My dad used to regale us with Dodgers anecdotes. He had a lot of them as he was a diehard fan who went to their games quite regularly. Bleacher seats cost fifty cents back in those days and the game of baseball was much different than it is today. Of course, Pops was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom have resided in the greater Los Angeles area since I've been alive. Many teams have moved over the years but not too many have done so recently. In the last 26 years only three NBA teams have defected to a new city. Since '02, only two; the Charlotte Hornets and the Seattle Supersonics. While I enjoyed watching the Hornets battle the Spurs in the '08 Semifinals as much as the next guy, let's not kid ourselves. The Hornets aren't any better off in New Orleans than they were in Charlotte. The team is still owned by the NBA as they can't find anyone willing to buy them. They were forced to trade Chris Paul to a bigger market team and attendance is spotty at best.
The franchise formerly known as the Sonics are an entirely different story.
To say that Oklahomans have embraced their new team does not do their loyalty justice. I can say without hesitation that these are the best fans in the NBA. For the last few years, attendance has been down, even for some of the storied franchises residing in big cities. This is not the case with the Thunder. They are currently tied with the Celtics and Knicks for attendance percentage. These fans are something else at home. They do not sit until the Thunder score. I remember watching a game where it took almost 3 minutes for them to make that first bucket. Not one person sat until the ball went through the net. No arena get louder than the Ford Center and during the Playoffs, everybody in that building wears their blue OKC T-shirts. This kind of intensity is rarely seen in today's NBA.
As a sports fan, I have witnessed my share of dramatic moments. One that I will never forget was Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference Semi Finals. The Lakers were looking to close out the upstart Thunder on the road. After a late OKC rally, the Lakers were trailing by one with 6 seconds left. Kobe had the ball at the top of the key, drove right, and shot a heavily contested fadeaway that rattled in and out. Pau Gasol was right under the basket and tipped the ball back in with a half a second remaining. After a timeout, the Thunder inbounded the ball and Westbrook missed the potentially game winning 3-Pointer. A devastated Kevin Durant and Jeff Green hit the floor in agony. There was a lot of drama in that crazy finish but what stays with me was what happened after the buzzer sounded. Every fan at the Ford Center got up and gave their team a 3 minute long standing ovation. It was as if the entire city was telling them,
"It's alright. You played your hearts out and there is no shame in losing tonight. You had an amazing season that exceeded all of our expectations. Thank you."
Thinking about that moment still gets this cynical New Yorker a bit misty eyed. I have never seen fans react that way after a loss. Let's face it. These days, most fans are spoiled. They expect their teams to win every game and their star players to stay forever, even if it means getting paid less money or forfeiting any real chance of winning a championship. Seeing fans boo their team or underperforming player has become commonplace. The Thunder fans are an entirely different breed. I would be willing to bet that we will never see Kevin Durant booed at home, no matter how poorly he is playing. Perhaps some of these big city fans could learn a thing or two from these humble Midwesterners.
Alas, sometimes bad things happen to good fans. The unfortunate reality is that owners occasionally move their team, regardless of how much the community loves and supports them. It is a shame that the good fans of Seattle lost their beloved Supersonics. The fact that the team has blossomed in their new home is probably little consolation to them but I have enjoyed watching this development. During the latest CBA negotiations, journalists and bitter owners told us that small market teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder will never have the resources to compete with big market teams like the Knicks, the Bulls, the Lakers, or the Mavericks.
This postseason, the Thunder beat the Mavs and Lakers and have gone deeper in the Playoffs than the Knicks or Bulls.
GM Sam Presti has taught us that with a little luck and a lot of shrewd personnel moves, a team in any market can become competitive. Wilt Chamberlain said, "Nobody roots for Goliath." He may be right. Seeing the Thunder get their revenge on the Lakers last week had me out of my seat cheering. Just like everybody at the Ford Center.