This city was branded 15 years ago by a man who drove a rental truck carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to a federal building and lit a fuse.
Because of him, when people said "Oklahoma City," the word that followed was "bombing." To many, it still does. "That's the first thing I thought of," said Bryan McSween, a FEMA employee who recently moved here from Northridge, Calif.
New York and New Orleans had catastrophes, but they had celebrated identities, too. Oklahoma City didn't. If people thought of it at all, they thought of tornadoes. If not that, the Dust Bowl.
"We had allowed ourselves, through years of neglect, to be branded by our tragedies," said Oklahoma Mayor Mick Cornett.
That has begun to change — through sports, which has strong roots in a state that produced Jim Thorpe and Mickey Mantle, but which had almost no presence in this city until this year, when natives Blake Griffin and Sam Bradford were selected first overall in the NBA and NFL drafts, respectively.
Yet the instigator in this brand-management matter is the Thunder.
In its second year here, the basketball team had a remarkable turnaround, from 23 wins to 50, and, though its top nine players averaged just 23 years of age, the team threatened the Lakers in a rigorous six-game playoff.
National attention, which hasn't been seen here in years aside from the annual bombing retrospective or a political controversy, followed. The fans were noted for creating a raucous environment: 109-decible roars in Game 3, a standing ovation after the one-point loss in Game 6.
"Instead of pity, we're getting respect," said Randy McAdoo, a Thunder season-ticket holder.
But disaster plays a role in that newfound respect. For years, city officials tried and failed to get a professional sports franchise to move to Oklahoma City, and it didn't happen until Hurricane Katrina displaced the New Orleans Hornets in 2005.
In the two seasons the Hornets played here, sellouts were the norm. Word spread that OKC — as it's known here — had potential. And when a group of Oklahoma City businessmen bought the Seattle Supersonics in 2006, everyone knew what would happen next.
Getting a team here was part of a grander scheme: "This was a concerted effort to use professional sports to improve the brand of Oklahoma City for economic development purposes," Cornett said.
To name a few:
• A $650-million interstate relocation project, expected to be completed in 2012, will create a six-lane boulevard into downtown.
• The 50-story glass Devon tower, a $750-million project, is also slated for 2012 completion.
• A $777-million sales tax plan passed in December will, among other things, create a massive downtown park and a convention center.
In all, more than $2 billion of public money is being invested in city projects.
This transformation was displayed in a pre-game video montage that premiered during the Thunder-Lakers series. It began with buffalo, segued to a harvester mowing golden fields, then, in rapid succession, showed scenes from the city today. The crowd grew louder as the video played.
Then, a few shots later, the Dust Bowl. The crowd fell quiet. The bombing next. Silence, the air vacuumed by heartbreak. The memorial where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. More quiet, if at all possible. Some on the verge of tears.
But headlines of the Thunder's arrival to town came next. Cheers. Flashes of the fans, the team, dunks and blocks interlaced with groundbreakings and events in the community. The crowd was now deafening, the Ford Center shaking.
Is it any wonder the team's motto is "Rise Together"?
"It's kind of a motto for the city," McAdoo said.
Author David Halberstam often noted that sports was a window into society. Here, the view is remarkably better than five years ago. But as noted by Berry Tramel, a columnist for the Oklahoman who has been covering sports here since 1978, the city aims not to forget, but to show progress.
Case in point: The cool night was wild with celebration after the Thunder beat the Lakers 110-89 in Game 4.
As morning arrived, an estimated 23,000 people lined the street alongside the bombing site, six days after the city solemnly marked the 15th anniversary of the attack.
They were there to run in the 10th annual Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon.