Thunder, CAA launching fellows program for Black students in Tulsa

The Oklahoma City Thunder and CAA Sports are partnering to launch a nonprofit initiative called the Thunder Fellows Program in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District aimed at enhancing opportunities for Black students in sports, technology and entertainment.

The program plans to launch in 2021, which marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre in the Greenwood District. As such, the program is guided by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and will be made up of two groups of students: Black students from regional colleges and universities (Fellows) and Black students from the Tulsa area in grades 8-12 (Young Leaders).

The stated goal of the program is to close the opportunity gap for Black students in Tulsa and create "a clear path to future career opportunities in professional sports and other lucrative industries."

The Thunder and CAA Sports, along with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, are currently in the process of identifying a physical location in the Greenwood District near Black Wall Street to build the Thunder-powered Data & Analytics Center. The goal would be to help create better paths to future career opportunities in professional sports and other sought-after industries.

The curriculum offered through the program will "aim to close these gaps and increase the odds of high school and college completion through mentorship, skill development, and the provision of practical experience." Students will work on actual, real-world projects for the organization, experiencing actual things that happen within Thunder basketball operations.

With a national focus on social justice and equality, Thunder personnel spent time listening to the concerns of the community and the Fellows Program was a product of that. In Oklahoma, 8th-grade math proficiency on state testing for Black students in Tulsa County was 9%, and dropped to 7% for economically disadvantaged Black students. For 11th grade students in the 2018-19 school year in Tulsa County, the gaps widened on SAT/ACT tests, with 7% of Black students meeting college readiness benchmarks in math, and only 5% of economically disadvantaged Black students doing so.

Each year, there will be a board seat reserved for a player on the Thunder roster to serve and participate in the program.

"As an organization, we've done our work on this, but we haven't done enough, and I don't know that you can ever do enough in this area," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said recently. "As I said earlier, the short-term solutions or the half measures, those are not getting the outcomes and results that we need to have. So it's my hope and belief that a year from now, we'll be sitting here and being able to recount for you the steps that have been taken, the actions that have been taken, the change that we have tried to effect and hopefully have effected, and the fact that it's scalable change, and not a response, which I think sometimes we find ourselves kind of cuddled up to all across the country.

"Really what I'm trying to say is when the protests dissipate and slow and the anger turns to sadness and sorrow, that is when the work of an organization like the Thunder or any organization should be building to its crescendo. That's when we should be doing our best work so we can make this meaningful and not just short-term."