OKLAHOMA CITY — The first player in Oklahoma City Thunder history to have his jersey retired isn’t Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant.
It’s someone who averaged 5.9 points per game, never made an All-Star team and started about 20 percent of the games he played in.
But on Wednesday, the Thunder will raise No. 4 to the rafters, honoring the career of Nick Collison, who retired last summer. Collison spent his entire 14-year career with the Thunder franchise, drafted by the SuperSonics in 2004 and relocating with the team to Oklahoma City in 2008.
From the outside looking in, it might be confusing that Collison’s is the first number retired by the Thunder. To those close to the organization, though, it was a no-brainer. As Steven Adams says, Collison was a “culture-builder,” an integral part of the franchise in its infancy and while establishing itself. Collison set standards for the Thunder, both on and off the court, carrying the torch of one of the most touted franchise cultures in the league.
“It’s going to be cool for Nick,” said Durant, Collison’s former teammate who will be attending the ceremony. “I’m excited for him.”
Collison chatted with ESPN.com about having his number retired, what life after basketball has been like and if Durant should also see his number retired in OKC.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KD is planning to come. What was your reaction when you found out he wanted to be there?
I thought it was great. I played a long time with Kevin, and he’s a special, special teammate. It wasn’t just because he is a great player, but he’s one of the guys I played with the longest. All that stuff about OKC and building the team, he was there for most of that too. I thought that was really cool that he was going to come. It’s not easy to do logistically in the middle of the season, and I know it’s not easy for him to do with all the stuff that’s around him with coming back. But I thought it was great. I’ve texted with him a couple times, and I’ll be happy to see him.
Some folks worry that his presence is going to overshadow your big night. Any feeling of that from your end?
I don’t mind that. I understand people are interested in him coming back, but this thing is really cool for me and my family. It’s gonna be cool for us regardless of what the conversation is or what other people are talking about. It’s fine with me. He just wanted to be there because I think he appreciates the time we had together too. I think that’s cool. I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Kevin Durant gave you the nickname “Mr. Thunder.” Do you think the Thunder should eventually retire No. 35?
It’s their decision to make, but I would certainly think so. He’s meant a ton to Thunder basketball and spent a huge majority of his career here. A lot of these honors are just kind of what the team decides to do, and I think players are appreciative of them. I don’t get too worked up about it. I’ll let other people debate that, but to me, he’s a big part of what we did here.
There are plenty of folks who don’t quite get why your jersey is getting retired. What do you say to that?
I don’t really care that much about that reaction. I understand it, though, for sure. I’m not the typical type of player to have his jersey retired. I think it’s really great for me and my family. We’re really appreciative of it. It’s something that the organization wanted to do, and I’m honored.
It seems a lot of people who are close to the team or live in Oklahoma get it, having seen the importance you had in helping establish a franchise. But why do you think you’re having your number retired?
I think the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is a pretty cool story, being able to start from scratch and have a ton of success. I think I played a pretty big part in that, and I’m proud of my career and always tried to do my job, and it’s cool to be recognized for that.
It’s probably fair to say that when the team relocated from Seattle, you weren’t the most excited person about that, but what would you have said if someone had told you then that you’d end up having your number retired by the Thunder?
I would’ve thought you were crazy. Again, I never would’ve expected this, just knowing my place in the league and the way it usually goes for guys like me. I probably wouldn’t have anticipated a trade — no players do — but if you really would’ve looked at it, you probably would’ve said at some point you’d move around. That’s what most guys do.
Was there any point when you were close to leaving?
When we first got to Oklahoma City, they moved everybody that was with Seattle, except me and obviously Kevin [Durant]. But it just seemed like I probably would’ve been one of those guys, given the stage of my career. That first year in Oklahoma City, that last year in Seattle, there were just a ton of trades, players moving in and out, reshuffling the deck — Sam [Presti] trying to position the team for the future. So I definitely thought at that time it could happen. After that, I just always ended up getting fair offers for extensions, and I never actually was a free agent until the very last summer.
