Cult heroes in the NBA are a rare breed of players who transcend what they do on the court. While not superstars, these individuals have a presence and story to them that just carries weight. Their feats become the stuff of legends, often blurring reality with fiction, making them larger than life. While Superstars definitely have larger than life production and presence, cult heroes go about it differently. Where a superstar can make or break a franchise, cult heroes are the heralded sidekicks who sometime steal the spotlight. Whether it’s Mathew Dellavedova drinking a pot of coffee before an NBA Finals game then proceeding to chase Steph Curry around, or J.R. Smith nailing deep heat check three’s, these are the unsung heroes of the NBA.
Cult heroes are often true underdogs, overcoming the odds to make an impact in the NBA. Most people love an underdog story, and NBA fans are definitely no exception. These heroes often are known for big personalities, embodying a heartwarming story, having a huge attachment to a fanbase and team, and/or for bringing unique skillsets to the game of basketball.
OKC has definitely had its memorable cult heroes, as well. Nick Collison, AKA Mr. Thunder, was a charge taking extraordinaire, plus minus king, pick n roll maestro off the bench, and culture standard bearer for OKC. Eric Maynor was a buzzer beating savant during his time in OKC. Enes Kanter championed OKC against slights, and was part of the beloved Stache Brothers. Dion Waiters brought immense swagger and Philly toughness. Hasheem Thabeet was a brilliant bench mob hype conductor. Fast forward to the present, and OKC has discovered its newest cult hero: Lu Dort.
Lu Dort hasn’t even been in the league for an entire rookie season, but his legend is growing. His story is tremendous. He started playing basketball at a relatively late age (had previously focused on soccer), was a five-star recruit for Arizona State, won PAC-12 Freshmen of the Year, was projected to be a First Round Pick, and then somehow wasn’t selected at the Draft. He received a call from OKC, then signed a two-way contract with the Thunder (meaning that he is allotted 45 days maximum with the Thunder, with the rest of the season spent only with the Blue.) At the start of the NBA season, it appeared that Dort would just spend his time with the Blue, only being called up if there was an injury or trade.
As luck would have it that’s exactly what happened.
On a December road-trip the Thunder were dealing with some injuries, so Dort got his first taste of NBA action. He was immediately charged with having to chase around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a tough task for an established defender, let alone a rookie on a two-way contract. Dort did a solid job and his effort was spectacular. After a few games, Dort went back to the G-League and played there a while. Fast forward to late January and Dort was once again called up.
On January 20th, Dort was given his first start of the season. That is a big honor for a rookie, especially for a two-way player. Talk about a baptism by fire! His first start ever was on the road against James Harden, who had been going full scorched earth this season, leading the league in PPG by a wide margin. Dort not only played exceptional defense on Harden, he held him to one of the very worst shooting performances of his career. Dort had put on an absolute clinic on lockdown defense.
From that game on, Dort has remained the starter. Even when previous starter, Terrance Ferguson, returned from a two-week absence. A changing of the guard was official; the job was Dort’s. An undrafted rookie on a two-way contract was officially the starting shooting guard on a playoff team.
As the season has continued, Dort’s grip on that starting spot has only tightened. He has been outstanding in his role, guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player, taking and making open 3’s, and keeping the ball moving. Dort’s unexpected rise to prominence has been one for the ages, a real champion of the people, an underdog success story. With only fifteen NBA days left on his contact, he hasn’t been practicing at all with the team, because he’s been staying fit and watching film on his own, which is just another absurdly impressive wrinkle to his legend. An undrafted rookie, on a two-way contract, starting on a playoff team and excelling in his role, has been doing all of this without team practice. It’s just incredible. Come March 28th, Dort’s NBA eligibility will expire, unless the team signs him to a new deal, or converts his contract for the rest of the season. At this point, it seems like a virtual lock that Dort will get his shiny new contract, preferably a multiyear deal.
What does Dort’s future look like? No one knows, but I sure wouldn’t bet against him. He’s defied the odds so many times, that it truly is up to him what he becomes. In the meantime, Thunder fans are all in on Dort fandom, (and as Andrew Schlecht and the Down to Dunk crew have coined), are Down to Dort.