing rhythmically at the knees.
      We were at the memorial because, as Presti told me later, “This place is part of our existence.” Presti sits on the memorial’s board, and he makes sure that every player who joins the Thunder visits the site before he ever plays a game. The idea is to teach them the character of the citizenry they’ve just joined, to help them recognize, as Tom Brokaw put it on the night of the bombing, Oklahomans’ “essential sense of goodness, community and compassion.”
      After our tour, Presti and I talked for a while outside. He struck me as one of the most cautious people I’ve ever met, constantly stopping and rephrasing, weighing and reweighing his words, openly worried that I was going to misinterpret the team’s relationship to the memorial as a P.R. grab, or that I was going to focus my article on him at the expense of others. He ascribed most of the Thunder’s success to either luck or his colleagues. The most revealing thing Presti said to me that day had to do with the grounds of the memorial, which were impressively tidy. Despite a suffocatingly hot run of late-summer days, the grass was thick and lush and perfectly mowed, with perfect circles around the perfect trees. Presti pointed out how much work it takes to keep everything looking like that, how much deliberate organization, but also how important it is.
      At the Thunder’s training center, after a practice in early October, Kevin Durant and I sat on folding chairs at the edge of the gym. He was wearing a black tank top, black shorts and ridiculously colorful shoes. (Loud footwear is one of his few obvious vices.) Practice that day, according to everyone involved, had been “chippy” — Durant’s team had lost a couple of early scrimmages to a team full of rookies and backups, and this had sent everyone, especially Durant and Westbrook, into competitive overdrive.
      Sitting with Durant a few minutes later, though, I could detect none of that aggressive energy. He was placid, polite, obliging. He said pretty much everything you would expect him to say, in exactly the way you would expect him to say it. He took every opportunity to gush about his teammates, singling out Westbrook and Harden — the team’s two other big scorers — as “killers” and insisting that, despite the media’s constant attempts to create controversy among them, there was no tension on the team about sharing the ball. It would be ridiculous, he said, to “put those guys on a leash just so I can get two or three more shots up a game.” He praised his teammates’ unselfishness and said he had learned to play the same way. He said that, although he’d known almost nothing about Oklahoma City before the team moved there, now he couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else.
      I told Durant that, all over town, people were giving me spontaneous speeches about what a nice guy he was. His response was, naturally, impeccably nice. “I’m just being me, man,” he said. “I’m just enjoying this all. I can’t complain. I mean, I wasn’t raised to be a jerk to anybody. You know what I mean? My mama wouldn’t like that, so that’s just all I know. Just being nice to people and enjoying what I do.”
      But how is it possible, I asked, to be as competitive as he must be while also being so nice? Don’t those impulses conflict?
      He answered with a story.
      Growing up, Durant told me, he was a sore loser. That all changed one day when he was 11, after he got destroyed by his father in a game of one on one in the driveway. “Of course I knew I was gonna lose,” he said. “He was so much bigger and stronger than me. He was backing me down, dunking, pushing me. He was screaming, talking trash. I scored like one point.” Little Kevin was so upset by the loss (and, presumably, by the bullying) that he burst into tears, ran into the house, locked the door and refused to let his father in. The intensity of his own crying surprised him and, after a while, inspired some self-reflection. “I sat back and thought about it and was like, What am I so mad at?” Durant told me, and in that moment, he said, he made a decision. “It’s good to be passionate, it’s good to hate losing — but I’ve got to channel it the right way,” he said. “You know what I mean? And after a while I just started to learn to leave it where it’s at, get rid of it. Once you’re done and you’re off the court or out of the venue or whatever, go back to being you.”
      Durant’s story touched on something I’ve thought about often while watching him play. If there’s been one consistent criticism of him, it’s that he’s not aggressive enough — that he fails to use his unearthly skills, as Jordan or Charles Barkley or Kobe would have done, to destroy everybody in his path. There are times, during games, when he seems almost removed from the action, simultaneously there and not there. I always figured that this detachment was just a byproduct of his smoothness: it looks so easy for him, when he strokes four consecutive 3-pointers or tosses in a little half-hook over two defenders, that it’s tempting to imagine he’s thinking about other things the whole time — that the real Kevin Durant is watching from a little viewing platform deep inside his own head, reading a magazine and clipping his nails, ready to re-engage fully when things get intense. But now I suspect that that uncanny stillness, that sense of remove, is the outward manifestation of Durant’s internal control, a sign of his fluency in moving between worlds: aggressive and relaxed, nasty and nice.
       Occasionally you can see Durant moving between those worlds, and the transition is jarring. There are moments, for instance, when he dunks and in his excitement begins to stare down his opponent, showboat-style, and you think, No, no, no, no, Kevin Durant, so much of my worldview depends on you not being the type of person who stares people down after dunks. And then, inevitably, a second or so later, he seems to catch himself and jogs back down the court to give all the credit to his teammates. You can see the impulse and the correction — the (to get Freudian for a second) ego and the superego.
      This turns out to be a useful way to think about the Thunder. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud argues that humans are ruled by two warring impulses: love, which seeks to bind people into larger and larger groups, and aggression, which seeks to tear them apart. For civilization to work, on even the most basic level, each of us has to find an acceptable outlet for that antisocial aggression. Back in the driveway, Durant’s father directed his aggression toward him. Freud argues that most of us, however, learn to turn our aggression inward, where it morphs into what he calls the superego — the policeman of the psyche, watching us constantly to ensure (with its billy club of guilt) that we make choices for the benefit of the group, not just for our own egos. That psychic self-surveillance, Freud says, is one of the big prices we pay for civilization — a kind of voluntary tax we levy against ourselves for the privilege of living with others.
      Kevin Durant oozes superego. Even as we talked on our folding chairs after practice, I sensed a duality. He was simultaneously genuine and polished, open and guarded. This seems to be an inevitable consequence of living the life of a superstar, especially in a place like Oklahoma City. Last summer there was public outrage, in some quarters, when it was discovered that Durant’s torso — the skin under his jersey, which by design is publicly hidden — is covered with tattoos.
      One evening I went to the mall to observe one of Durant’s public events. He was at a GameStop, signing copies of a new video game that featured him on its cover. I arrived to find the OKC equivalent of Beatlemania: a line of people, decked out in Thunder gear, stretching out the door and wrapping around the neighboring stores. As I approached the scene, a policeman was dragging a young man who apparently tried to get too close down an escalator. Just then a huge cheer broke out from the crowd. Durant had arrived, through a back entrance, along with a small entourage. I squeezed past the line, stood at the side of the room and watched him throughout the session. He was wearing his signature “KD” gear: hat, T-shirt, sweats. He seemed friendly but also not totally present. Between signatures and photos, he would occasionally grab his phone and sneak a text message under the table. He bantered, here and there, with a couple of kids, but mostly he was quiet and dutiful. His smile seemed automatic. I got the sense that Kevin Durant, the actual 24-year-old guy with the secret tattoos, was hardly even there that night: he was just an avatar for his own fame — this abstract thing that doesn’t actually exist but is millions of times bigger than he is. Not that that was his fault, of course. Even if Durant wanted to genuinely connect with people that night, the sheer scale made it impossible. There was too much inflow for a single person’s outflow. I got a sense of how insane it must be to live that kind of life, in which things are like that every day, everywhere. Is it even possible to be a good, thoughtful, civic-minded person under that kind of pressure? Suddenly all of those sociopathic scoring champions made sense to me. Radical detachment seemed, in a strange and sad way, almost like the proper response.
      Toward the end of our post-practice conversation, Durant leaned over and started unlacing his shoes. I took this as a signal that he was ready to leave. He was tired, no doubt, and had other things to do. I wrapped up our interview and thanked him for his time. He popped immediately out of his seat and walked away. After a few steps, he seemed to catch himself. He turned around, walked back and shook my hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
      The full name of Oklahoma City is the City of Oklahoma City. The police chief of the City of Oklahoma City is named — I’m not joking — Bill Citty. (“Citty” is pronounced exactly like “city.”) Chief Citty, hearing that I was in town to write about his city, offered to give me a tour. He drove me around in his sedan, neighborhood by neighborhood, casually ignoring traffic laws, occasionally being honked at, for more than three hours. The last hour or so we spent at the Oklahoma State Fair, where he drove me around in a golf cart.
      Chief Citty’s tour was my introduction to the civic paradox that is modern OKC: a city that, over the last 15 years, has managed to reinvent itself while other cities have melted down, a conservative town that happily submitted to a series of voluntary taxes, a place where the oxymoron “corporate citizen” almost begins to make some kind of sense.
      Citty grew up in Oklahoma City, so he has seen, firsthand, the major phases of the last 60 years. He was born during the postwar boom, in 1953, when everything was awash in federal money. (It is one of the many paradoxes of Oklahoma that, despite all its rhetoric of rugged individualism and free markets, the economy has been heavily depending on the federal government for decades.) Citty’s mother worked for a gas company downtown, in an office in the First National Center, one of the defining masterpieces of the city’s skyline — a 33-story Art Deco tower with elaborate aluminum decorations based on King Tut’s tomb. As a teenager in the 1960s, Citty watched as the new malls and highways started sucking all of downtown’s energy out into the suburbs, leaving behind the usual inner-city decay. In the 1970s, after some years of hippyish drifting, he decided to cut his hair, shave off his beard and join the City of Oklahoma City Police Department.
      It was 1977. Citty was assigned to patrol a downtown neighborhood called the Deep Deuce, an African-American community that had once been home to world-famous jazz clubs but had declined, by then, into a hub for drugs and gambling and prostitution. (Just before Citty joined the force, a serial killer dumped the body of a prostitute in the basement of a nearby church.) From his beat downtown, Citty watched the city’s economy boom with oil money. New houses sprouted everywhere. Then, in 1982, he watched it all go bust: banks, farms, oil — everything. People lost their new homes; thriving businesses closed. “What happened to us in the early ’80s,” Citty told me, “is what happened to the U.S. economy in ’08.”
      Things were still bad in 1993, when the mayor of Oklahoma City, Ron Norick, persuaded his constituents to do something improbable: to voluntarily tax themselves in order to rebuild the city. The program was called Metro Area Projects, or Maps — a one-cent sales tax that raised more than $350 million. Over the next two decades, Maps and its sequels (the city is currently on Maps 3) would change almost every neighborhood in the city, especially downtown. It built a canal and a minor-league baseball stadium and a new library; it turned an endless stretch of empty warehouses into a vital shopping district; it overhauled the schools; it put water back in the river, which had been so dry that, for decades, the city had to mow it. And of course Maps built a basketball stadium, which would come spectacularly into play many years later.
      In 1995, just as Maps was getting rolling, life in the city suddenly came to a stop. On an otherwise ordinary April morning, a 26-year-old terrorist drove a moving truck full of fertilizer and other chemicals into the heart of downtown and parked in front of the nine-story Federal Building. The explosion, at 9:02 a.m., killed 168 people and injured 684. Five blocks west, at Police Headquarters, the tile shook so hard and so many windows broke that Bill Citty assumed the bomb had gone off inside. He figured out its real source only when he saw that the paper raining down everywhere had come from offices inside the Federal Building. He made it there within 20 minutes and stayed for the next month. At that point, Citty was the department’s public information officer, which meant he had to wrangle the media, a suddenly gargantuan task. He became, in a sense, the link between Oklahoma City and the rest of the world.
      As part of our tour, Citty drove me down to the Deep Deuce, which was now full of bright new brick apartment complexes. He drove me past the State Capitol, the only one in the nation with an oil rig in front of it. He drove me through Automobile Alley, a revitalized hipster pocket. He pointed out the public bike-rental program, Spokies, that opened over the summer. Half of the city seemed to be under construction. Near the basketball arena, an old elevated highway was being torn down: it was now just a lattice of concrete, with on- and offramps that ended in midair. The highway will soon be replaced by a grand boulevard — the Champs-Élysées of OKC — leading right to the Thunder’s home.
      This public rebuilding helped bring in private investment, which in turn brought in more revenue for public works, which brought in more private investment — and these cycles eventually combined to make Oklahoma City a plausible home for N.B.A. basketball. When it arrived, the growth and the basketball amplified each other. “We’d have a lot of good things happening now even if we didn’t get the Thunder,” Citty told me. “But we got the Thunder because good things were going on, and now even better things are going on.” As an example, he drove me past the Devon Energy Center, the city’s new skyscraper, a 50-story steel-and-glass tube that dwarfs every other building in sight.
      This, then, is part of the city’s love affair with the Thunder. It’s more than just a basketball team: it’s the culmination of 20 years of civic reinvention, and the promise of more to come. Over the last five years, the city and its team have undergone a perfect mind meld, so at this point it’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. After all of that sacrifice — the grind of municipal meetings and penny taxes and planning boards, the dust and noise and uncertainty of construction, the horror of 1995 — the little city in the middle of No Man’s Land has finally arrived on the world stage. While it’s there, it fully intends to put on a good performance.
