Aubrey McClendon "was simultaneously filthy rich and dirt-poor, with an $8 million wine collection but also enough loans to sink him many times over." That made him the perfect embodiment of Oklahoma City, Sam Anderson writes in his new book "Boom Town: 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." McClendon, the co-founder of Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) , exhibited the combination of "risk, recklessness, confidence and opportunism" that characterizes the ethos of a city founded in a land rush on a single day in 1889.
The place fascinated Anderson, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, almost from the moment he landed in Will Rogers World Airport in 2012 to write a feature story about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA franchise that McClendon, Chesapeake Energy co-founder Tom Ward and businessman Clay Bennett spirited away from Seattle in 2008. With stars Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the team seemed poised to become a dynasty, and Anderson uses its story as a frame for that of the city he calls "one of the great weirdo cities of the world."
The conceit works surprisingly well. "Oklahoma is completely devoted to sucking fossil fuels up out of the ground, and unembarrassed about its devotion," Anderson writes, so it's fitting that two fracking magnates brought the team to a city desperate for national status since at least the 1920s. In the middle decades of the 20th century, Stanley Draper, who ran the city's Chamber of Commerce, successfully pushed to expand its boundaries so aggressively that OKC became the largest city by area in the U.S., even though it's currently just 27th in population with 644,000 people.
A 1960s master plan by architect I.M. Pei came to seem delusional as downtown decayed so badly that United Airlines Inc. in 1991 chose Indianapolis over OKC as an aircraft maintenance hub because, Anderson writes, "United could not imagine making its employees live there." The Thunder's success validates the measure of hipness in OKC's downtown, personified in Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, an oddball deeply loyal to the city where he grew up.
The team's three stars and Daniel Orton, an OKC native and marginal center, allow Anderson to explore the city's troubled history of race relations. A 19-year-old Ralph Ellison left in 1933 and never looked back, though we also meet activist Clara Luper, who led efforts to desegregate OKC's restaurants.
The Thunder makes every new hire, player or staff, take a tour of the memorial that commemorates the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "From my very first day in Oklahoma City, I heard it frequently: the arrival of the Thunder had helped heal the wound created by the bombing," Anderson writes. He is initially skeptical, but his extraordinary description of the bombing and two deadly tornadoes in 1999 and 2013 show suggest the immense need for the catharsis that the team provides.