Loud and Proud: Fans Bring the Thunder in Oklahoma City
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For 41 home games this season, Oklahoma City fans tried to impress Scott Brooks. And they succeeded.
Or so Brooks thought.
The way the fans sounded at the Ford Center Thursday night made previous home games seem as rowdy as a Sunday afternoon bridge club.
"I was actually disappointed in the crowd all year long,'' Brooks, named NBA Coach of the Year on Wednesday, said after his Thunder's 101-96 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to cut the deficit in the best-of-seven West first-round series to 2-1. "I thought they were the best crowd. They gave us so much energy. But now I realize they were sandbagging (during the regular season). This crowd was so intense. It was so loud.''
Welcome, Oklahoma City, to NBA playoff basketball.
The Daily Oklahoman had run a headline across the top of Thursday's paper asking the question "The Biggest Sports Day in OKC's History?''
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. local time, Okahoma quarterback Sam Bradford was taken with the top pick in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. About two hours later, the Thunder tipped off the first NBA playoff game in the city's history. The Thunder is in its second season and the Hornets had played at the Ford Center from 2005-07 after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
But what happened when Bradford went No. 1? There was a giant-screen television outside the Ford Center showing the draft, but not many of the hundreds milling about were paying attention. After all, this is college football country and Bradford no longer can help the Sooners.
Now, though, this is also NBA country. It was a festive atmosphere outside the arena, with a band playing and a giant blow-up playground set up for kids to jump around.
Huge murals had been hung depicting top Thunder players across the street on the Cox Convention Center. One of the tallest buildings in the city had a banner on top proclaiming, "Let's Go Thunder.'' Downtown bartenders had their faces painted with Thunder logos.
"It's sort of like an ant hill where the ants are coming in,'' NBA commissioner David Stern, on hand to present Brooks with his trophy before the game and to see the city's playoff debut, said shortly before tipoff. "The fans of Oklahoma City are sort of pouring into this palace.''
Then the game started, and the Lakers took a 10-0 lead. Time to silence the sellout crowd of 18,342, right? Time for all the fans who stood at the start wearing team-distributed blue T-Shirts reading "Rise Together,'' to take a seat, right?
Wrong and wrong.
After trailing by 11 points midway through the third quarter, these fans willed the Thunder to victory.
"It was phenomenal,'' forward Kevin Durant, who led Oklahoma City with 29 points and 19 rebounds, said of the atmosphere. "I couldn't hear myself at one point. ... (The fans) kept us in the game. This is the meaning of homecourt advantage. It feels good to come out and bring a win to Oklahoma City.''
For Lakers star Kobe Bryant, it felt like those battles in the early part of the last decade against Sacramento, once known for its boisterous fans.
"It was great,'' Bryant said. "It was one of the loudest crowds I've ever played before in the postseason. ... It was like the barn in Sacramento. It was really loud.''
It was a festive night indeed. There was a contest on the scoreboard for the best sign at the Ford Center. The winner was one which included photos underneath the words in "The Good (Durant), the Bad (Bryant) and the Ugly (Lakers coach Phil Jackson).''
Jackson never has worried too much about road crowds, which is one reason he has 10 rings. Asked before the game about the possible effect of the crowd, he said he was much more concerned about the Thunder.
The Thunder turned out to be a pretty good, outscoring the Lakers 58-46 after falling behind 50-43 at halftime. After the game even Jackson conceded the crowd "reacted to the team a lot,'' which is the closest he'll ever get to saying a road crowd affected his team.
Regardless, it's now a series. The teams next play Saturday night at the Ford Center, where a Thunder victory really could throw a bit of a scare into the defending champions.
Find out then if Saturday has a chance to be the second-greatest sports day in Oklahoma City history.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson