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Learning on the Fly: How Chet Holmgren is Spreading His Wings in OKC

The Thunder big man spoke to Boardroom about his hopes, dreams, and desires for the small market he now calls home.

The game will take you places.

At 21 years of age, Chet Holmgren has traveled the globe simply by being able to dribble. An AAU ascent in high school turned tomahawk dunks into frequent flyer miles, while a FIBA selection ahead of college converted his highlights into a passport.

Because of basketball, Chet had seen more of the world than just about anyone his age heading into the 2022 NBA Draft.

Everywhere except his current place of play, Oklahoma City.

“I thought OKC was like a cartoon city,” Holmgren told Boardroom. “I didn’t even know it was a real thing.”

Akin to The Simpsons’ Springfield or Bruce Wayne’s Gotham, the capital of Oklahoma only existed externally by way of the three MVP winners who once called it home: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

As a grade school hoop hopeful watching games miles away in Minnesota, the fabled franchise and animated Paycom Center seemed almost mythical to a young Chet.

“The only reason I knew what OKC was because of the Thunder,” said Holmgren. “Now that I’m actually here? There’s a whole lot more to it. It’s a great place with a lot of great people.”

In less than two years, the young unicorn has spread his wings in the unlikely landing place since setting foot in the small market and blossoming into a big star. The best part? He’s just getting started.

From a season one sabbatical on the training table to an 82-for-82 rise to the top seed in the West, Chet’s swan story in Oklahoma City is still one of rising action and conquest.

Boardroom sat down with the student of the game to hear how he’s both built and found community in the 405.

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Fame, Fortune & Fractures

Chet Holmgren entered the NBA as a No. 2 draft pick with no ceilings yet sizeable doubt.

Standing 7-foot-1 and moving like a guard, the Minnesota native had been internet-famous since shaking Steph Curry out of his sneakers as a 17-year-old anomaly.

As a high school senior, Chet claimed thousands of followers and hundreds of offers. Kids watched his highlights on YouTube in awe while college coaches clamored for a chance to mold his ability, if only for a year.

Like many times before, the game took Chet far beyond where he called home, selecting Spokane and the teaching of Mark Few.

Chet Holmgren
Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In his sole season at Gonzaga, Chet lived up to his hype out West, averaging almost a double-double while winning WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Still, weighing in at less than 200 lbs ahead of his pro debut made many wonder about his durability when battling bigs and playing a grueling NBA schedule.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma City bet big on Chet by taking him ahead of almost the entire field, signing him onto a four-year contract worth over $44 million.

Within weeks, weighty doubts quickly collapsed skyscraper ceilings.

Chet Holmgren
Sarah Stier / Getty Images

Pulling up to Jamal Crawford‘s CrawsOver Pro-Am, the No. 2 pick put on a free show for fans in the city the Thunder once called home. It was an altruistic act worth applause and telling of his on-court character.

Not shying away from competition or the moment, Chet tried to block living legend LeBron James going downhill on a fastbreak, falling awkwardly and quickly crumbling his NBA arrival.

Suffering a Lisfranc fracture proved poetic pain for Holmgren and The Cinderella City fans, who couldn’t wait for him to get his foot in Paycom Center.

Because of his exhibition injury, Chet’s OKC debut was dead on arrival. Had Chet fallen to Philly, New York, Chicago, or another major market set on a franchise savior, the fan backlash would’ve been brutal.

Quickly, Chet found that the mythical place he watched from afar possessed people just as unbelievable as the contending club they cheered on.

Chet Holmgren
Ian Maule / Getty Images

“They didn’t switch up on me at all,” Holmgren said of the OKC fans. “When I got hurt, they continued to believe in me and continued to cheer for me.”

Ahead of the 2022-23 NBA season, it was announced that Chet would miss the whole year to rehab his foot and recover from the injury. Ask any pro and they’ll tell you tackling the rehab process is harder mentally and physically than competing with giants.

Working on his recovery while his teammates worked on a play-in bid, Chet leaned in on the fans who had his back long before he was ever back on the court.

“That was a big part of my rehab process,” said Holmgren. “Just knowing that if they believe in me? Who am I to not do my due diligence to get back and help this team succeed? It was definitely part of what helped me through the rehab.”

Since starting sidelined in Year 1, Chet channeled the energy of his supporters and the spirit of competition for an unprecedented arrival.

As a redshirt rookie, the Thunder five-man started all 82 games. The prior season’s No. 2 pick ascended his ceiling — and the team’s — by leading the OKC club to the best record in the ultra-competitive West.

While he’ll bring his aggressive attitude all home-court advantage at Paycom, he’s paying it forward and back to the community of OKC outside the arena all year long.

The Big Friendly

Holmgren’s first year in The Cinderella City was far from a fairytale.

Spending weeks in a boot and months on the bench, Chet trained from a chair while watching his peers find their stride. Even as an injury kept him sidelined from the action, it didn’t stop him from making an impact off the court.

Chet Holmgren
Chris Gardner / Getty Images

“My family has always been about giving back,” said Holmgren. “I grew up in a blessed situation where my family had the opportunity to give back. Seeing my parents do that taught me the importance of it and led me that way.”

Barely out of adolescence and with plenty of reason to pout, Chet put his age and ailments to the side to dive headfirst into philanthropy.