      A basketball team is a kind of miniature society, and the Thunder’s is a strange one. Most great N.B.A. teams are built on a rational distribution of talents: two or three elite players whose skills complement, rather than overlap with, one another’s, supported by a small army of role players. The classic example is the 1986 Celtics, in which Larry Bird’s all-around game and outside shooting were supplemented perfectly by the under-the-basket play of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The Thunder, however, were built around three big stars — Durant, Westbrook and Harden — who all have essentially the same talent. Each one is an elite perimeter scorer, and each one needs the ball to be effective. Each could easily be the focus of an offense all by himself. (Harden, who was recently traded after a contract dispute, will now put this theory to the test with the Houston Rockets.) As a result, when the Thunder offense is good, it’s organized chaos — an embarrassment of riches. When it’s bad, which it is less and less frequently, it’s just chaos: stagnation, wild shots, wasted possessions.
      Scott Brooks, the Thunder’s head coach, told me that he fell in love with basketball in seventh grade, in a small town in Northern California, at a free clinic taught by a local coach. What he loved, immediately, was exactly the problem of this Thunder lineup: the way the game forced you to braid together individual achievement and teamwork, the singular and the collective. Brooks loved that he could go to the gym and work on his game, all by himself, whenever he felt like it, and then, the next day or week, see that work play out in the context of a team. Brooks’s mastery of the individual-collective balance allowed him to become a star in high school and college and then — against all the athletic odds, as a 5-foot-11 nonleaper — to patch together a 10-year N.B.A career playing with seven different teams, including the 1994 champion Houston Rockets. Although Brooks had been a scorer in college, as a pro he accepted the job of the old-school N.B.A. point guard: to get the ball to his various teams’ stars — Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon — and then get out of the way.
      This made Brooks the opposite of the Thunder’s point guard, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is often referred to as the most explosive athlete in the league — his physique is so cartoonishly chiseled that one of his teammates recently compared him to a He-Man doll — and he uses those superpowers to do things Brooks never could have dreamed of: to turn a defensive rebound, in just a few reckless seconds, into a dunk at the other end, or to get his jump shot off over two defenders when everyone in the arena knows it’s coming. This skill set makes him unorthodox as a point guard, to say the least. The Thunder’s horrific start as a franchise in 2008 — that legendary 3-29 — was in part a result of Westbrook’s wildness. He led the league in turnovers for his first season. Early on, there were murmurs that Westbrook couldn’t play point guard, especially next to a scoring superstar like Durant — someone who, many thought, would have benefitted more from a Scott Brooks type, a teammate who would get him the ball and get out of the way. Even as the Thunder improved, there were rumors that Westbrook and Durant resented each other, that they couldn’t coexist, that the ecosystem of the team might be beyond repair.
      Throughout the losing and the turnovers and the rumors, however, Brooks not only kept playing Westbrook but also encouraged his recklessness. That confidence paid off. Westbrook is now a superstar in his own right — if Durant is the second-best player in the world, Westbrook is probably in the Top 10. He’s still wild, and he still occasionally makes high-profile mistakes, and TV analysts still love to question his shot selection — but he has improved in all of those areas enough that his net effect on the team is overwhelmingly positive. It’s impossible, at this point, to disentangle the bad from the good. In Game 4 of the Finals, Westbrook kept taking wild, flying, contested midrange jumpers — one of the least efficient shots in the sport — and making nearly all of them. He scored 43 points and almost single-handedly kept the Thunder in the game. (They ended up losing, after some LeBron heroics, by 6.)
      I asked Brooks if he ever had trouble maintaining a balance between chaos and order, crazy Westbrook and sane Westbrook.
      He laughed. “Trust me, there are times where my hair is almost out,” he said.
      But he defended his point guard. “Is he a natural John Stockton type? No, but he never will be. Those guys are done. Those guys are over. You’re not seeing those guys coming back. Russell is a dynamic offensive player. I would be a foolish coach if I said, ‘Russell, I don’t want you to go to the basket and draw fouls and score and put pressure on the defense.’ We need that.”
      He also dismissed the idea of a rift between Westbrook and Durant.
      “I’m with them every day. Did they have some competitive moments? Absolutely. But that’s how we work here. We challenge each other. It gets chippy. James and Kevin, Serge and Russell, me and Perk, Thabo and Russell — all of us. If it ever gets on the wrong side of being competitive, I’ll step in. But not once have I had to step in, in five years. If Russell and Kevin have problems, then I didn’t get along with any of my teammates.”
      One symptom of a small sports market is a lack of celebrity fans. Among N.B.A. teams, the Lakers are famous for their fame: they have Jack and Penny and Denzel and a whole human gallery of plastic-surgery glamour; the Knicks have Spike and Woody and Chris Rock and a rotating roster of Broadway stars.
      The Thunder has Wayne Coyne, the singer of the alternative-rock band the Flaming Lips. Coyne is famous for floating over crowds in a giant bubble at concerts and generally behaving like a psychedelic space cadet around town. He was raised in Oklahoma and, unusually — even as his creative peers poured out toward the coasts — he never left. Over the last 15 years, as the Flaming Lips have gained worldwide fame, and as Oklahoma City has begun to rebrand itself as a vital place for young, artsy energy, the city has embraced Coyne, now 51, as a kind of elder statesman. This has turned out to be, for both sides, a rather complicated transaction. Three years ago, the Flaming Lips song “Do You Realize??” was named the official rock song of Oklahoma, but only over the strenuous objections of several state politicians. Coyne’s latest OKC adventure, much blogged about in the city, is a spectacularly ill-advised art gallery called the Womb — a drab old warehouse, in the heart of downtown, that he bought and repainted in explosive rainbow colors, complete with cartoonish naked women and a giant abstract vagina on the front door. After Coyne told the local paper that he was going to have a huge New Year’s party there, at which teenagers might be able to drop acid with Yoko Ono, the fire marshal showed up and shut the gallery down.
      As OKC’s reigning celebrity, Coyne sometimes attends Thunder games, where he sits courtside. Although he seems genuinely fond of the team, he’s not what you would call a sports aficionado. When I asked him if he followed basketball before the Thunder came to town, he had to think for a few seconds. “No,” he said. “I mean, I liked, like, the Harlem Globetrotters. Or some mythical figure like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” — and he pronounced “Jabbar” in the most amazing way, with an exotically soft “j” and several extra vowels, as if it were the name of a genie that had come drifting one morning out of his bong.
      Coyne admits that at Thunder games, he doesn’t always understand what’s going on. “It’s not like a Steven Spielberg-scripted event when you’re there,” he told me. “You’re like, Well, did we win? I’m confused. Did they win? And then you look up and you’re like, Well, is the game over?”
      He said he has been yelled at by other fans for cheering for Kobe Bryant. (“That was wicked! Who is that?” he shouted the first time he saw Kobe score. The crowd told him that it was Kobe and suggested, forcefully, that he stop cheering for him. “But that was wicked!” Coyne responded.)
      Coyne and I spoke, late one night, sitting in his Prius, which was parked in front of the Blue Note Lounge, a smoky bar at which the Flaming Lips played their first show 30 years ago. He was wearing a gray suit (he’d just come from a wedding), and his gray hair poured out in a big curly plume from his head. His fingernails were painted gold, and his face was lightly dusted with glitter.
      Coyne believes that the Thunder transcend the limits of their confusing sport — that they channel the energy of the whole community in a way that resonates across the world. Using a variety of accents, he told me stories about people in Germany and Switzerland and Sweden — places where he never used to hear about his hometown — all of a sudden talking to him about how much they love the Thunder. “I think people like the idea that, whether you’re a weirdo rock dude or a basketball player, we all have this spirit of the city,” he said. “Which I don’t think really exists. But I think the Thunder has probably pulled it together more than anything else.”
      Thunder crowds are notoriously loud and supportive. Visiting players often say it feels more like a college crowd than an N.B.A. crowd. Fans wear color-coordinated shirts for big games, and even when the team was horrible, they never booed. “Sometimes I would think to myself, Do these people realize that we’re down 20 with 3 minutes to go?” Scott Brooks told me, remembering the early days. “We’d be walking through the tunnel and I’d think: O.K., this is the night that I get heckled. This is the night I get popcorn thrown on me. Nothing. Every single game, it was: ‘Hang in there coach. Players, we love you guys.’ ”
      Coyne sees an analogy between basketball games and rock concerts. Playing a song for the thousandth time, he told me, is just as meaningless as putting a ball through a hoop. Under the right circumstances, however, those things take on great collective meaning. “It’s that idea of everybody being focused on the same thing at the same time and being together in the bigger experience,” he said. “It’s silliness, but all things are like that.”
      The Thunder has become a surprisingly integral part of hipster life in OKC. Coyne lives in a residential neighborhood called the Plaza District, the main drag of which has been — like so much of the city — radically transformed over the last five years. These days there’s a vintage shop, a tattoo parlor where people come to get Thunder tattoos and, in a building that used to be known as a brothel, a new restaurant devoted to gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches. I went into an artsy shop called DNA Galleries, across from the grilled-cheese-sandwich restaurant, and it turned out to be full of Thunder gear: local artists had designed, often very cleverly, their own T-shirts, beer cozies, stickers and onesies. Most businesses around town let their employees dress in Thunder gear on game days, which has created a big market for Thunder clothes: many Oklahomans have entirely separate game-day wardrobes. The store’s owner told me that the Thunder changed her life. Saleswise, she said, basketball season is like eight months of Christmas.
      And now it is time to talk about James Harden’s beard.
      The fate of Harden was the first serious test of the Thunder’s utopian culture — the first stubborn wrinkle in Sam Presti’s enlightened basketball collective.
      Harden was the first draft pick ever made by the Thunder: they chose him third in 2009. (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all joined when the team was still the Seattle SuperSonics.) His beard, at the time, was modest and closely cropped, the kind of thing you could wear to a business meeting without raising any eyebrows. Harden was a 19-year-old shooting guard with an old man’s game, full of the kinds of tricks you might see at your local Y.M.C.A.: quick shots, misdirections, shifts in speed, counterintuitive arm motions designed to bait defenders into fouls. He wasn’t overwhelmingly athletic, though, and many experts thought the Thunder had selected him too high. During his rookie year, he did little to convince anyone otherwise. As Harden’s beard grew, however, so did his mojo. As it started to hang from his face, his tricks started, improbably, to work in the N.B.A. The beard grew thicker and more unruly, and Harden began to exceed everyone’s expectations. By last season, he had become one of the most effective scorers the N.B.A. has ever seen.
      By the time the Thunder reached the finals, Harden’s beard was a full-on Rip Van Winkle, and it had become something of an unofficial team mascot. Photos flew around the Internet: a James Harden cake from an OKC bakery, with a huge mess of black icing extending off its cake chin; an Oklahoma City building with a giant beard hanging from its facade; a James Harden tattoo on some anonymous superfan’s arm. The most popular item at the official Thunder retail store, its manager told me, was a Harden-style fake black beard, which fans would wear at home games. Harden’s beard was gratuitous, quirky and improbable — the same set of attributes that made Oklahoma City basketball different than Miami or Los Angeles or New York.
      Harden’s rise was great for the Thunder — not many third bananas get that good, that fast — but it was also a threat. He had always been a complicated figure in Presti’s scheme. He was an elite scorer willing to come off the bench — a citizen willing to pay a serious tax (in minutes, shots and star potential) to be a part of the Thunder society. The group, in turn, offered Harden some harder-to-measure benefits: As a sixth man, he got to play against the other team’s bench players, which made him look even better than he was. When he shared the floor with Durant and Westbrook, he benefitted from the other team’s obsessive attention to them.
      But Harden got a little too good. The cost-benefit balance tipped out of whack. He wanted a maximum contract and, by league standards, probably deserved one. The Thunder — having already committed max contracts to Durant and Westbrook, and having just signed Ibaka to a near-max — wanted to pay him less. Near the climactic point of the Harden contract crisis, several people in Oklahoma City joked to me that they would be perfectly willing to pass another Maps tax to help pay for him to stay. Then they made it clear that, actually, they weren’t joking; the people of Oklahoma City would seriously do this. One city official I spoke with thought a penny tax would be too much — maybe an eighth, he suggested, with a quarter of that going to improve the city.
      Presti’s goal is to build a sustainably excellent organization, which means one that transcends its players. No individual, no matter how important or loved, can ever be allowed to trump the group. At 8:28 on the night of Oct. 27, Kevin Durant tweeted the word “Wow.” Over the next few hours, that message was retweeted more than 10,000 times. The Thunder had traded James Harden, just three days before the start of the season.
      For the Thunder, this trade marked a passage from innocence (youth, ideals, plenitude) to experience (age, cash, loss). The fairy-tale part of their story, in which they’re magically immune from the muddiness of N.B.A. success, is over. The team will still be good — Presti got a reasonable return for Harden, and of course they still have Westbrook and Durant — but it feels as if they’ll never be the same. Unless, of course, all that collective energy is strong enough to somehow conjure, like a phoenix rising from Harden’s beard, another great individual.

