Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding... Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding... Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis

by Sam Anderson


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A brilliant, kaleidoscopic narrative of Oklahoma City—a great American story of civics, basketball, and destiny, from award-winning journalist Sam Anderson

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • NPR • Chicago Tribune • San Francisco Chronicle • The Economist • Deadspin

Oklahoma City was born from chaos. It was founded in a bizarre but momentous “Land Run” in 1889, when thousands of people lined up along the borders of Oklahoma Territory and rushed in at noon to stake their claims. Since then, it has been a city torn between the wild energy that drives its outsized ambitions, and the forces of order that seek sustainable progress. Nowhere was this dynamic better realized than in the drama of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team’s 2012-13 season, when the Thunder’s brilliant general manager, Sam Presti, ignited a firestorm by trading future superstar James Harden just days before the first game. Presti’s all-in gamble on “the Process”—the patient, methodical management style that dictated the trade as the team’s best hope for long-term greatness—kicked off a pivotal year in the city’s history, one that would include pitched battles over urban planning, a series of cataclysmic tornadoes, and the frenzied hope that an NBA championship might finally deliver the glory of which the city had always dreamed.

Boom Town
 announces the arrival of an exciting literary voice. Sam Anderson, former book critic for New York magazine and now a staff writer at the New York Times magazine, unfolds an idiosyncratic mix of American history, sports reporting, urban studies, gonzo memoir, and much more to tell the strange but compelling story of an American city whose unique mix of geography and history make it a fascinating microcosm of the democratic experiment. Filled with characters ranging from NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; to Flaming Lips oddball frontman Wayne Coyne; to legendary Great Plains meteorologist Gary England; to Stanley Draper, Oklahoma City's would-be Robert Moses; to civil rights activist Clara Luper; to the citizens and public servants who survived the notorious 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, Boom Town offers a remarkable look at the urban tapestry woven from control and chaos, sports and civics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804137331
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 71,560
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sam Anderson is currently a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. Formerly a book critic for New York Magazine and regular contributor to Slate, Anderson's journalism and essays have won numerous awards, including the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism. He lives in New York with his family.

Read an Excerpt

A Visitor’s Guide to Oklahoma City

Welcome to Oklahoma City. It’s been a long day. You’ve taken two flights to get here, possibly three. You’ve eaten unfortunate foods. You fell asleep at the Memphis airport, somehow, with your head leaning hard against the wall—you slept so deeply that the woman working at the gate had to actually come shake you awake just before the plane took off. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s all part of the long, unglamorous process of getting yourself to a minor airport out in the middle of the country. But now you’ve made it. Welcome. Come along. Stretch your legs. The OKC airport is small, so you’ll have no trouble finding your way around.

First, get yourself a car. You won’t be able to survive here without one. Go to the rental desk. The clerk will be curious to know why you are here, all the way from wherever you have come; tell him. If the conversation lulls, you can talk about the Thunder. (He will be a fan.) He might ask you about the James Harden crisis. Will Harden stay or will he go? Tell him that no one knows for sure, obviously, but that if you had to bet, you’d bet he’ll stay. The young man will encourage you to pay an extra $10 per day to upgrade to a Mustang—a special deal, he’ll tell you—but do your best to resist the temptation, because when you get out to the parking garage you’ll suddenly remember what a Mustang looks like: like a shark, with a fat snout, bullet-nosed and swaggering. Politely refuse, and collect the keys to some kind of nondescript sedan.

Walk out of the terminal. On your way out you’ll see a statue: Will Rogers, the folksy sage of the Great Plains, cast in bronze, wearing a bronze cowboy hat, riding a bronze horse, with a bronze lasso frozen in the air beside him. The whole airport is named after him: Will Rogers World Airport. “World” is meaningless here because there are actually no international flights. It’s just another example of one of Oklahoma City’s defining behaviors: trying to make itself seem bigger than it is. The city conducts itself, whenever possible, like a hiker threatened by a bear in the woods, hysterically exaggerating its size. Before you move on, take a moment to stop and look at the Will Rogers statue. (Now is perhaps not the time to think about the fact that Will Rogers died in a plane crash.) Here is another peculiarity of arriving in Oklahoma City: the statue will always be the same, but the sky over it will always be different. Most places have one sky; Oklahoma City has about twelve. There seem to be many different vectors up there, completely unrelated to one another, happening all at once. Sometimes you’ll see silent lightning blinking, very high, in one region, while smooth white clouds slide around lowly behind you. Will Rogers’s lasso, if you look through it, might be holding the sun, might be holding some ragged cirrus clouds, might be holding a volcanic piece of dusk.

