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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Boom Town

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

“Boom Town” recently popped up in a recently circulated article on the best sports books of our time, basketball division. I hadn’t heard about it, but said list had done a very good job of coming up with all of the usual suspects of books that I had enjoyed in the past. (I only sent a few titles in, but have read many of the others.)

Then, some other alter reader on Twitter pointed it out as worthy of special praise. That prompted some investigation. The subtitle itself provided a good clue of what the book was like: “The fantastical saga of Oklahoma City, its chaotic founding, its apocalyptic weather, its purloined basketball team, and the dream of becoming a world-class metropolis.”

That all sounded pretty interesting. When my wife and I finished our quest to visit 50 states, No. 50 was Oklahoma – and we landed in the Oklahoma City airport to make it official. I read part of this book while wearing a sweatshirt from the “Pops” beverage outlet on Route 66 a little east of OKC. In other words, I’ve got credentials in wanting to know more. And as a basketball fan, it sounds like this had a chance to be very interesting.

“Boom Town” was all of that. The big question for the purposes here was, is it a sports book? Let’s look around a bit.

In the fall of 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed poised for greatness. The team had moved to the Great Plains from Seattle in 2008 in a moment that seemed like something of a mistake to those in the outside world. We knew Seattle is a big-league city. We weren’t too sure about Oklahoma City. But the city that had been thirsting for recognition with the Big Boys immediately took their ticket to national recognition and ran with it. They filled the arena with enthusiastic fans, and within a year were a playoff team.

In 2009-10, young stars Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden led the team to a 50-win season, and the next two years were even better. The Oklahoma City Thunder played for the NBA title in 2012, losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. That was OK, because there was always next year, right? That’s when author Sam Anderson arrived to become a writer-in-residence. He was instantly greeted with the news that Harden wasn’t happy with his contract, and Thunder figured to have problems paying three great young stars indefinitely. Harden was dealt to the Houston Rockets, giving the 2012-13 a subtext? Could the Oklahoma City team still be good.

But Anderson decided at some point that this would be more than a book about the year in the life of a basketball team. He learned about how the city was created – which was basically from scratch, as Oklahoma was the last piece of land in the Lower 48 to be developed (making it the ultimate in Flyover Country). The road has been literally and figuratively bumpy, as Oklahoma City has essentially been a city that is visited when going somewhere else. You can make a living as a city as a trading post, but not many songs are written about it. Well, at least Rodgers and Hammerstein covered that state-wide with Oklahoma!

The story goes on a few tracks at the same time. We wind through the development of OKC over the years, which inevitably has been tied to the ground. There was oil underneath the area, which meant instant riches for some and a boom-and-bust cycle for the city’s economy overall. Oklahoma also has been traditionally filled with people who wanted to get away from it all – particularly when it came to government action. In other words, they really didn’t want to pay for many civic improvements. So steps forward often have been hesitant and clumsy. It has plenty of interesting characters along the way. Anderson became close to the lead singer of the Flaming Lips rock band, Wayne Coyne.

But lurking under the surface of the story are the two constants that everyone associated with Oklahoma City today. One is the bombing of the Murrah Building in 1995, and the other is the occasional threat of tornadoes dropping in. Anderson changes his writing style to good effect during those sections near the end, cutting away from sentences that run on and on without a period in sight. Instead, we get short dramatic sentences that are a rather stark contract, and thus come forward in a gripping way.

The author wraps things up with not one but three epilogues, which is impressive. As for the Thunder, it’s probably doesn’t require a spoiler alert to say that Oklahoma City didn’t win the title that year. A knee injury to Westbrook in the playoffs took care of that. The Thunder had four straight first-round losses before missing the postseason for the past two seasons. As of this writing, they are at least around .500 in spite of a roster that is filled with somewhat unfamiliar and eyechart-worthy names (although Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has put up some star-like numbers lately).

“Boom Town” worked extremely well for me, especially as an urban history. I wish it had been out when I visited OKC. Pure basketball fans might not enjoy it quite as much, but they have an excellent chance of enjoying all of the aspects of the ride.

(Follow me on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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