The Thunder Fellows after-school program was launched, Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti explained after his 2020 tour of the Tulsa Race Massacre site, “to help close the opportunity gap” for Tulsa’s Black students.
The first Thunder Fellows class is 26 ninth- and 10th-graders from schools throughout the metropolitan area. Based in a downtown space near ONEOK Field, the program includes a data-and-analytics curriculum and hands-on experiences that could result in careers in the sports, entertainment or tech industries.
When students applied to be members of the first Thunder Fellows class, they didn’t expect to see their faces and experiences on a theater screen.
But as the students were shadowed for months by OKC Thunder media personnel and cameras, the result is “The Seeds of Greenwood” — a 50-minute documentary starring Crossover Prep student Reece Robinson and his Thunder Fellows classmates, along with the Thunder Fellows staff: Executive Director Cedric Ikpo, Programs Manager LaKena Whitley and Operations Coordinator Ricky Graham.
People are also reading…
At 2 p.m. Saturday, free and open to the public, the film will be shown at the Circle Cinema. The Thunder Fellows students and their families got the first look at the OKC Thunder Films production, which includes original music composed and performed by artists at Oklahoma City’s Notis Studios.
Presti and Mike Johnson, now a Creative Artists Agency executive, were childhood friends in Massachusetts and remain close today. They are members of the nine-person Thunder Fellows Advisory Board.
The Greenwood film includes Presti and Johnson discussing the importance of a Thunder Fellows type of opportunity. There also is home-movie footage of them playing football and basketball as kids.
From a Thunder press release: “A century after the Tulsa Race Massacre, ‘Seeds of Greenwood’ explores how today’s generation is being planted and nurtured within the fertile soil of Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District.”
Within the Thunder organization, Dan Mahoney explained, there was a desire to chronicle the first Thunder Fellows school year even before filmmakers had a feel for the students’ personal stories.
Said Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president in charge of broadcasting and corporate communications: “Would these kids be open to being on camera? We just felt that this unique first cohort of Thunder Fellows was an important story to tell.”
Most of the filmmaking legwork was done by Michael Zubach, the Thunder’s videographer and the “Seeds of Greenwood” director; and Paris Lawson and Nick Gallo, who are Thunder television sideline reporters and digital contributors.
“When they would come to Tulsa and watch these kids,” Mahoney explained, “they identified Reece (as being a compelling figure). Along the way, they learned about his routine: getting up before sunup and getting on a city bus to go to school.
“That’s when Zubach came back and said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to follow him.’ The decision was made that it would be a great way to open the film.”
The documentary ends with Reece Robinson as a passenger on a shuttle, heading home at mid-evening after his day had begun at 5:50 a.m.
“There was intentional storytelling there — to show what his path looks like every day,” said Matt Tumbleson, the Thunder’s vice president of basketball communications and engagement.
While Mahoney and Tumbleson are the film’s executive producers, Ikgo, Lawson and Gallo get producer credits.
Ikpo’s response to the film: “It’s surreal.”
“This is such a great opportunity to tell the creation story,” he said. “I’m very happy with the film, and the reception has been fantastic, both from the public and from the kids. We wanted the kids to feel good about it.”
About 60 students applied to be members of the first Thunder Fellows class. Because awareness is so much greater now, Ikpo expects a much heavier response on applications.
“The recruiting process is taking place this summer,” Ikpo said. “We’re in a pivotal time now — assessing the success of the first year, looking at what worked well and what didn’t, and trying replicate what did work.
“We’re not yet in a position to accept every applicant, so we’ll need a robust vetting process. We want to remain engaged with members of the original cohort, but we’re looking forward to having new faces.
“I’m excited to see the level of interest in this year’s selection process.”
For the 2022-23 school year, as it is explained on the Thunder Fellows website, the program is open to Black students in the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades “on a space-available basis.”
More information can be found at thunderfellows.org. The application deadline is Sept. 2.