Once you’ve come to grips with the sky, move on from the statue, walk into the parking garage, pick up your rental car, steer it out onto the streets.

Congratulations: you are now driving in Oklahoma City, an activity as characteristic as poling a gondola around Venice or weaving a moped through the crowds of central Marrakech. You have driven cars elsewhere, but it will never have felt exactly like this. Oklahoma City is the natural habitat of cars. In normal cities, cars feel slightly out of place, like zoo animals, pacing narrow roads between mobs of gawking pedestrians. Here in Oklahoma City, cars can stretch, roar, and run free. Many of the city’s neighborhoods lack sidewalks, intentionally, as a symbol of status, because walking was considered to be outmoded, primitive, impoverished, a little sad, an activity that might even distract the cars, or offend them. You will hear, while you are here, two basic axioms about driving in OKC, each of which seems to violate the laws of space-time, but each of which is true:

1. Even traffic jams move the speed limit.

2. Everywhere is only fifteen minutes away.

Drive. The airport roads are nice and new. They take you out under the wide skies. You are moving like a smooth cloud. You will notice, out your windows, that Oklahoma City has no topography to speak of: everything is flat in every direction. This is because it was once the bottom of an ancient ocean. Keep looking around. Before you’ve even left the airport, you will see oil pumps working along the side of the road. Oklahoma is completely devoted to sucking fossil fuels up out of the ground, and unembarrassed about its devotion. How else would it be possible to enable all of this wonderful driving? You will pass billboards for drilling equipment, and when you get into town you will see active oil pumps in people’s backyards. The state capitol building had a working oil derrick in front of it for many decades before it even had a dome.

Keep driving. Leave the airport, merge onto the freeway, head toward the city center. There are signs, but you won’t need them: you can navigate by the skyscraper—skyscraper, singular, because there is, by modern standards, only the one, and it is so completely out of scale to the rest of the city that you can see it from everywhere else. It is nearly twice as tall as any other structure for one hundred miles in every direction. It dominates downtown, glittering like an open blade. This is the Devon Tower, headquarters of one of OKC’s biggest energy companies, a glass-and-steel monument to the miracle of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “fracking,” the lucrative but controversial practice of destroying underground rock formations with a slurry of wet chemicals in order to release huge quantities of natural gas. But don’t worry about the source of the wealth. You are here to enjoy Oklahoma City, the newly shiny center of which you are rapidly approaching. The skyscraper was meant to make the city seem big, but mostly it makes everything around it look small: thick, stocky, ancient, heavy, extremely midwestern.

It is perfect, however, for navigation. Ignore your GPS. It can’t help you now. Keep your eye on the skyscraper. OKC is in the midst of a downtown renaissance, a growth whose improbability—after decades of busts and self-inflicted disappointments and unspeakable tragedies—has made the place almost legendary among contemporary American cities, and one result of this renaissance is constant construction. Streets are being rerouted, public art installed, medians expensively landscaped. Competing energy companies are building themselves increasingly grand headquarters. The old elevated highway that has loomed, for nearly fifty years, over the center of the city is now in the midst of being torn down. Its on-ramps and off-ramps end, eerily, in midair—entrances and exits to a ghost road that your GPS will keep trying to make you drive on. Ignore it. Drive on the actual roads. You’ll cross over the Oklahoma River, healthy and full, although it is not, technically, a river anymore, because it has been corralled in a concrete trough that is fed and drained by dams at either end, which makes it more like a canal, really, or an inland lake. But at least now it is full of water, more dependable than the natural river, and as such it has become the anchor of a whole new area of town: the Boathouse District, which draws competitive rowers from all over the world, and which is getting ready to host an episode of American Idol. As you drive over the water, you might see Olympic kayakers training.