Is Anderson's long New York Times Magazine article a great read, or what? But, now, it's time to get back to that opening Footnote 1 ...

Footnote 1 ... Bill Simmons. Like I said at the beginning, when the above article said, "Simmons announced, just a few weeks ago, that he was officially retiring the phrase Zombie Sonics. In almost no time at all, the Oklahoma City Thunder had achieved escape velocity." The New York Times Magazine piece that I'd read and started to post here on December 10 was published November 8, so I was way behind the curve when learning of Simmons' turned leaf. So, finishing the New York Times part, I started my Simmons research.

First, I saw that The Lost Ogle had already written about it on October 16. The Lost Ogle's piece quoted a footnote within in an October 11 column Simmons had published at his Grantland website. The footnote reads:
Footnote 1: Important note for this season: I'm giving up my four-year vow to avoid typing the word "Thunder" in an NBA column after the Sonics were hijacked from Seattle with the implicit consent of the NBA's commissioner, David Stern. It's just too much of a pain in the ass to keep the "Zombies" thing going, and more important, Chris Hansen is definitely bringing the Sonics back to Seattle. That's happening. Let's start looking forward instead of backward.
The New York Times Magazine and The Lost Ogle articles concluded from Simmons' footnote that he had "retired" the Zombie reference. But, upon reading the Grantland article which was titled, "The Harden Dilemma," it is plainly evident that such a conclusion was premature, at best. Why? Because in the main article, Simmons called the Thunder "the Zombies" once again:
How will Harden's saga play out? I see three potential outcomes, and only three ...
      • Harden's agent accepts less money to stay in Oklahoma City — a fundamentally ignorant decision that would mean they were brainwashed by Oklahoma City's small-market B.S.. If that happens, lock down the Zombies for two to four titles in the 2010s assuming nothing funky happens (injuries, drugs, a fatal injury during a brawl at the BET Awards, whatever).
      • Harden's agent says, "Let's play this baby out." That's actually the best outcome for both parties. Harden guarantees himself a four-year, $64 million offer from someone this summer; Oklahoma City locks Harden into a cheap 2012-13 price ($5.82 million) while also leaving itself the flexibility to (a) trade Harden during the season (doubtful; they'd never mess that dramatically with a potential title team), (b) match Harden's "max" offer next summer and amnesthize Kendrick Perkins (most likely), or (c) match that offer, then trade Harden or Westbrook after the 2013-14 season because the tax penalties will keep getting worse (possible).
      • Oklahoma City panics and trades Harden before Halloween, or some time before February's deadline, for 100 cents on the dollar. Totally improbable … and yet, we can't totally rule it out.
Given the above emphasized text, it becomes evident that Simmons hasn't yet "retired" the Zombies term ... he has simply allowed himself the option of using "Zombies" and "Thunder" (which he earlier said he would never say) interchangeably ... Zombies, Thunder, whatever, it doesn't matter.

