OKLAHOMA CITY — Why on earth would a guy like Nick Collison have his jersey retired? With all due respect to the 14-year veteran, his trademark comb over perched upon his head will not be found in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame any time soon.
A career 5.9 points per game player who only appeared in just over 20 minutes a game will watch his number four jersey be lifted into the rafters of the Chesapeake Energy Arena? And the sold-out crowd will loudly support it?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nor should it be something to complain about when you simply think.
The Oklahoma City Thunder is not the only franchise — or in this case, city — to reward a lower-level player with one of sports most envied levels of appreciation.
Everyone rooting for the Thunder has heard about current Indiana Pacers head coach/former Seattle Supersonic Nate McMillan having his jersey retired by the ‘Sonics in 1999. McMillan played all 12 seasons of his NBA career with Seattle and averaged the same amount of points as Collison and was started less than half of the games he appeared in.
But McMillan also earned a moniker. Ironically Seattle had a “Mr. Sonic” in McMillan while two decades later would see Collison earn the “Mr. Thunder” title from former teammate Kevin Durant.
McMillan was known as a lockdown defender on some playoff contending Seattle teams. He also had a role on the 1996 Finals team that lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Outside of All-Defensive second team honors in 1993-94 and 1994-95, the 12-year veteran doesn’t have much to say about the grander history of basketball.
McMillan’s affinity was earned through longevity with the franchise, grit — you know, that thing that blue-collar basketball fans like to connect too — as well as playing his entire career with one franchise. Not to mention many of these fond memories came during a time when ‘Sonics basketball was fighting for deep postseason runs. Most of these jersey retiring characteristics depend on what you do during team success as well.
Of course, not every player who played for one franchise will have their jersey retired (sorry Tom Boerwinkle). Other lower level players have enjoyed the jersey number ascension.
A few hours south of Chesapeake Energy Arena, you’ll run into American Airlines Arena in Dallas. Once inside, you may find yourself looking up at the ceiling and asking yourself, “Who is that #15 ‘Davis’ jersey?”
Brad Davis did not play his entire 15-year with the Dallas Mavericks. Hell, he didn’t even play his entire career in the National Basketball Association.
But Davis was on the inaugural Mavericks team during the 1980-81 season and finished out his career in Dallas, retiring after the 1991-92 season. He helped build a basketball culture in Dallas where there was none. He had by far his best seasons — scoring over 10 or more points in his first five seasons with the Mavericks, he never scored more than 5.8 prior — in Dallas.
Sometimes, building a culture and possessing the icon of being one of the firsts in a franchise hold more water than averaging 15 points per game in a two, three year stint.
What about the franchise Oklahoma City and Sam Presti have modeled themselves after, the San Antonio Spurs?
A franchise with five NBA championships, a plethora of current/soon-to-be/future Hall of Famers surely has no room in the ceiling of the AT&T Arena for a mid-tier guy.
Oh, hi Avery Johnson.
Johnson enjoyed three stints with the Spurs over the ’90s and early ’00s. He was a starter for the majority of his time with the Spurs. Other than that, he was a nice role player who’s career high with San Antonio was 13.4 points per game.
But he also had a large hand in helping the Spurs overcome an early stigma of failing when it mattered most. San Antonio had lost in four previous conference finals (including one in Johnson’s first year in 1994-95) and couldn’t get over the hump. Johnson then helped the Spurs capture their first title in 1999 with the go-ahead shot in Game 5 against the New York Knicks.
Another example of a first (San Antonio’s first title), longevity (played with Spurs for 8.5 seasons) and grit helping Johnson’s case.
From a Thunder fan perspective — imagine if Daequan Cook averaged 5 more points per game in his time with OKC, the Thunder won the 2012 NBA Finals and he played more than two seasons with the team — then you have Johnson.
So there are other odd examples out there in the NBA.
Concerning Collison, the Thunder have chosen to reward Collison’s longevity with the franchise, his impact of helping build a basketball culture in a city where was once none and his grit.
Collison will never be remembered for dropping 40 points in a playoff victory. He won’t be spoken of in downtown OKC bars with the same reverence of a Russell Westbrook. But his legacy in Oklahoma City and basketball in the state of Oklahoma is secure.