Keep driving. Now that you’re in Oklahoma City, it won’t take you long to get to know the basic landmarks. You’ll see signs for the tourist destinations: Bricktown, Stockyards City, Myriad Botanical Gardens, Chesapeake Energy Arena, the National Memorial. Everything is more or less right on top of everything else. Neighborhoods that sound like whole separate regions (Automobile Alley, Midtown, SoSA) are really just a few blocks apart. You could walk it all easily, if that’s how things were done here. The Plaza District, one of the city’s much-touted hip new neighborhoods, is basically two blocks of Sixteenth Street. Oklahoma City is tiny and huge at the same time, sprawling and compressed. Residents often refer to it as “the biggest small town in America,” and that might be literally true. Although its population ranks only twenty-ninth in the contiguous United States, it is an absolute juggernaut in square mileage—bigger, by far, than Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. Drive for fifteen minutes in any direction and the city will begin to blend with the country. You’ll think you’ve left town, but you haven’t. Not even close. It will take many more miles of driving, much more open country, before you’ll see a sign that says, out of nowhere, leaving oklahoma city.

But let’s not do that. Why would we do that? This is Oklahoma City. Settle in. We’ll be here for a while.


The first time I saw James Harden up close, I was hypnotized by his beard. It was dense and black and shockingly large—a whole second head, practically, hanging under Harden’s regular head: a shadow head. I stared and stared. This was October 2012, during Thunder training camp—a hinge moment, although we didn’t know it yet, on which the future of Oklahoma City was right about to turn. Harden was talking (there was a hole in the middle of his beard for his mouth), but I could hardly pay attention to what he was saying because the beard, up close, was overwhelming, a real ninety-ninth-percentile super-mammalian face bush. A slow-motion testosterone explosion. I had seen it many times before, of course, on screens. Harden was one of the NBA’s rising young stars, and the Thunder was one of the great stories in all of professional sports, and so his beard had become, over the previous months, not only a local folk hero and symbol of the OKC renaissance but a full‑on international brand, one of America’s most famous hair things. (There was a new Foot Locker commercial in which Harden’s teammate Russell Westbrook squirted mustard on it, only for Harden to rip the beard off to reveal, underneath, another equally lush backup beard.) In person, however, the beard was something else entirely, more urgent and commanding and strange. It was wet from practice, and as Harden spoke it shifted and glistened, scattering tiny sparkles in every direction.

Harden was, at that moment, one of the youngest members of one of the youngest basketball teams in NBA history, a team that had improved so much, so quickly, over the previous few seasons that it seemed destined soon to devour the league. The question, in those days, was not if the Thunder would win a championship, only of how many times. The previous season had been almost impossibly glorious: a 16-3 start, two players (the angelic Kevin Durant, the devilish Russell Westbrook) honored with selection to All-NBA Teams, a Sixth Man of the Year Award for Harden, and all of it capped off by an underdog run to the NBA Finals. In July, all three of the Thunder’s young stars were chosen to represent the United States in the Olympics, making OKC the first franchise in NBA history to send three players to the U.S. national team. There was no reason, going forward, for anything other than wild optimism. Unless, of course—unless. Unless James Harden.

Harden and his beard were standing, on that afternoon, in the Thunder’s new and extremely shiny $19 million practice facility. I was part of a large crowd of reporters, local and national, who had assembled to ask him questions. We were hoping to extract some new shred of intel, however small, about what was beginning to be thought of, in OKC and beyond, as the Harden crisis. Would James Harden stay with the Thunder, everyone was asking, or would he go find his own team somewhere else? This threat had become, slowly, the story of the summer—it had begun to overshadow even the euphoric afterglow of that magical trip to the Finals. The citizens of OKC were terrified, suddenly, that Harden was going to leave them. “I wouldn’t take anyone in the league over the Beard,” wrote a fan on the discussion board OKCTalk. “I will trade in all of my Thunder gear and wipe my memory of Thunder games if that happens.”