So, put Simmons' use of the term in the same general category as Oklahoman sportswriter Berry Tramel's continued use of "Boomers" as an acceptable interchangeable moniker for the Thunder. Although Tramel's term isn't as offensive, both writers continue to use a unique name for the Thunder for their own personal pleasure.

So, Is The Name "Zombie Sonics" really Dead? Yes, it is. But it's not because Bill Simmons said so (because he didn't) ... it's because he is an island to himself amongst professional sportswriters who seems to feel the need to continue to be ugly to the Thunder. He continues to bash the Thunder's owners even if he has become more sympathetic to the city and Oklahoma City Thunder fans (see this Grantland article).

As a December postscript to Simmons' October 11 dire predictions for the Thunder if Sam Presti chose the "improbable" door #3 vis a vis James Harden, we all know by now and despite Simmons' faux-wisdom that Sam Presti DID choose door #3 ... "The Beard" James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets before October 31, in exchange for Kevin Martin and other assets. In a post-Harden-trade October 30 Grantland article, Simmons predicted ...
You want predictions for the 2012-13 season from me? I have two and two only.
      1. Miami is going to beat the Lakers in the Finals.
      2. Oklahoma City will rue the day it traded James Harden.
What can one objectively say about those remarkable predictions?

First, Simmons' Second Prediction. It's safe to say that all Thunder fans loved "The Beard" and that all fans very much regretted him being traded away, largely done for salary cap penalty issues associated with the Thunder breaching that cap. But, Oklahoma City Thunder fans aren't sufficiently naive to recognize the practical realities that any NBA team (save a precious few like the Heat and the Lakers) have to cope with given last year's collective bargaining agreement. And, while we surely miss The Beard, we have been quick to embrace Kevin Martin, the principal asset acquired in that same trade.

Going into tonight's (December 12) home game against the Hornets (this part of the article is written before that game on December 12), the Thunder is 17-4, leading the NW division by 5½ games. After tonight's game against the Hornets, on December 14 we host Sacramento and there is a good chance that the Thunder will be 19-4 after that. Then, the Thunder host San Antonio on Monday, December 17 in a match-up between, presently, the two best teams in the Western Conference, arguably the two best teams in the NBA right now.

But, wait, there's more! As noted in the New York Times Magazine article, ESPN recently named the Oklahoma City Thunder the best professional sports team in the United States (including the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL). In its most recent power-rankings, USA Today deems the Oklahoma City Thunder #1, followed by San Antonio Spurs #2. The Lakers, Simmons' favorite but faltering badly since Simmons made his October 30 predictions, came in at #20.

Now, I know that one-quarter of a season does not a season make. Simmons may well be proved true about Oklahoma City "ruing the day," but, not yet.

I am reminded of a personal story ... when I quit high school band in favor of high school debate way back in the fall of 1959. To excel at either activity took lots of non-school after-hours time, and my family history was in music. But, I had gotten involved with debate a year earlier and it fascinated me. In the fall of 1959, I concluded that I could not do both with excellence and I chose debate which led to me becoming a lawyer. But, when giving my Lawton High School band director, Mr. McHenry, my drop card, he insisted on a private meeting in his office, during which he said, "You are letting your school down, Doug, and you will come to regret this decision."

I'm not dead yet so that eventful day of remorse may yet come to pass. But, now approaching 70 years of age, it ain't likely. Second-guessing on the viability of Sam Presti's decision regarding the James Harden decision appears to be fainter and fainter by the day. Maybe the personal analogy ain't perfect, but it's pretty close to the mark.

You know what, I'll take Sam Presti's decisions over Bill Simmons' predictions any time, any where, any place.

Second, Simmons' First Prediction. Here, Simmons proclaimed the Lakers Western Conference champions this season, and he said, "Miami is going to beat the Lakers in the Finals."

Right. As of the morning of December 12, the Heat were 14-5, not too shabby but certainly not at the top of the Eastern Conference. As for the Lakers, they are 9-13, just having lost to Cleveland. If the season ended now, the Lakers wouldn't even make the playoffs.

Again, I understand that 1/4 of a season does not a season make. But both the Heat and the Lakers are going to have to work their arses off so that Simmons manages to look good by the end of the regular season.

Simmons' Third Prediction. He didn't mention this one in his October 30 article. Rather, it was contained in "Footnote 1" to his October 11 Grantland piece, mentioned above. There, he said,
Chris Hansen is definitely bringing the Sonics back to Seattle. That's happening.
Who is he kidding? It would have to be his Seattle following because if and when Seattle gets an NBA team in the future is wholly speculative and which may be in the realm of "Dream On, Teenage Queen."

In the first place, Seattle would need to have in place at least a commitment (if not an established fact) from Seattle/Washington to build a new arena ... part of what the Clay Bennett partnership announced as a "stay in Seattle" condition way back when, but when Seattle/Washington gave the Oklahoma investors group the stiff-arm regarding such a prospect. But, yes, Hanson has made progress about getting a new $480 million NBA/NHL arena in Seattle. Also, see this USA Today article. The problem with this development is that it's all written in disappearing ink ... no commitments, no signatures on the dotted line. Unless the facility is actually built or contracted to be built, whether or not the NBA or NHL might agree to place a team there, not one shovel of the new NBA/NHL proposed arena has yet been shoveled. Hence, even Hansen's proposed arena remains speculative.

In the second place, who says that the NBA has a team to locate in Seattle? For that to be true, either (a) an existing NBA team would need to relocate there, or (b) the NBA would have to expand to include more than the present 30 teams. Without belaboring the point, a study in either possibility is wholly speculative.

So where does reality come face to face with Simmons' prediction, "Chris Hansen is definitely bringing the Sonics back to Seattle. That's happening."

The obvious and simple answer is that Simmons hasn't got a clue and has no credibility concerning Seattle or Oklahoma City at all. He is merely pandering to the Seattle fans that he took under his wing way back when and has, more recently, kinda-sorta thrown under the bus.

Sorry, Seattle, but if/when you are prepared to take Simmons' predictions to the bank as though his opinions were delivered from god-almighty, as you may be, you have my best wishes. He is not the first pied-piper that you may have followed before before this day, the first of whom was probably Chris Van Dyk.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

100 Years of Oklahoma Presidential Votes

Oklahoma's First Presidential Vote Was For The Man Above

This being a presidential election year, I thought it might be fun to review Oklahoma's votes for President of the United States after we were granted that opportunity, which is a 100-year period of votes. Until statehood in 1907, pre-territory (1889) and then territory elections (1890-1907) did not allow us to vote in presidential elections -- only until Oklahoma became a state in 1907 did we have the right to vote for the next president of the United States. Our first ballot for US President/Vice President candidates was presented to Oklahoma voters on November 3, 1908.

This article reviews a century of Oklahoma's votes for United States president -- from 1908 through 2008. It also takes a look at the Oklahoman's editorial advocacy during that 100-year period of time.

About the statistics   1908   1912   1916   1920   1924   1928

About the Statistics. The statistics in the charts below are based upon the excellent information provided at Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, an excellently done website which provides free election information to the public, and I heartily commend Dave Leip for making that service and information available to anyone that wants it. I've taken information from that location to put together the following tables. In the tables, "EC" means Electoral College. "NOB" means Not On Ballot. Some national de minimus candidates are not included but all candidates on the Oklahoma ballots are. In the national results parts of tables, sometimes candidates who were on the Oklahoma ballot are not shown in Mr. Leip's data and, in such event, a "?" mark is shown. Most probably, the Oklahoma candidate would have been included in the "Other" group for a particular election year at his website. As for Electoral College votes, Oklahoma has been a "winner take all" state (as are most if not all others), with the exception of 1960 when Oklahoma had 1 unpledged (of 8) votes. Oklahoma's Electoral College votes have ranged from 7 (1908, 2004, 2008), 8 (1952, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000), 10 (1912, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1944, 1948), and 11 (1936, 1940).

1908US VoteVote %ECEC %OK VoteOK %
Wm. H. Taft (Republican)7,678,35551.5732166.5110,47443.80
Wm. J. Bryan (Democrat)6,408,97943.0416233.5122,36347.99
Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)429,8522.830021,7348.52
Eugene Chafin (Prohibition)254,0871.7100NOBNOB
Thomas Watson (Populist)??004120.16
In the table, note the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs. As will be seen, Oklahoma contained a higher than national average number of Socialist Party voters for several years, including many voters in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoman favored Bryan who won the state, but Oklahoma County voters gave Taft a narrow win.

