Hays native dances way into NBA Finals with Thunder
By RANDY GONZALES
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kaci Cook liked sports growing up; she just didn't have a favorite team.
She does now.
Cook, a Hays native who has been a dancer since she was 3, is a member of Thunder Girls, the dance team for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Having two older brothers and a dad who loved it, I grew up around sports," Cook said. "I never had a professional team I could claim and call my own. I didn't have a favorite team until the Oklahoma City Thunder."
She picked a good one.
Oklahoma City played host Tuesday to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The Thunder won 105-94 to take the series lead going into Game 2 tonight.
Cook, 25, was a cheerleader at Hays High School, where she graduated in 2005. She then was a dancer -- a Classy Cat -- while going to school at Kansas State University, where she graduated in 2009.
It got loud while dancing for Kansas State basketball games against the University of Kansas in Bramlage Coliseum, but Chesapeake Arena, home of the Thunder, is louder, according to Cook.
"The Thunder games are that times a million," Cook said, comparing OKC to KSU games. "The fans are just intense."
The whole town of Oklahoma City is crazy for the Thunder, she said.
"Nothing compares to the energy at Chesapeake and in the community," Cook said. "Everywhere you go, you see a Thunder shirt or a flag on a car or people yelling 'Thunder up.' It's awesome."
That's what Cook wanted when she looked for a dance team to try out for on the pro level.
"I knew I wanted to dance for the NBA," she said. "I thought about NFL a little bit. I wanted the fast pace of the NBA, just having more games, more home games, more court time, more experience."
Cook danced with Jackie Creamer's dance studio when she was little. She was on the competitive team from age 7 through high school.
After taking a break from dancing when she graduated from KSU, Cook was ready to get back into it. She checked out the Thunder, went through auditions last summer and was one of seven rookies to make the roster of 20 dancers.
Thunder Girls don't just show up for games; they also are ambassadors in the community. The dance team started practicing in August, even though the players were locked out in a labor dispute with the owners.
"That actually was a blessing for us because we got to do a lot more community appearances," Cook said. "We go out and read to kids at school or take pictures with fans.
"We got to do a lot more of that with the lockout in place than if we started the season right away."
The dance team practices approximately 10 hours a week, in addition to a couple home games per week -- all that and either holding a full-time job or being a full-time student.
Cook relocated to Oklahoma City from Dallas once she was chosen for the dance team. She works as an administrative secretary in Norman. Dancing for the Thunder makes it easier for her parents, Dr. Randy Cook and his wife, Karen, to attend home games. They're in town for the first two games of the Finals.
"I know they're really proud of me, to see me pursue my dream of dancing for the NBA," Cook said. "It's really my dream job.
"I understand it's probably something I can't do until I'm 80," she added with a laugh. "But as long as I can, I'd like to do it."