What we knew, so far, was only this: James Harden was an unorthodox and magnetic young player, far better than anyone had reasonably expected, and his sudden rise toward stardom had elevated the Thunder from a very good team to a potentially great one. But it had also complicated things. Harden came off the bench behind the exotic Swiss defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. The problem was that Harden was clearly too good to be a backup. He was a precious node of order among the chaos of an NBA game. You could give him the ball and get out of the way and trust him, almost every time, to do something dangerous with it. But the Thunder already had two ball-dominating stars in Westbrook and Durant. Was there really room for a third?

Harden’s rookie contract was set to expire at the end of the coming season, in the summer of 2013, but everyone expected him to solve things much sooner than that, like any second now, in the offseason of 2012, to keep the Thunder’s momentum rolling. The early signs were good. “This team is like a family,” Harden said, right after the Finals ended. “We’re really brothers. We hang out most of the time every single day. You won’t find any other team like this. I love it here.” And yet the weeks passed, and the Thunder took care of all kinds of other business—the draft, a contract extension for their head coach—and still Harden’s new deal did not get signed. The team picked up the seven-foot-three Hasheem Thabeet, the tallest man in the NBA, as their backup center. They extended the contract of their power forward, Serge Ibaka, and filled front-office positions. And yet they could not pin down James Harden.

As the summer churned on, people in OKC remained optimistic. In July, at Team USA training camp, Sports Illustrated asked Harden about his plans. “I’m pretty—a hundred percent—I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be in Oklahoma City,” he said. This was meant to be reassuring, but there was a large difference between “pretty” and “a hundred percent,” and much of OKC’s basketball future now lived in that zone. A Thunder blog, Welcome to Loud City, ran a poll about Harden’s future, and 80 percent of respondents predicted that he would stay—that he either “remains 6th man and keeps the Thunder as the most balanced team in the NBA” or “moves to the starting SG position and continues his ascent.” The two pessimistic options, that Harden would refuse to sign or that OKC would trade him, sank right to the bottom, tied with only thirteen votes apiece.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Killer Of The Killer xiii

Part 1 Time 1

A Visitor's Guide To Oklahoma City 3

Beard 8

Middleness 15

In The Beginning 19

Ewing 21

Operation Bongo 26

Microwave Popcorn 35

Sonicsgate 40

Nooners 46

The First Player 48

In Presti We Trust 53

Prairie Chickens 63

No Beard 70

Part 2 Size 75

Our Holy Chief Meteorologist And Severe Weather Savior 77

The Scars Of A Bloodless Conflict 87

1 & 3 95

The Death Of Mayor Couch 99

KD Is Nice 105

The Grand Canal 114

Always Trying 117

You Don't Get To Bargain With Me 120

Federal Larceny 127

Game 1: Those Who Sit Beside You 134

Eternal Present 140

Part 3 Color 143

Golden Grenade 145

Game 7: Mr. Oklahoma City 156

Negrophobia 163

Everything Which Makes Life More Livable 169

Kaleidoscopic Sperm Explosions 181

Kiss 187

Taps 188

Rainbow 194

In That Hamburger, The Whole Essence Of Democracy Lies 199

Universal City 206

Pretty Much Centralizing Everything 214

Game 16: Civil War 219

Black Friday 223

Part 4 Distance 229

The Grandest Street This Generation Has Ever Seen 231

Game 31: Kd Is Not Nice 233

Blessed Are The Placemakers 239

Controlled Progressive Collapse 250

Game 46: The Neutrality Of Thabo Sefolosha 263

I Love Capitalism 271

Game 70: Westbrdok, Westbrook, Westbrook, Westbrook, Westbrook 279

The East 281

Game B3: Five Against One 284

We Who Have Long Been Dust Salute You 289

All Your Bad Days Will End 294

The Terror 305

Part 5 Motion 309

Buffalo 311

Our Lifeline Is Concrete 318

Game 84: The Awful Hazard 322

Are Tornadoes Necessary? 330

Solo 334

Together 336

Game 85: Storms 340

9:02 343

Justice 356

Game 93: That Arm Became A Heavy Arm 362

The Air Smelled Almost Like Fish 365

The Lowerings 369

The Speed Of Shadows 386

Three Epilogues 389

But Still 391

And Then 398

Why Not? 404

Acknowledgments 408

Notes On Sources 411

Photo Credits 415

Index 417

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