1912US VoteVote %ECEC %OK VoteOK %
Woodrow Wilson (Democrat)6,296,28441.8443581.9119,15646.95
T. Roosevelt (Progressive)4,122,72127.48827.4NOBNOB
Wm. H. Taft (Republican)3,486,24223.1781.590,75635.7
Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)901,5515.990041,67416.42
Eugene Chafin (Prohibition)208,1561.38002,1850.86
In the Republican presidential convention, William Howard Taft defeated Theodore Roosevelt to become that party's nominee. Following that, Taft joined the Progressive (Bull Moose) party and became its nominee. However, the Progressive party was not on the Oklahoma ballot. Apparently an attempt was made to back-door Republican electors would favor Roosevelt, but that was unsuccessful. Notice that Socialist Debs received 16.42% of Oklahoma votes, up from 8.52% in the 1908 votet. Wilson received the Oklahoman's blessing, as did Oklahoma County and the state.

As an aside, at the same November 5, 1912, election, Guthrie backers succeeded in getting a referendum petition on the ballot to move the State Capital back to Guthrie. Click on the image for a clearer look at the ballot as well as substantially complete voter returns. Voters in at least 28 counties supported the measure (Adair, Alfalfa, Cherokee, Craig, Creek, Ellis, Garfield, Grant, Kay, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, McIntosh, Mayes, Muskogee, Noble, Nowata, Osage, Ottawa, Pawnee, Payne, Rogers, Sequoyah, Tulsa, Wagoner, Washington, Woods, and Woodward, but the measure nonetheless failed. It's difficult to read the Oklahoman's vote numbers, but it appears that "Yes" voters totaled 85,467, "No's" were 102,915, and 44,493 were silent and marked neither check box.

1916US VoteVote %ECEC %OK VoteOK %
Woodrow Wilson (D)9,126,84849.2427752.2148,11359.59
Charles Hughes (R)8,548,72846.1225447.897,23333.21
Allan Benson (Socialist)590,5243.190045,52715.55
James Hanly (Prohibition)221,3021.19001,6460.56

The November 8, 1916, headlines above tell the story -- although Wilson carried Oklahoma and Oklahoma County against Charles Hughes handily, the national vote was still in doubt on November 8. Europe had been at war since 1914 but Wilson had so far kept the United States out of it, even after the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, by a German submarine on May 7, 1915.

Of the 139 US citizens aboard Lusitania, 128 lost their lives; however in January 1916 Germany agreed to pay retribution for the Americans and to refrain from unwarned U-boat attacks on passenger vessels in the future.

Hughes felt differently about American participation in the European War and the country was fairly well divided between the candidates, though less so in Oklahoma. That Socialist candidate Benson received 15.55% of the Oklahoma vote evidences the continuing strength of that party in Oklahoma. The Oklahoman supported Wilson in the election and closed its November 7 editorial with these words: "That is Woodrow Wilson's record. He has served us. He has saved us."

Of course, it developed that Germany changed its position. This Wikipedia article puts it this way:
In early 1917 Germany decided to resume all-out submarine warfare on all commercial ships headed toward Britain, realizing it would mean war with the U.S. It offered a military alliance to Mexico in the Zimmerman Telegram -- and publication of that offer outraged American opinion just as the U-boats (submarines) started sinking American ships in the North Atlantic. Wilson asked Congress for "a war to end all wars" and "make the world safe for democracy," and Congress voted to declare war on April 6, 1917.
1920US VoteVote %ECEC %OK VoteOK %
Warren Harding (Republican)16,146,09360.3240476.1243,83150.11
James Cox (Democrat)9,139,66134.1512723.9217,05344.61
Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)913,6933.410025,7265.29
P. Christiansen (Farmer-Labor)265,3980.9900NOBNOB
Aaron Watkins (Prohibition)188,7870.7100NOBNOB

Although United States participation in the "Great War" was relatively brief by contemporary standards (April 6, 1917, to the date that fighting ended in November 1918), World War I resulted in the death of 116,516 United States "Doughboys" and other citizens and another 204,002 were wounded. By the 1920 election, Wilson and his League plan had become unpopular. Millions had died in the Great War -- according to Wikipedia,
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
Instead of being opposed to isolation, President Wilson strongly advocated, as part of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the armed conflict, the establishment of a "League of Nations" which would have involved the United States in a more international endeavor. Although his advocacy for United States participation in that League was strong, by the 1920 presidential elections, it had not been ratified by the U.S. Senate, and in a very real sense, the 1920 elections would be a national referendum on Wilson's presidency and his League of Nations proposal.

Although Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts to establish the League, in 1920 Democrat James Cox who shared Wilson's views was roundly defeated by Republican Harding who campaigned against U.S. participation in the League and who favored an isolationist stance, and that included high tariffs which would protect large corporate interests in the United States. The Oklahoman editorialized very progressively and strongly for Cox and the League and against some large corporate interests -- see this example and another -- and Cox did carry Oklahoma County 15,722 to Harding's 13,605 -- but Harding carried the state.

The League of Nations was never approved by the United States and our country was never a member of the League. Instead, the United States entered into separate treaties with Great War combatants Germany and Austria during the Harding administration. It would take yet another great war, at a later time, for Wilson's vision to be appreciated by Wilson's home country in another form.

U.S. Senate and Congressional races were also a huge part of the 1920 election. Oklahoma's first Republican Senator, J.W. Harreld, was elected as were Republicans from five of Oklahoma's eight Congressional districts.

Interestingly, the 1920 presidential election was the first that R.E. Stafford was no longer a part owner or editor of the Oklahoman, roles owned by E.K. Gaylord in 1920. The editorials linked to above were quite progressive and aggressively pro-Democrat and a November 5, 1920, article seemed to take pride in the fact that Oklahoma City had bucked the statewide Republican trend. The article began with this language:
Returning the largest democratic majority in its history, while the state was joining the republican ranks, Oklahoma City shines today as one of the very few bright spots on the democratic map.
Socialist Debs was also on the ballot but earned only 5.29% of Oklahoma's vote in 1920, down from 1916's 15.55% share. Concerning the Oklahoma U.S. Senatorial vote, a November 5 Oklahoman editorial opined that:
        The returns indicate the election of J.W. Harreld, republican nominee for United States senator, by a large majority. He owes his victory not only to the votes of members of his own party, but to the support of a number of socialists and Gore democrats.
* * *
        The socialists who voted for Harreld clearly did so because Harreld supported a resolution which would have allowed Victor Berger to retain his seat in congress.
Berger? Who was Berger? Did anyone living in Bromide (etc.), Oklahoma ever hear the name, Victor Berger? In this time of much-less-than-instant communications, how would such communities even know about Berger? The possibility that they did strikes me as hugely unlikely.

According to Wikipedia, Victor L. Berger was a newspaper man and a founder of the United States Socialist movement. The article says,
        When the United States entered the war and passed the Espionage Act in 1917, Berger's continued opposition made him a target. He and four other Socialists were indicted under the Espionage Act in February 1918; the trial followed on December 9 of that year, and on February 20, 1919, Berger was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. The trial was presided over by Judge Kenesaw Landis, who later became the first commissioner of Major League Baseball. His conviction was appealed, and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court on January 31, 1921, which found that Judge Landis had improperly presided over the case after the filing of an affidavit of prejudice.
        In spite of his being under indictment at the time, the voters of Milwaukee elected Berger to the House of Representatives in 1918. When he arrived in Washington to claim his seat, Congress formed a special committee to determine whether a convicted felon and war opponent should be seated as a member of Congress. On November 10, 1919 they concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. Wisconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat, and on December 19, 1919, elected Berger a second time. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him, and the seat remained vacant until 1921, when Republican William H. Stafford claimed the seat after defeating Berger in the 1920 general election.
        Berger defeated Stafford in 1922 and was reelected in 1924 and 1926. In those terms, he dealt with Constitutional changes, a proposed old-age pension, unemployment insurance, and public housing. He also supported the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union and the revision of the Treaty of Versailles. After his defeat by Stafford in 1928, he returned to Milwaukee and resumed his career as a newspaper editor.
Upon Eugene V. Deb's death in October 1926, Berger delivered Deb's eulogy.

But, the Oklahoman's editorial analysis was most probably incomplete since it failed to account for the Bolshevik scare, also known as the "First Red Scare," in this country. In 1919 through May 1920, fear gripped much of the country, as well as much of the world, because of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The fear, of course, was that the same thing that happened in Russia would occur here -- labor would unite against capitalist interests and government, revolt, and the United States (as eyes would then know it) would become a thing of the past. (The 2nd Red Scare would come in the early 1950s with Rep. Joseph McCarthy of the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings fame, but we'll get back to that later in this post.)

This Wikipedia article says,
        In American history, the First Red Scare of 1919–1920 was spawned by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. Concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and alleged spread in the American labor movement fueled the paranoia that defined the period.
        The First Red Scare had its origins in the hyper-nationalism of World War I. At the war's end, following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities saw the threat of revolution in the actions of organized labor, including such disparate cases as the Seattle General Strike and the Boston Police Strike and then in the bomb campaign directed by anarchist groups at political and business leaders. Fueled by labor unrest and the anarchist bombings, and then spurred on by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's attempt to suppress radical organizations, it was characterized by exaggerated rhetoric, illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions, and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists.
        Bolshevism and the threat of revolution became the general explanation for challenges to the social order, even such unrelated events as incidents of interracial violence. Fear of radicalism was used to excuse such simple expressions of free speech as the display of certain flags and banners. The Red Scare effectively ended in the middle of 1920, after Attorney General Palmer forecast a massive radical uprising on May Day and the day passed without incident.
The 2011 movie, J. Edgar, staring Leonardo DiCaprio, depicts Palmer's campaign to deport alleged radicals, led by J. Edgar Hoover.