We were moving toward something. We were building and getting better, and I wanted a chance to win a championship with that group. They offered good, fair deals. I wasn’t just going to take whatever to stay, but it worked out, so I really had no reason to look elsewhere. It’s such a great thing to be in one place the whole time and be able to be with that group of people for so long and have the type of connections I have. A lot of people in the NBA don’t get that.
“It’s such a great thing to be in one place the whole time and be able to be with that group of people for so long and have the type of connections I have. A lot of people in the NBA don’t get that.”
What about your post-playing career? Has it been a weird or difficult transition?
The big thing is not being tied to that schedule all the time — it’s really nice. For 15 years playing, four years of college, you’re always tied to the basketball schedule, so it’s nice to have some free time. It is strange to not be with the team, not be around the guys all the time. And I always want to know what’s going on, so I’m always talking to friends on the staff or a couple guys on the team I still keep in touch with. I do miss that part of it, but I was able to kind of end on my own terms. I knew it was time for me.
You hear a lot of guys talk about recreating that rush, but I didn’t play much at the end, so I learned to deal with that. So now it’s more just not being around it all the time. I’m really enjoying the other stuff, to have the opportunity to be with my daughter more.
When most guys retire, they go one of two ways: They stick with their workout habits and keep in shape, or they get fat. What’s your plan there?
I’m so motivated to not get fat. I got a garage gym at my house. I haven’t been able to do anything on the court, so I’m having to find different ways to work out, but I’m doing OK so far. I’m off to a good start. I’ve been cutting weight. I’m trying to make sure I can still fit into my suits.
With your role with the Thunder now, [team PR person] Matt Tumbleson likes to say you work for him now.
Yeah, I’m a PR intern.
Do you feel like this is something to springboard into a larger role?
I think so. For me now, I’m mostly doing stuff in the community. I’ve done a few things with a couple local organizations. There’s this thing called True Dads, which is really cool. They’re basically a support group for parents — it’s not just dads, but men and women who are about to have kids or already have kids to kind of help in parenting. I’ve done a couple things with public schools and teachers in OKC.
And then I went and scouted a couple games, some stuff like that. This year I’m not doing that as much. I think I’ll ramp up more in the next couple years. But it’s something I’m interested in, and it’s a great opportunity to learn from one of the best front offices in the league. Basketball is something I’ve always done, and I have a lot to offer, I just have to figure out what niche works for me and the team.
Coaching is in your family, though. What about that?
I think every player is naturally more prepared for that right away because that’s what we’ve always done. We’ve been on the court, and we know how teams work and the game works. But honestly, I just don’t have the time for it. I’m not going to commit that much time. I’m co-parenting my daughter — I’ve been divorced, so my daughter doesn’t just come with me wherever I go — so I’ve missed a lot of time playing the last few years. I don’t need to go chase something else, so I’m not just going to continue to be gone.
She’s in seventh grade, and I need to be able to give her the time she deserves too. So coaching doesn’t really allow for that. You’ve got to be there every day. You’ve got practice every day and travel. Summer is busy too. Maybe someday.
I’ve been around enough and seen enough to know that it’s hard to be in the prediction business with free agency, so I just kind of know there’s no way to know until you get to July. I think players would do themselves a lot of favors if they would just constantly say that. Just, “I’m going to wait until July. I’m going to wait until July.” I think that’s mostly what Paul was saying.
It did seem like he was happy, but I was just surprised he did it on the first day of free agency and committing to it. But I thought it was great, and I was very happy to see it, for sure, because he’s a big-time player and a big piece, and it allows the organization to keep moving forward. There would’ve been a lot of unknowns if he had left.
What do you think it says about Westbrook that he decided to stay? After Durant left, there was a perception — right or wrong — that nobody wants to play with Westbrook. Does George’s staying say anything about that?
Paul seems really happy here. He’s playing great. He’s playing great next to Russell. I don’t know if it makes some great statement about Russell, but it definitely goes against that idea that guys don’t like playing with him. I played with him a long time, and I loved playing with him. I know a lot of the other guys do too.