Over the course of the last two seasons that were in practice very different for Chet, the Thunder center has hosted shopping sprees for violence victims, built basketball courts for kids in need, and handed out Thanksgiving dinners for the less fortunate.

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It’s not merely a trend toward kindness for the 21-year-old talent. Dig deeper and you’ll see Chet has been hosting coat drives in Minnesota and seeding service dogs in Spokane long before he had made millions or seen his health in jeopardy.

True to his cover story tagline, Chet is a student of the game — both on and off the court.

“What influences how I give back is seeing what people have done before me and how cool it was,” said Holmgren before mentioning the Boardroom boss. “Growing up, I saw all the courts that KD built all over the country, whether it was OKC or the DMV. Seeing his logo on the middle of a court? I think that’s extremely cool.”

Already, this is more than just thought and talk.

“I just built my first court ever in Spencer, Okla.,” Holmgren said. “Hopefully, I’ve got a lot more.”

Savvy enough to lean on his sponsors, partners, and franchise, Holmgren’s leveraging deals into donating. For the court in Spencer, Chet pulled together help from both the NBA and retail realms.

“I give credit where credit is due,” Holmgren said. “I couldn’t have done it without the Oklahoma City Thunder team, they have people who help us with all of our philanthropy from events to logistics. I partnered up with JD Sports, and they brought in a designer to design the court. We gave it the green light and put it together.”

Finding fanfare from kids and adults alike, Chet’s charitable work is making him the man in OKC in ways way bigger than basketball. Still, it’s the game that drives his mission on and off the court.

“I want to do two things,” said Holmgren. “I want to push the game forward because the game’s done so much for me. I want to do things the right way and be the next example for the next person that’s trying to do it.”

Mark & Market

In style, stature, and swagger, Chet Holmgren has all the makings of an NBA superstar.

From putting on for Team Sizzle in AAU to donning diamond-studded dice with his all-black Draft Day suit, Chet’s charisma is big-city brash, only eclipsed by his Hall of Fame potential as a player.

Nevertheless, Holgrem’s heart for hoops and philanthropy seems to serve as his North Star, placing him in unlikely settings like Spokane and Oklahoma City, where he has all the space and support to keep the main thing the main thing.

Chet Holmgren
Joshua Gateley / Getty Images

He may be removed from the major market limelight, but he’s not without a stage and supporters.

“We’ve got a great set of fans in a great city that cheer for us in a very unique way,” Holmgren said. “I went to Gonzaga and the energy there is almost unmatched, but so is OKC. Paycom is 18,000 people all screaming.”

Having balled out in March Madness, Madison Square Garden, and Crypto Arena, Chet looks good under bright lights. Still, what he’s building with his teammates in Oklahoma City is ringing off louder than the outside noise that both amplifies and drowns stars in major markets.

“It’s louder than it was at Gonzaga,” said Holmgren. “The fans are just as into it — which you don’t always get in the NBA. NBA arenas don’t always feel like college atmospheres.”

That college atmosphere is exactly what the Thunder are known for and perhaps the secret sauce when considering the bright future of the NBA. When speaking with Chase B on Aux Money, former Thunder star Kevin Durant called his run in Oklahoma City his favorite era of his career.

Photo courtesy of David Cabrera

While the Thunder benefit largely from general manager Sam Presti‘s sharp eye for talent, perhaps a small to mid-sized market is the best place for young talent to flourish and take shape.

When placing bets on the best upcoming talent yet to make an All-NBA team, the likes of Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, Paolo Banchero, and Victor Wembayama are all thriving in smaller cities than that of the league’s main attractions.

It’s not unreasonable to surmise that Chet’s storied start is due in part to Oklahoma City’s small market makeup. Though OKC’s population is essentially the sum of Chet’s birthplace and college town, it still has plenty of room to grow.

“It hasn’t changed an extreme amount since I’ve got here, but we’re about to get the tallest building in America,” said Holmgren. “That’s going to change it immensely.”

When asked what he’d add or change to OKC, Chet’s open to more high-end shopping like Balenciaga or Louis Vuitton, but most desires a restaurant that plays hip-hop.

Still, he sees the progress of how the city has grown from hosting the Hornets during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Durant’s days in the early 2010s.

“To picture that big of a change in a ten to 15-year span? It makes you think what’s possible for the next ten to 15 years,” Holmgren said. “I’m excited to see the change, and hopefully, I’m here to watch it in first person.”

True to the game, a love of basketball and people landed Chet Holmgren right where he’s supposed to be.

Chet Holmgren
Joshua Gateley / Getty Images

“I’m excited to be here,” said Holmgren. “I’ve heard how far the city has come since the team got here. I’ve heard all the stories of what wasn’t here when the team got here.”

The big man in the small market is making his mark on and off the court in Oklahoma City, able to operate with a sense of intent that’s creating an impact in arena attendance and community outreach.

Oklahoma City and the NBA have a winner on and off the court.

“Hopefully, I can help the game do so much more for the next person coming up,” Holmgren said. “I want to inspire people because I had people inspire me. If I wasn’t able to watch the blueprint? I wouldn’t have known what I needed to do to get to the point where I’m at. “

Learning on the fly while still having the space to grow, the student of the game is ready for takeoff as the teacher to the youth.

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Ian Stonebrook

Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.

About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.