Quiet superstar: Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the face of new Thunder era

Ever since the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City and were renamed the Thunder, the team has had a close connection with the local Boys and Girls Clubs. Star players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have donated their time and money to the organization that provides voluntary after-school programs for young people.

But Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s current NBA MVP candidate, is a different kind of superstar.

“I would say SGA flies under the radar a little bit more but his impact is as deep or deeper than any player,” said Teena Belcik, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma County. “It’s hard to compare because they’ve all been wonderful and we’ve had so many who have reached out and done something for our kids.

“But SGA has made it maybe a little more personal. Maybe that’s the way to say it.”

A recent example of how Gilgeous-Alexander’s approach has been more one-on-one was this past December when he took a group of 20 Boys and Girls Club members on a shopping spree at a local sporting goods store before the holidays. Belcik said that Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t just hang back and then pay the bill, but made a point of spending time with each kid, learning their names, and taking an active interest in them. He also insisted that the Boys and Girls Club staff chaperoning the kids pick out some gear for themselves too.

“He invited those same kids to come present [an NBA all-star ball] to him out on the centre court and then stay for the game that day, right before the all-star break,” said Belcik, sitting in a room painted Thunder blue with the NBA team’s logo on one wall at the non-profit’s Memorial Park location “So the kids got to do that as well. They sort of feel like he’s a friend.”

For the 25-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander, it was about more than generosity.

“I just wanted to show kids that the kind of person who I am is not out of reach. I’m an everyday person,” he said after the Thunder’s game on Feb. 27. “I went through the same things they were going through, for the most part.

“When I was a kid, the NBA felt like it was a world away — like it was almost impossible. I just don’t want them to feel that way.”

Making a home in OKC

Gilgeous-Alexander is having an MVP-calibre season, averaging 30.9 points, 6.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game for Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City (48-20). He’s shooting an astonishing 54.4 per cent on his field-goal attempts — making him the most accurate guard in the NBA — and his two steals per game are the most in the league.

Although those stats are impressive, his quiet demeanour is still growing on Thunder fans with the first NBA era in Oklahoma City, from 2008 to 2015, looming large with Durant, James Harden and especially Westbrook casting long shadows.

“Russell Westbrook is at the top in Oklahoma City and there’s nobody above him still, but just one step below him is Shai,” said 24-year-old Tyler Collier, watching the Thunder play on TV at a sports bar in the historic Deep Deuce neighbourhood, where jazz greats like Duke Ellington performed in the 1920s and ’30s.

But, according to Collier, what helped Gilgeous-Alexander’s profile in the city was when he agreed to a five-year, US$172 million rookie extension in August 2021.

“Signing an extension when we’re going to rebuild really won people over and then continuing to lead this team I think is a big part of it too.”

That loyalty matters to locals because Oklahoma City’s ongoing economic recovery is, in large part, tied directly to the Thunder.

City fits character

The state of Oklahoma was opened up to white settlers on April 22, 1889 in an event known as “The Land Run.” Oklahoma Station, where several transcontinental railroads intersected, had fewer than a dozen residents before that mass settlement. Overnight, 10,000 people camped around the junction and a mayor was elected four days later.

When the United States Interstate Highway System was built, Oklahoma City’s reliance on the railway industry suffered. The oil crisis of the 1970s added to those woes as energy is one of the state’s major industries. Violent crime rose in the city as jobs disappeared and people followed. The Oklahoman newspaper reports that the city’s homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, increasing from 4.6 per 100,000 residents in 1962 to 9.7 per 100,000 by 1979.

Mayor Ronald J. Norick introduced a radical capital improvement program called MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) in 1993, designed to build new or upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities in an effort to diversify and stimulate the economy. That included the construction of an NBA-sized arena, now Paycom Center, as its centrepiece.

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As proof of concept, Paycom Center was home to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets from 2005 to 2007 as Louisiana recovered from Hurricane Katrina. A year later, the SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma.

Traditionally a football and baseball market with star running back Jim Thorpe and baseball legends Mickey Mantle, and Johnny Bench among others coming from the state, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame curator Justin Lenhart said that the arrival of the Thunder converted many Oklahomans to NBA fans.

“Whatever you were, whoever you voted for, it doesn’t matter. Everybody’s a Thunder fan,” said Lenhart. “If you’re in the oil business, or you’re an environmentalist, it doesn’t matter, you show up, you’re all wearing Thunder blue.

“And then you can’t knock the dollars and cents. I’m sure the studies are out. And I’m sure they have the numbers and finite detail what it has done for the city.”

‘Oklahoma mould’

Although Oklahomans have loved star players like Westbrook, Durant and Harden, all former NBA MVPs, there was always a feeling they didn’t quite fit in the city’s working-class ethos. That fear was realized when both Durant and Harden left the team.

Lenhart believes that Gilgeous-Alexander’s quiet but confident demeanour and dedication to the Thunder helps Oklahomans see themselves in him.

“We’ve always been modest. This whole salt of the Earth thing, this blue-collar mentality,” said Lenhart, sitting in the museum’s archives at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, itself a part of the MAPS project and just 650 metres from Paycom Center. “And this Oklahoma Standard you always hear about, which mainly comes from the [response to the] bombing [of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995], where we always help people.

“I just think Shai fits maybe a little better into the Oklahoma mould.”

It’s a relationship not lost on Gilgeous-Alexander, who sees similarities between Oklahoma City and his hometown of Hamilton, which has struggled economically as southern Ontario’s manufacturing sector collapsed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Small town. Quiet. A blue-collar city,” said Gilgeous-Alexander comparing Oklahoma City and Hamilton. “People go to work, get their work done and live their lives. A lot of hard-working people in both cities.”

Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates have picked up on his all-business approach.

“There’s a lot I don’t know about him,” laughed Thunder shooting guard Aaron Wiggins. “That’s a question that’s just kind of a mystery.

“He goes about his business. He works, comes to the gym, gets his work in, and then you don’t see him or you don’t hear from him outside.”

The Thunder visit the Toronto Raptors (23-46) at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night.

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