Putting the pieces together, it seems probable that the lower 1920 Socialist vote in Oklahoma was not only keyed to a "deal" to help Berger, as the Oklahoman suggested, but was also related to the Bolshevik scare of 1919-1920.

During the Harding/Coolidge term, two amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified by the states: 18th (Prohibition) on January 16, 1919; and 19th (Women's Suffrage) on August 18, 1920. Oklahoma voted for both amendments.

1924US VoteVote %ECEC %OK VoteOK %
Calvin Coolidge (Republican)15,723,78954.0438271.9226,24242.82
John Davis (Democrat)8,386,24228.8213625.6255,79848.1
R. LaFollette (Progressive*)4,831,70616.1132.446,3768.78
* In Oklahoma, the party shown for Robert LaFollette was the Farmer-Labor Party of Oklahoma, not the Progressive Party, although both were liberal and similar in their orientation. See the section on "Farmer-Labor Party," below.
Republican Harding died on August 2, 1923, from heart ailments while on a speaking tour before the end of his term. Vice President Coolidge completed Harding's term and then ran for president himself in 1924. The period of time between 1920 through the 1924 election had it all — political corruption, martial law and suspension of the right of habeas corpus by an impeached Oklahoma governor, political and racial unrest, the KKK, and a new brand of third party candidate (well, sort of) — and the above headlines don't begin to tell the much larger story.

At the national level and despite some positive accomplishments, Harding's administration proved to be plagued by corruption, including the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. The Wikipedia article on Harding reads, in part:
President Harding rewarded friends and political contributors, referred to as the Ohio Gang, with financially powerful positions. Scandals and corruption, including the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, eventually pervaded his administration; one of his own cabinet and several of his appointees were eventually tried, convicted, and sent to prison for bribery or defrauding the federal government.
Until Richard Nixon's Watergate scandals, the Teapot Dome affair is said to have been the most notorious to have occurred at the presidential level.

Although the Oklahoman editorialized for the Democrat, John Davis, and although Davis did carry the state and Oklahoma County, the paper's November 4 edition (election day) was as much if not more occupied with the murder of territorial U.S. Deputy (and for a time police chief of Oklahoma City) Bill Tilghman in Cromwell a few days before the presidential election. The November 4 Oklahoman's editorials did not include one favoring Davis, although it had given one the day before.

At the start of the election year, however, the Oklahoman was all over it -- "it" being the Coolidge connection with the Teapot Dome scandal. The front page headlines on January 28, 1924, looked like this:

Click here to read the lengthy actual front-page articles.

... more to come for the 1924 election ...

1928. ... coming next ...

... This post is in its early stages with much more to come ...

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... Click here to read the full article and any comments ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

In Search of Bird Gee

Originally posted July 24, 2012; edited on August 20-25, 2012, to add interactive flash video of Bird Gee's real property interests in Oklahoma County and to complete this article.

July 19, 2012

110 Years Ago, Circa 1902

Looking into that field of black jack (scrub oak) trees up there and somewhat hidden by tall grass might be Bird Gee as he surveys 80 acres of property located in Pottawatomie Township that he purchased in 1903. Or, instead of Bird Gee, it might show his great nephew, Roland J. Miller, as he looked at the same property on July 19, 2012. Or and better still, dé·jà vu, it might show them both.

On June 24, 2012, I received an email from one Roland J. Miller — pasted into a word processing document using a 12 point font, the email was six (6) 8½" x 11" pages long, single spaced.

The kernel of Mr. Miller's post was that he was researching the time that a great uncle of his, named "Bird Gee," spent in Oklahoma City, and he wondered if I might be able to help. In closing his initial email, he said, "I realize that this may be of no direct interest to you, but I would really appreciate your assistance to make my research and impending visit [to Oklahoma and Oklahoma City] more fruitful."

Although I was somewhat suspicious — we all get crank emails, don't we, and, to boot, I'd surely never heard of anyone who had "Bird" as their sole first name — I nonetheless decided to have a look around and see what I could find, thinking it unlikely that a person would take the time to write six (6) 8½" x 11" pages in an email as a crank.

Guess what?

I learned that Bird Gee was a real person and so is Roland aka Rolando Miller. His email led to my learning about the city's most notorious murder-mystery at the dawn of statehood, previously mentioned in this post about Marilyn Hudson. As if not more importantly, his email led to learning about Bird Gee, probably the most prominent black man in Oklahoma City during 1900 to 1910.

Introduction   Real Property   Business Locations
Other Businesses   Tegeler Murder Trials    Gee As A Person
Bird Gee Park?   Additional Resources

INTRODUCTION. The email exchange with Roland Miller provided an opportunity and the catalyst for making a most excellent new friend, Rolando Miller — inexplicably, just now, my fingers paused on the keyboard just when intending to type Rolando's name since they wanted to type, "Bird Gee." I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, Rolando is actually Bird Gee who has just come back to the city for a brief visit to see what's different than when he left our town in 1913 or so. Oh — I see that statement makes me look like I'm crazy. I take it back.

It was my pure privilege and pleasure to welcome Bird Gee (oops!) Rolando Miller to Oklahoma City and to my home on July 19, 2012, and to join with him in researching Bird Gee's history in Oklahoma City during 1900 or so through 1913 by some drive-arounds in Oklahoma County and by researching the records of the Oklahoma County Registrar of Deeds.

So, what did we find?

Is Rolando Miller Bird Gee Reincarnated?

No, but he comes pretty darned close.

BIRD GEE REAL PROPERTIES IN OKLAHOMA COUNTY. The high quality flash video shown after the contemporary city map below is an interactive file which tours most of the properties owned by Bird and Nancy Gee in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, during 1901 through 1913. The music background for the file is an old recording of Hesitation Blues by Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941) who claimed to have invented jazz in 1902. Whether so or not, his tune seemed an appropriate background. The flash video shows relevant maps, plats, aerial and ground photos contained within the six areas shown in the following contemporary city map:

Click on the image of Bird Gee, below, to start the interactive flash video. It will load in a few or several seconds, depending on your internet connection speed.

Seeing the depth and breadth of real properties owned by Bird Gee, it is not surprising that an October 7, 1907, Oklahoman article said that he was "understood to be the wealthiest negro in Oklahoma City." At one point in time or another, he owned around 320 acres in Pottatawomie Township, 80 acres in Cass Township, 80 acres in Crutcho Township, and owned properties in Maywood Addition, west of Western and north of Reno, and a large chunk of lots and blocks in the original Dittmers Heights Addition (around NW 13-14th & McKinley). Four plats in Oklahoma County bear his name (Gee & Jones Addition in Crutcho Township; Gee's Addition west of N Western; Bird Gee's Amended Plat also west of N Western; and Gee & Weesner replat of a part of Dittmers Heights, above mentioned). A street in Crutcho Township still bears his name, "Gee Lane Road."

BIRD GEE BUSINESS LOCATIONS. Oklahoman archives reflect that Gee's primary business activity was in the sale or rental of real property. Ads during 1903-1904 show a business address for Bird Gee as "13th & McKinley" but in 1904 his business address moved downtown and had these addresses: 117 W. Grand (1904); 217 W. Grand (1905); 325 W. Main (1906); and 210 W. California (1906-1910). By 1906, the ads read, "Bird Gee Realty Co." These business locations are shown in the map below -- old street locations and current uses are also shown.

The 1905 address was immediately next to and perhaps a part of the Overholser Opera House, as shown in the 1906 Sanborn Map, below. Click on the map for a larger image.

Quite evidently, Gee not only lived in what would come to be regarded as a "white" area, he did business smack in the middle of downtown rubbing elbows with the likes of the Overholsers, at least through 1910.

OTHER BIRD GEE BUSINESS INTERESTS. Although real property sales and rentals were clearly his mainstay, Gee was also a notary public (as reflected by documents filed with the Registrar of Deeds), an undertaker (as reflected by a May 3, 1907, Oklahoman article which described his lawsuit for unpaid services as such), and a bail bondsman, evidenced by a pair of 1907 and 1909 Oklahoman articles.

        The Tegeler Murder Trials. It was Gee's experience with his bail bond business, combined with the growth of Jim Crow laws in the state and city, which likely led to Gee leaving the state in 1912 or 1913.

Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. Before that, territorial legislative sessions imposed no requirements of racial separation in business, residential, or personal matters, even if the attitude prevailed in the white population that African-Americans were in all ways inferior to the whites.

As a forerunner to statehood polemics, see this September 11, 1904, Daily Oklahoman article/editorial which assumes that Indian Territory might be granted statehood (apart from Oklahoma as we know it). It reads, in part:
      Muskogee, I.T.
      When Indian Territory gets statehood doubtless it will at the time of its legislative convention pass a Jim Crow law, and that is going to cause a big howl from the minority of the population of the Territory. The negroes here, especially the freedmen, have by virtue of being land holders, brought themselves to believe they are entitled to all the privileges of the white man. This will continue until some form of local self government comes and the feeling at that time is likely to be so intense that a very stringent law of this character will be enacted. * * * But the white population recognize the fact that there must be some such law to protect the public and it likely that both political parties will agree to such a bill.
Of course, Indian Territory was not admitted as a separate state, by itself. When statehood to both Oklahoma and Indian Territories became the real deal in 1907, the Oklahoman was in your face as to its position which was, pure and simple, separation of whites and blacks. To its credit, the Oklahoman played no games by masking where it was coming from, but to its everlasting discredit, it was coming from the awful and dreadful position of white supremacy. Beyond a couple of front page caricatures, I'll not further elaborate since I'm thinking the caricatures speak for themselves as to the posture of the Oklahoman at the time. See History of Jim Crow Laws In Oklahoma City for more.

