The real story behind Paul George's return to OKC


This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Oct. 29 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

It’s a Tuesday in late June, and all over Oklahoma City, email inboxes are about to catch fire. When the subject line “Russell Westbrook‘s Summer Hype House Party” hits the accounts of Thunder season-ticket holders, prominent local businesspeople and other connected fans, only the first 500 to click on a link will get on the RSVP list for the June 30 event. The final line of the invite reads, “The FOMO will be real.”

Word of the party starts circulating around Oklahoma City immediately, with most people curious — and confused. The invitation is vague; no address is included, and it won’t be sent to confirmed guests until 24 hours before the party. Invitees are told they can bring three other guests, but some of them must sign a nondisclosure agreement. No media allowed.

But most of all, the timing is … odd. The party is happening just a few days later — the night before free agency opens. There is already a growing buzz around Oklahoma City that Westbrook’s teammate Paul George is leaning toward signing another deal, but this party invite intensifies the hype: There has to be more to this.

Four days later, at a sprawling mansion in an OKC suburb, Westbrook walks onto a stage set up in a spacious backyard in front of the crowd. When the cheering subsides, he takes the microphone and says he wants to introduce a surprise guest.

“I want you to give him a real Oklahoma City welcome,” Westbrook says. “He’s been here for a year, but … you know.”

George, who has walked onstage to Westbrook’s left, lifts his microphone.

“Oklahoma!” he screams. Westbrook struts to the front of the stage, setting a foot on one of the monitors and cupping his hand to his ear. “If y’all didn’t quite get it,” George continues, “let me say it again: I’m here to stay. I’m here to stay.”

George pauses to let the screams and shrieks settle.

“I think what me and this dude can accomplish, we can bring it home,” he says. “I just want to thank y’all for this night, for welcoming me with open arms from the first day I got here. Showing me the love, showing my family the love. Oklahoma, y’all truly made a big impact on me. I’m happy to give this a real shot.”

PLANNING THE SUMMER Hype House Party didn’t take a week, or a month. It took a whole year. After the Thunder traded for George in July 2017, the front office knew exactly how much time it had to help George visualize a future with the franchise, and it wasn’t wasting a minute of it. Most pundits and suits around the league saw the George acquisition as a one-year rental. The Thunder saw a one-year opportunity. They were going to be intentional, direct, honest and transparent. Their plan wasn’t just blatant recruitment, though. If other teams would approach his long-term signing as if they were trying to sell George a car, the Thunder would disassemble the entire thing and hope he’d marvel at all the intricate parts that make it run.

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