In many ways, sports define Oklahomans. With the Land Run, the ultimate sporting event, Oklahoma kicked off in 1889 with a land run, an event that was part chariot race and part track meet, part wrestling match and part steeplechase, all with more complaining at officials than a Bedlam (Oklahoma University versus Oklahoma State University) basketball game. It is no surprise that those Sooners and Boomers and the American Indians who first settled the territories went on to beget Jim Thorpe and Mickey Mantle, Shannon Miller, the one of the greatest American gymnasts, and John Smith, one of the nation's greatest wrestlers. Oklahomans can claim the brothers Selmon and Waner and Price. The state's sports atmosphere drew Henry Iba and Bertha Teague from Missouri and Bud Wilkinson from Minnesota to coach young Oklahomans to greatness. No wonder Oklahoma heroes are lionized, from "Big Poison" Waner to "Little Joe" Washington, from "Big Country" Bryant Reeves to Freckles Brown. Oklahomans love their sports, and sports love Oklahoma.
The state's economy has been one of cycles of boom and bust. Oklahoma has no beaches and few mountains; the weather is hot, then cold. Few people are partial to Oklahoma for its scenery or its climate. Residents hang their Stetsons apart from geography and affluence. Oklahomans take pride in people, musicians, athletes, and "spirit." They worship ball players and ball teams. The Great Depression, along with the out-migration of many Oklahomans to California, an episode brought to national attention by John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, created an image that many Oklahomans felt was undeserved. In 1945 the University of Oklahoma's board of regents discussed the state's morale and felt hiring a good football coach and enticing returning World War II soldiers could instill a sense of pride in the state.
Oklahomans objectify their love of sports on pristine autumn Saturdays in Norman, when more than eighty thousand fans swarm to watch the University of Oklahoma (OU) Sooners duel on Owen Field. The stadium sits regally in the fall breeze, and when the crimson gladiators storm the grass, budget shortfalls and lack of rainfall seem distant woes. The OU football team is the state's best-known institution; as former OU president George Lynn Cross discovered in the 1950s, even in the far corners of the state citizens who never have and never will set foot on campus nevertheless follow the fortunes of the Sooners with unassailable zeal. On cold winter nights in Stillwater, when the Oklahoma State University (OSU) basketball team plays at home, Gallagher-Iba Arena makes a case for being the nation's best college venue. Renovated twice and doubled in size from its original, bandbox state, Gallagher-Iba has achieved revered status in college hoops. On game days, OSU's palace is a madhouse. It is a shrine, too; the Cowboys play on the same white maple hardwood that Iba's teams played on more than sixty years ago.
However, sports go far beyond the ivory towers of Norman and Stillwater. Throughout the state, sports form the core of Oklahoma life. From the south Tulsa suburbs of Jenks and Broken Arrow to the western Oklahoma towns of Clinton and Weatherford, high school football serves as a lighthouse. On Friday nights, stadium lights gleam to draw in students, parents, and afficionados. Brush-arbor revivals and box suppers are long gone, but local high school football remains a vital community gathering place. In Thomas and Ada and Frederick and Bristow and a hundred other dots on a map, football binds together generations. In the Sooner State, the sport is well-played and well-coached; discipline and dedication, as the weekly gridiron reminds spectators, still thrive in this patch of the frontier. Each winter, in schools too small for even an eight-man football squad, pride swells as basketball season approaches. In county tournaments and in aging WPA gyms, hoops provide the year's best entertainment. In most late-twentieth-century Oklahoma hamlets, the last picture show is thirty years gone, and the convenience store is the best dining option, but the high school has games, girls' and boys', which becomes the communities' entertainment and focus.
The month-long basketball playoffs turn small-town Oklahoma into a migrant state. Hundreds of fans from each school criss-cross the state through district, regional, and area tournaments. The State Fair Arena, or the "Big House" on the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, hosts the small-school state tournaments each March and take all involved back in time. There, letter jackets are still in style, cheerleaders still have more spirit than makeup, coaches wear carnations that were pinned on before the Main Street caravan rolled out of town.
Such passion goes beyond bleachers and television sets; on golf courses and in rodeo arenas, along the banks of state lakes and on soccer and softball fields, Oklahomans embrace sport as a way of life. They cheer athletes, and they are athletes. Is Oklahoma's allegiance to athletics stronger than other states'? Yes and no. On the competitive scale, few states can equal per capita the accomplishments of Oklahomans and their squads. Oklahoma's particular state history is unusual; few states claim such an unorthodox past. Two centuries ago, the strongest survived the Trail of Tears and the fastest thrived in the Land Run. Strength and speed still pay off in twenty-first century Oklahoma.
Is Oklahoma's allegiance to athletics healthy? An argument can be made that the mania for what transpires on the field of play does not necessarily replace other endeavors. Excellence in sports is not mutually exclusive to excellence in any other area. Oklahomans do sports well, they take pride in them, and they should. Halls of fame also illustrate Oklahoma's obsession with sports; in addition to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, national and international halls of fame reside in Oklahoma, including the National Softball Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, and the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Sports serves as Oklahomans' creative outlet, their connection to each other, and in many ways it is their means of expressing a feeling of community and a sense of place.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Paul Bischoff, Mr. Iba: Basketball's Aggie Iron Duke (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1980). Bob Burke, Kenny Franks, and Royse Parr, Glory Days of Summer, The History of Baseball in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1999). Davis Joyce, ed., An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before: Alternative Views of Oklahoma History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). Del Lemon, The Story of Golf in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). Berry Wayne Tramel, "The Significance of Sports in Oklahoma," in The Culture of Oklahoma, ed. Howard Stein and Robert Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).
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