September 13, 1907
"Have YOU a daughter, Mr. Voter?"

After Oklahoma became a state, several Jim Crow laws were quickly enacted in the areas of public accommodations, transportation, public education, and marriage. Residential restrictions would soon follow at the municipal level. The Daily Oklahoman was one of the cheerleaders leading the Jim Crow charge. It was a very ugly time for the history of Oklahoma and the city of Oklahoma City and that's putting it mildly. Bird Gee had no real property sales or rentals ads in the Oklahoman after 1910 -- his business activity in the city had markedly dwindled and most of his properties had been sold.

Throw into that racial travesty Bird Gee's bail bond business and, most probably, Bird Gee's last Oklahoma straw is found. As briefly discussed previously in this blog post about Marilyn Hudson and without much elaboration here,
  1. In 1907, Rudolph Tegler was charged with the murder of James R. Meadows, as was Meadow's wife, Lila. Lila was acquitted. Rudolph was tried three times. The first time, he was convicted, but that conviction was reversed on appeal. The second trial in 1910 resulted in a hung jury.
  2. Mike O'Brien aka M.C. McGraw was a key defense witness in that 1910 trial. After that trial, O'Brien was charged with perjury, was found guilty, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
  3. O'Brien appealed the conviction. While the appeal was pending, Bird Gee was said to have posted bond for O'Brien's release and, in any event, O'Brien was released. During the appellate process, O'Brien disappeared, and that resulted in his appeal being dismissed in 1912.
  4. O'Brien having become a fugitive, Gee was then called to make good on his appeal bond for O'Brien, but he did not do that.
  5. In 1912, Gee was then charged with perjury for falsely stating his worth in the appeal bond and he was taken into custody.
  6. While in custody, Gee filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus which was denied by the trial court. The Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision to deny the writ.
  7. Notwithstanding, bond was posted to secure Gee's release from custody.
  8. Gee was tried on that perjury charge in 1912. He was acquitted, as is further discussed below.
After Gee's initial arrest, bond was posted by Dr. John Threadgill and D.M. Phillips, both white and commercially successful, to secure his release. Dr. Threadgill built the Threadgill Hotel on Broadway around 1903. D.M. Phillips was an "alderman" (city council member) in 1904. For some reason, Gee was again taken into custody and a later bond was posted for his release by T.H. Traylor, W.H. Slaughter, and Bird's wife Nancy. Dr. W.H. Slaughter would later build "Slaughter's Hall" in Deep Deuce.

During Gee's trial, the evidence showed that Gee's bond was conditioned upon Dr. John Threadgill likewise posting bond for O'Brien's appearance which Threadgill never did. The jury was out only five (5) minutes before returning its finding of not guilty. See this link for the Oklahoman's coverage of Gee's perjury charge and trial.

After the 1912 perjury proceedings were concluded, Bird Gee left Oklahoma City for good, in 1912 or 1913, presumably never to return. By this time, Gee would have been about 68 years old -- whether Nancy Gee was still living when he left the city is not clear but she was alive as of her co-posting of Gee's appearance bond on May 2, 1912.


Bird Gee's great-nephew, Roland Miller, reported in email to me that Gee was one of eight children born to Elijah and Ritter Gee, that he was born during slavery (May 1844) in Missouri, and that Bird reunited with his parents and siblings in Highland, Doniphan County, Kansas, circa 1863. Bird served as a private for the Union Army during the Civil War, and returned to Highland, to reside up to 1886.

Roland said that while in Highland, Doniphan County, Kansas, Bird Gee blossomed as an entrepreneur and community leader. He said that Gee was a farm owner, hardware store merchant, tobacco store merchant, oil land prospector and real estate agent. He was also on close terms with George Washington Carver who, Roland says, "Also while improving his business skills, personal wealth, and communiy status, he worked at local orchards along with George Washington Carver who came to Highland to attend the local Highland College but was refused admittance when college administrators became aware that he was African-American," and in the same email, Roland said, "In Ness County [Kansas] the Gees and Carver owned neighboring properties, and on at least one official event Carver was a witness for Bird Gee."

As to matters pertaining to race relations, Roland said, "Bird was one of the five complainants included in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 (State of Kansas vs. Stanley Murray), which was escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court, deliberated upon and not favorably awarded the fair judgement it deserved, and essentially opened the floodgates for Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws imposed in the oppressive years preceding the pre-Civil Rights Acts of the mid-20th Century."

Roland provided the following transcript of an article appearing in the April 6, 1876, Kansas City Chief which described federal trial court proceedings under the then existing civil rights law:
Kansas City Chief, April 6, 1876
        In the name of the United States versus David Stanley and Murray Stanley, before U.S. Commissioner, C. W. Shreve, on Thursday of last week, U.S. District Attorney, Geo. R. Peck, appeared in behalf of the plaintiff, and Col. F.M. Keith and R.M. Williams, for the defendants. The complaint charged the defendants - keepers of a hotel in Hiawatha, Kansas - with violating the act of Congress known as the Civil Rights Bill, which guarantees to all citizens equal rights, regardless of color, or previous condition of servitude.
        The testimony on both sides went to show that Bird Gee - and, by the way, a gentleman - was, in October last, refused the privileges extended to other guests of the house, simply because his skin did not happen to be quite as white as other guests of the house. One witness (Murgatroyd) testified that he was sitting at the table at which Gee was sitting, when another regular boarder, named McCowen, came in and sat down in his regular place at the table. McC. saw the "nigger" immediately and at once left the table, and reported at the office that there was a "nigger" at the table. This brought young Stanley into the dining room where he placed himself behind Gee's chair, and proceeded to persuade him to leave the table, and finally tell him that "he would have to go out." By this time, this witness began to get mad, and aware that "he was just getting ready to leave the table himself."
        The attempt of the correspondent of the St. Joseph Gazzette to create the impression that it was a "put up job," and that Gee did not find out that he had been insulted until 5 months after the occurrence, falls still born, when one of the attorneys for the defense admits that Gee talked with him about prosecuting the case only a "day or two" after the affair, and was that the U.S. District Attorney was the proper person to prosecute it, and that he had already been talked to by he other party about the matter. This fact may account for the "surprise of the landlord" when he was arrested. District Attorney Peck made a good impression for himself in the management of the case, which did not seem to be characterized by any spirit of persecution, but simply a desire to get at the facts of the case, and vindicate the majesty of the law. Both of the defendants were held to bail in the sum of $1000 each, to appear before the U. S. District Court, at Topeka, on the 10th of April.
Roland also supplied the following transcript of an article which appeared in the Kansas City Chief on September 14, 1876:
New York City, September 2, 1876.
        Ed. Chief: -- Please permit me space in your columns, to give to the many readers of the Chief a few thoughts on the condition of Kansas and the Eastern States.
        It was not infrequently said by Kansas men, during the drouth and grasshopper infliction, that tbe Eastern States could stand it better than Kansas; but I beg leave to differ with them. In 1873, 1874, and 1875, Kansas had partial and almost total failures in a great many districts.
        With the advice of the Chief to keep a stiff upper lip, they have worried through. Many left the State for other parts, giving it the name of the grasshopper country.
        Well, it was very discouraging; but a question asked by the Chief is still unanswered: Where will you go to better yourselves? That Is a hard question. You can't go East, for they have a partial drouth there, and it is felt more forcibly than the failure in Kansas. The manufactories are all suspending; thousands of men are out of employment, walking the streets who are dependent on labor for support. Starvation is staring them in the
face. The great cry with them is, they are living under the Republican administration, and want a change. They all want change - when they feel round, they have none.
        Improve your lands in Kansas, and stick to it. The population here is something like raising a crop of wheat and renting land to stack it. There are a good many young men that are thrown out on their own resources.
        There must be room for them. Christ commanded Adam to go multiply and replenish the earth, but we believe It has been misconstrued. They are multiplying and punishing the earth.
        The staple products of the State of New York, are cheese and hops. Cows are kept on hay only; if that fails, it is worse than a corn failure in Kansas. All branches of business are feeling the great pressure. Oysters are selling at the docks at from 30 to 80 cents per hundred.
        A Democratic candidate made a speech in the city, a few days since. He said this is and should be a white man's government, for the white men and their posterity. It is well to note such expressions made by a party, in anticipation of being placed in power. I am yours,
        BIRD GEE.
"Where will you go to better yourselves?" Apparently Gee considered the matter further and he and his wife, Nancy, migrated to the "Unassigned Lands," still part of Indian Territory, on or shortly after the April 22, 1889, Land Run, they initially residing in Edmond. About that, Roland said,
        My official documentation for Bird Gee is sketchy after 1888, with the exception of a few documents for land ownership and businesses. I wish I had more information regarding his community involvement in OKC. From what I accumulated about him, he doesn't seem like the kind of person to settle into mediocrity or a rut. My sister and I jokingly talk about how he must have come off as brash and arrogant to those who wanted to force him into a role of acceptance, when every indication is that he was proud, self-motivated, and not self-limiting and didn't concern himself with conforming to the projected limits and expectations of others.
The "migrated to Edmond, OKT (circa 1888)" remark is obviously a mistake (obviously, since the Land Run didn't occur until April 22, 1889) but there is no reason to doubt the content of Gee's pension affidavit (below) that he resided in Edmond from 1889 to 1900.

As we've seen, Gee certainly did not settle into mediocrity when migrating to Oklahoma. He achieved remarkable if not amazing business success here during the first decade of the 1900s. But, in the end, he learned as well that racial bigotry was very much alive in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma, and he left our city and state to move to Texas.

As to his arrival and duration in Oklahoma County, Roland reported to me that Gee submitted a claim for a Civil War pension affidavit dated April 11, 1900, part of which reads as follows:
"Affidavit of Claimant dated April 11, 1900.
        State of Oklahoma, County of Oklahoma ss:
        In the matter of Pension Claim No. 1177369 of Bird Gee
On this 11th day of April A.D. 1900, personally appeared before me a Notary Public in and for the aforesaid county duly authorized to administer Oaths, Bird Gee aged 56 years [which would place his date of birth in 1844], whose Post-office Address is Edmond in the county of Oklahoma And Territory of Oklahoma, who, being duly sworn declares that he is the claimant in the above case.
        He has resided, since his discharge from service, in the following places:
  • From June 1865 to 1876 - Highland, KS
  • From August 1st to September 1st 1876 - New York City
  • From September 1876 to August 1878 - Philadelphia, PA
  • From August 1878 to November 1880 - Chester Town, MD
  • From 1881 to 1885 - Leavenworth, Kansas
  • From December 1885 to October 1886 - Highland, Kansas
  • From 1886 to 1889 - Beeler, KS
  • From 1889 to the Present 1900 - Edmond, Oklahoma Territory
I was unable to find documentation as to Bird Gee's residence in Edmond. Roland said that showed Gee's residences and occupations as:
1902  Dittmen [sic Dittmer] Heights
1903  Oklahoma City  Real Estate
1905  Oklahoma City  Real Estate
1906  Oklahoma City  Real Estate
1907  1413 N. McKinley, Oklahoma City
1908  Oklahoma City
1911  1413 N. McKinley, Oklahoma City
1912  1413 N. McKinley, Oklahoma City  Real Estate
1913  1517 Gregg, Houston
1917  1202 ½ San Felipe, Houston  Real Estate
1920  206 Broadway, r rear, 2nd Ward, Houston  Real Estate
A January 9, 1909, Oklahoman article is indicative of Gee's prominence in the local black community. With regard to an upcoming visit to the city and state by W.P. Vernon, the article states:
One of the greatest gatherings of colored people in the southwest will take place in the auditorium on February 4, when W.P. Vernon, the negro appointed registrar of the treasury by President [Theodore] Roosevelt will deliver an address under the auspices of the Oklahoma Negro Business league.
* * *
The Rev. William H. Jernagin, pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, is chairman of the committee which will receive the negro so honored by President Roosevelt, and escort hm through the state. Bird Gee of Oklahoma City is another member of the committee and will have general supervision over the arrangements.
About this, Roland Miller commented that,
Bird Gee's sister, Nancy (Gee) Bruce, married Henry Bruce (second marriage, no kids) -- the younger brother of Blanche Kelso Bruce who was the first African-American to serve as "Treasurer" of the United States and is the only African-American to have his name appear on a U.S. Treasury note. So, when Bird was hosting the negro Treasury appointee, it wasn't his first encounter with someone from that office.
Whether Bird Gee found greener pastures in Houston after leaving Oklahoma City, I don't know but my hunch is that, for a decade or so, during the first decade of the 1900s, Gee reached his greatest level of business accomplishment. His certificate of death shows that he died about ten years after he left Oklahoma City in Houston on March 20, 1923. The certificate shows an incorrect date of birth as being "unknown 1858," as opposed to 1844.

Roland reported to me that Bird Gee dropped out of his family's communication for some unknown reason. Roland said,
In my uncle's [Loren's] book, and according to our family oral history, Loren mentions that Bird Gee returned to Kansas City (Wyandotte) in the early 20th century to visit his sister and family. Uncle Loren also mentions that Bird Gee became very embittered when his claim for Native-American citizenry was denied and, after departing his visit to Kansas, was never heard from again. I haven't been able to find the date of his visit but it was probably around the time of death of his sisters Nancy (Gee) Bruce (around 1910) or Martha Hubbard (1913).
When commenting upon how thoroughly Bird Gee managed to integrate himself into Oklahoma City's white residential and business environment in the 1900's (which I had not expected to see), Roland had this to say:
I'm not surprised that Bird moved so easily in circles with whites or any ethnicity. It seems that is something that is taught to all of us descendants of the Gees - although it is still up to the individual to embrace and embody. In my immediate family, our father made sure we observed etiquette, look people in the eye when speaking to them, spoke clearly and respectfully, and were educated within the requirements of the family - not the lower expectations of educational institutions. In fact, on the few occasions we didn't receive daily homework assignments, dad would promptly visit the administrators of the school and ask what the hell was the matter with them. We were over prepared for our grade levels and learned multiplication and were reading books well before local requirements. It's funny when I think back to how the teachers would have to really interrupt us from reading around the entire "Dick and Jane" book when the class was supposed to take turns reading book excerpts. They finally decided to assign my brother and me to separate classrooms to minimize disruption. We were all taught, at early ages, that we were no better or worse than anyone else and that the only thing that separated us from the fate and situation of others was preparation, opportunity, and circumstance.
I'm sure that Roland will eventually give much more information about Bird Gee in his own website on the Doniphant County, Kansas, Museum, still in its beginning stages (the county is in the northeast tip of Kansas, north of Kansas City), or elsewhere, when he is ready to do so. Roland and others are taking steps to restore St. Martha's AME Church (1882-1998) there as a county museum. See photo 1, photo 2 and photo 3, the latter showing Roland and another family member.


While doing our drive-around on July 19, the first thing we did upon leaving my home in Mesta Park was drive to NW 13th & McKinley, less than a mile from my home. The physical address that Roland Miller had earlier supplied as a Gee residence was not in my head (1413 N. McKinley) when we did that. So, arriving in the area, I incorrectly told him that the property's location was on the north side of McKinley Park. He took a look at McKinley Park, shown below, and said, "Well, maybe we could get the park renamed to be "Bird Gee Park," and I concurred to that goal.

Problem is, my head was not then on straight -- odd numbered addresses are on the west side of north/south streets in Oklahoma City, so 1413 N. McKinley would not have been on the park's property but would have been across the street on the west side of McKinley.

Even and after recognizing my initial error, I said to myself, "Well, so why not? Why not rename the park to become Bird Gee Park?" After all, Gee replatted the area right across the street, he had two plats bearing his name a few blocks south, he owned large acreages in southeast and north central Oklahoma County as well as other tracts, and, as the October 7, 1907, Oklahoman said, he was "understood to be the wealthiest negro in Oklahoma City," and he has not heretofore been recognized in the annals of African-Americans in Oklahoma City's early days. All things considered, renaming McKinley Park to become Bird Gee Park seems to me to be a fair and reasonable tribute to "the wealthiest negro in Oklahoma City" circa 1907.

So, let's have a closer look at McKinley Park ... click on images below for larger views.


The park sits in the original Dittmer Heights Addition, Blocks 3 and 4. The original use of the area was not a park but was the home of the Oklahoma Press Brick Company, as shown in the 1906 Sanborn map, below.

After the brick company stopped its operations, McKinley Park was formed over the former brick company operations.

Roland was surprised in our July 19 county tour to find lots of red dirt and rock formations in eastern Oklahoma County; I told him that the same was commonplace in western Oklahoma. On our tour, I looked for rose rocks but didn't find any. The same red dirt/rock is present in McKinley Park, where the brick company once existed. I gave him a pair of rose rocks as a souvenir of his visit here.

Roland Miller's quest to fill in the blanks about his great-uncle Bird Gee is not yet done, but I'm pleased to have been able to fill in at least some parts of Bird Gee's time in Oklahoma City and County, parts of which may well be some of the most substantive pieces of Bird Gee's history.

As importantly, because of Roland Miller's search for information about his great-uncle, it is now evident that Bird Gee was, during the first decade of the 1900s, one of if not the most prominent African-American businessman who lived in our then young city during the first decade of the 1900s.

Additional Resources. Aside from information supplied by Roland Miller, most of this article is based upon information taken from the following sources, some containing more detail than I have described above. Click on any link for more detailed information.
  1. Oklahoman Articles On Bird Gee's Perjury Charge
  2. Oklahoman Bird Gee Ads, 1901-1906
  3. Oklahoman Bird Gee Ads & Articles, 1907-1909
  4. Oklahoman Ads & Articles, 1909-1910
  5. Oklahoman Articles, Bird Gee as Bail Bondsman
  6. County Assessor's 1905 Township Map showing Gee's around 320 acre interest in Pottawatomie Township
  7. County Assessor's 1905 Township Map showing Gee's 80 acre interest in Cass Township
  8. County Assessor's 1905 Township Map showing location of Gee's 80 acre interest in Crutcho Township
  9. Gee & Jones 1907 Plat in Crutcho Township; shows Gee's signature
  10. Plat of Maywood Addition, emphasizing Gee's lots
  11. Plat of Gee's Addition (1903)
  12. Gee's Amended Plat to parts of Orchard Park Addition; shows Gee's signature
  13. 1922 Sanborn Map showing additional Orchard Park lots earlier owned by Gee
  14. Gee & Weesner 1903 Amended Plat of parts of Dittmer Heights Addition

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