Oklahoma is known for its wild weather. One day it’s 75 and sunny then the next it’s 35 and snowing. Maybe at 10 a.m. it’s perfect and clear and at 4 p.m. it’s raining and the wind’s blowing 200 miles per hour. It’s just the way it is and the way it will always be. It’s completely, utterly and totally unpredictable.
But as random and impulsive the weather can be, there was one thing Gary England could predict and nail every time – it was going to Thunder 41 nights this year. And there was even a schedule to prove it.
Sure the scoreboard read 84-81 in favor of Oklahoma City, which was a nice way to close this inaugural home season. But Friday’s game against Charlotte was about more than the final score. 19,136 piled the Ford Center full, equipped with aptly named ThunderStix ready to make some noise and let this team know that we like having them around. And what happened was a two and half hour party with the main attraction being five guys in white that played with guts, emotion and desire. It was like they were hell-bent and determined to send the raucous crowd home happy. It was almost like they were trying to make up for the disappointment of Opening Night.
With each made bucket in the fourth quarter, the lid rattled on the Thunderdome. Kevin Durant’s block and save in the third quarter shook Bass Pro. Nenad Krstic’s jumper with a minute left sent the lower bowl into a frenzy. Jeff Green’s block on Raymond Felton to all but seal the deal released an ungodly amount of high-fives and hugs. And this was all for a team that was 21-57. Sure it’s the maiden voyage and people are excited. We know that the infatuation will probably fade and in the end it’s going to come down to wins and losses. But not right now. We’re nuts over this team and we have no idea why.
The Thunder sold out 18 games this season, including the last eight in a row. They finished 11th in the league in average attendance and filled the Ford to capacity 97.7 percent of the team. It’s still taking some getting used to the idea of having a professional team, but more and more the Thunder is branding themselves. Just think about what it will be like when we’re actually good.
Friday night was what having the NBA in town is all about. I went to the game with friends and had an absolute blast all the way up in section 302, four rows from the top. It was easily the most fun I’ve ever had at an NBA game. And it’s not like the game itself was just a TV show playing in the background of our conversation. We were actively involved. Thumping our plastic tubes together, booing every call, groaning at every turnover and hooping at every made bucket. I have no idea what the playoffs are like, but I imagine it feels something like that.
People left the Ford Center feeling like that game meant something more than just win No. 22 in a long season. People walked down Reno still banging their ThunderStix, high-fiving, and celebrating as if that win clinched a playoff birth. I’m telling you, having this team means something to us. We’re no longer a state always divided by red and orange. We’re a state united by it (and blue, dark blue and yellow).
I remember the other closing nights in OKC basketball history. I stood there looking at the scoreboard that read “Hornets 104, Utah 105” wondering if I’d ever see that team again. Or heck, the NBA ever again for that matter. The future was uncertain and next year wasn’t guaranteed. We just had to appreciate the fact we got it at all.
This team gave us 41 nights – some good, some bad, some very bad. But I’d have taken 41 losses just to know that I had the chance to see it. This is something I never, ever thought was possible to happen in my home state. I still can’t believe I watched a season of professional basketball in Oklahoma.
But you know what the best part is? I know for a fact it’s going to Thunder 41 times next year, and the next and the next and the next. And I won’t need Gary England to tell me that. I’ll have a schedule to prove it.