Thunder fans have unwavering passion
While the rest of the world was preparing to shovel ridicule atop the Miami Heat after they dropped a third consecutive game to Boston, the players were serenaded as they headed toward the locker room by a 9-year-old fan who was perhaps unfamiliar that the Heat had issued a championship-or-bust proclamation.
"Good job, good effort," shouted little Jack Meyer, whose exhortation soon went viral, because where else in this cynical, embittered world can LeBron James and Co. suffer a humiliating defeat and be greeted with such a cheery, unconditional pat on the back?
Well, as it turns out, right here.
Each time the Oklahoma City Thunder take the court, it is inside an arena packed full of Jack Meyers — fans who, if not all little boys, uniformly carry on with the enthusiasm, innocence and optimism of one.
Or a North Korean pep rally.
"It's different," Miami forward Chris Bosh said, choosing his words carefully. "There's nothing quite like it. They're very positive. It's a different feel."
Of all the intriguing contrasts in this series, one of the most striking is the environment each team lives in.
The Heat exist in a dark bubble of scorn, skepticism and schadenfreude, where it seems as if everyone, save for the odd 9-year-old boy, not only relishes their failure, but attaches moral implications to it.
The Thunder, on the other hand, live in a world where they can take deep, cleansing breaths of positivity. Whether they go to the gas station, pick up a newspaper, turn on talk radio or play a clunker of a basketball game, it has been rare in their four seasons here to encounter any sort of negativity.
"There were definitely a lot of groans that first year," said forward Nick Collison, who was a member of the team that began the season 3-29. "But I wouldn't say any boos. We had numerous games where we were down 30 in the first half, so a lot of places we would have been booed. But it was the first year of the team and the city was excited to have a team. They're very loyal to us."
That loyalty was born out of appreciation. The NBA ended up in the Bible Belt not due to any grand plan, but an act of God. Hurricane Katrina allowed Oklahoma City to serve as a temporary home for the New Orleans Hornets, a stint the city used to establish its credibility with commissioner David Stern. Then Clay Bennett, a local businessman (and former minority owner of the Spurs) bought the SuperSonics and moved them from Seattle.
There are elements of an NBA game that are somewhat distinctive. There is the fan festival outside the arena, the ritual of the pregame prayer and "Thunder Up" song and the bushy James Harden beards — faux and authentic — that dot the crowd. And the arena milieu is dominated by a single color, in this case blue.
Mostly, though, it is the fans' unwavering enthusiasm that distinguishes the atmosphere.
"It feels exactly like the crowd at KU," said Miami guard Mario Chalmers, who played at Kansas, where the eerie Rock-Chalk Jayhawk chant rings through Allen Fieldhouse.
There was similar enthusiasm for the Celtics last week, when the final minute of their decisive Game 6 loss at home was marked by fans filling the Boston Garden with chants of "Let's go Celtics." It was a heartening tribute to the team — but it also took place with only a few thousand fans in the arena.
Everyone else had left.
Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, a former Celtic, said if Boston returned home after losing the first two games of a series — as Oklahoma City did in San Antonio — the atmosphere would have been markedly different than it was here.
"Pressure," Perkins said. "Must win. Probably getting smashed in the paper about things. We come home down 0-2, two in the morning, there's probably 500 people waiting at the airport for you. Our fans are great in a good way, where in Boston they're great, but you might hear a lot of negative things being shouted out."
There is little question this environment — the 44th-largest media market in the US and one not known for scathing critiques of the players — has allowed the Thunder's young corps of players to develop in relative quiet.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all 23 or younger.
The only bit of controversy they have encountered were questions — raised mostly by out-of-town media during last year's playoffs — about Westbrook's shot selection and whether he could co-exist with Durant.
Though it was a juicy topic at the time, it barely rated kerfuffle-of-the-week material for teams like the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics and Heat. This was fine for the Thunder.
"The less negativity players have to deal with the better," Collison said. "Young players — and veterans, too — no one likes to get booed, especially at home. But without having to worry about that and not having to feel this huge pressure all the time from negativity in the city is definitely a big plus, especially where we were a few years ago with young players struggling."
Durant may be one of the NBA's greatest stars — the torchbearer for his generation, it seems — but even some of his contemporaries believe they would know more about him if he played in a bigger market, one that demands more questions of a player.
"I don't know a lot about him, either," Wade said, when he was asked how much he knew Durant. "I know probably just as much as you guys know. Sometimes it's where you're at. If he was in Los Angeles, Chicago, somewhere, it would be a little different. Being in Oklahoma kind of dims his light a little bit — not him on the basketball court, but him off the court. There's not a lot of exciting things going on out here."
That is not a problem for the Heat. Miami may have welcoming — if not overly enthusiastic or vocal — fans, but James is such a magnet for attention that everything the players and coaches do is scrutinized, analyzed and criticized, often on a national stage.
"I don't watch sports shows anymore," said Shane Batter, in his first year in Miami. "I used to wake up and catch up on sports shows. I don't read the paper anymore."
Bosh said he, too, stays away from the internet, preferring to sit on his dock.
"We live in a different world probably than most teams," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who spoke of this as if it were a burden, one that those with the Thunder, who also live in a world of their own, do not have to share.