In retrospect, one could argue it was a mistake. We decided to drive to Oklahoma City at 5:00pm on Saturday. We knew it was a long way, but you cannot really appreciate the distance until you have been on the road for hours and realize you are still in Arkansas. Then there was that horrible moment. No, not the one when Kevin Durant hit the shot we knew he would hit. I’m talking about the one moment you cross the state line into Oklahoma and you’re renewed with excitement and anticipation, only to realize that you’re still 200 miles from Oklahoma City. Ultimately, we got into OKC at 1:30am Sunday. Just in time to grab five hours of sleep and head to the Chesapeake Energy Arena for an unreasonably early noon tip-off. I couldn’t be less impressed with what we found when we arrived.
The first sign that things were not quite what they seem was when we were able to park just a block from the arena in a nearly empty garage for a mere $5. In fairness, it was 9:30am on a Sunday and I suspect that things will be different Tuesday night. Nonetheless, I couldn’t get over the ghost town like feeling surrounding the arena. At 9:30am on a Sunday in Memphis, the area between FedEx Forum and Union Avenue would have been buzzing with activity and anticipation. The emptiness had its perks, however, as we were able to quickly park and walk to the team hotel and cheer on the Grizzlies players as they boarded the bus. You do not get that experience at a home game. It was great to see the focus on the face of the players, who still offered a nod of appreciation when they saw the Growl Towels on display outside the hotel.
At that point all of this seemed like an aberration, excused by the early start time. That is, until we actually experienced the game. Oklahoma City likes to brand itself “Loud City” and is often cited as one of the loudest arenas in the NBA. I will be the first to admit that at its crescendo, it truly was the loudest indoor crowd I have ever heard – louder even than FedEx Forum. This is bogus, however, as we discovered the deep, dark secret of OKC basketball: it is a cult and they cheat to create “Loud City” in ways Memphis would never dare.
It was almost unbelievable. The buildup to the game was eerily quiet. We got to our seats with about 12 minutes left on the pre-game clock. We attributed it to the shocking number of empty seats, which the woman in front of us proudly explained was because “Oklahomans go to church.” With about 3 minutes to go, the Thunder mascot – some strange and goofy version of a buffalo – got the crowd on its feet, ready for tipoff. At the time it seemed reasonable enough. After all, our own beloved Grizz implores us to get on our feet and get loud before tip-off. Then suddenly, the noise stopped entirely. We looked around in confusion before the PA announcer asked everyone to remove their hats.
Ah! National Anthem! Of course! It made perfect sense. Instead, however, a local pastor took the Court and led the crowd in sixty seconds of prayer for the players and coaches to remember the ideals of sportsmanship and to protect and keep safe the entire assembled body. Turns out, this was not a special playoff-edition program, but in fact every OKC game begins – before the national anthem – with organized prayer. I do not think I’ve seen that at a game above the high school level. As the woman noted, however, Oklahomans take their church seriously. I do not mean that derogatorily, just pointing it out without comment.
One of the most enviable “traditions” at Chesapeake Energy Arena is that the entire crowd stays on its feet until the Thunder score their first basket. It is a neat effect, though it becomes very awkward when the home team goes scoreless for the first 4+ minutes of the game. At one point, the Grizzlies hit a shot to take a 7-0 lead and we cheered and waved our towels. A Thunder fan yelled that we should “sit down!” I happily told him that we would sit down whenever they did! Suddenly it seemed as though we were actually in hostile territory and would get to feel the wrath of the Thunder fans. Spoiler alert: that was one of only 3 or 4 things that were said by the Thunder fans the entire game. Also bizarre – once they finally hit a shot, the “storm chasers” (like our Claw Crew) literally instructed everyone to sit. It was apparently not an option to remain standing and cheer the team.
The fan base has zero basketball IQ. Not once did we hear a fan yell that someone took a bad shot, missed an open cutter or that Scott Brooks should take someone out of the game. These types of helpful and constructive critiques are chirped by #GrizzNation throughout the game, whether we are up by 10 or down by 10. Instead, the Thunder fans dutifully cheered when instructed and sat quietly awaiting further instruction in between outbursts. The only “instinctive” cheering was that the place exploded every time Kevin Durant scored – which is frequently. Frankly, though, it was often inappropriate. When you are down 12 points and your team is playing flat, cheering wildly because your All-NBA player hits a routine 10ft jumper only serves to expose the lack of big-picture understanding. These were not cheers of relief, rather they were thoughtless cheers of celebration that ignored the context of the particular shot and moment.
About the noise though…As I said at the start, at its peak, the arena was louder than any I’ve experienced. They do not deserve praise for that, however, when you consider the bigger picture. First of all, in between organized cheers, the crowd was almost silent. The building maintained a low hum around 2-out-of-10 before bursting to a 10-out-of-10 when prompted by the screen, their mascot and the “storm chasers” and as soon as the instruction ceased, the volume returned to a 2-out-of-10. To make matters worse, the entire crowd was issued artificial noise makers – the white (and glowing) equivalent of the yellow noise makers given to the fans behind the basket for use during opposing players free throws. The most egregious offense, however, was that they pumped in artificial crowd noise over the PA system and kept the volume unreasonably high. The result? A deafening roar, no doubt, but not one for which OKC should be commended.
The Thunder fans only boo’d twice. Once when Zach was introduced – and it was half-hearted. The other time was when Collison was whistled for a flagrant foul against Prince. One fan behind us, upon seeing our disgust with the cheap shot, said “This is big boy playoff basketball! Welcome to OKC!” We laughed and invited him to Memphis. I suspect he won’t make the trip. Oddly, OKC made sure that they never showed a Grizzlies fan on the big screen. We are so accustomed to the A/V crew in Memphis finding an opposing fan so that we can boisterously express our distaste with their choice of clothing that it was shocking to see in-game entertainment so fixated on self-affirmation that it passed a chance to bring the crowd together against a common foe.
Some other quick points about the experience:
- The direction given by the team made the whole thing feel like a TV show that is “filmed before a live studio audience” in which the producers flash “LAUGH” or “APPLAUSE” to make it appear that they have written a good episode.
- There is no “stat board” like FedEx Forum and there is only one scoreboard, which is taken down during timeouts so that they can show more advertisements. It is very disorienting and makes it very difficult to keep up with the flow of the game.
- Early in the game, Zach made a strong move to the basket and scored on a layup. A fan behind us yelled “ZBo cannot even dunk” to which we responded “You’re right!” – this seemed to upset the fan, who did not appreciate that we agreed with him.
- In the second half, TA made a play and we yelled “TOOOOONY” to which someone behind us yelled “Stinks!” Yeah. They said “stinks.” That is the kind of crowd we were dealing with.
- On the way out, after winning a dramatic come-from-behind game and their beloved Durant hitting a huge shot with 11 seconds left, the crowd was silent. No celebration. No chants or hoots or cheers. No talk about Game 2 or what lies ahead. Just a quiet and orderly filing out of the arena. It was bizarre.
- The in-game music is awful. It is taken straight off of ESPN Jock-Jams. Because the PA system volume is so loud, you really cannot understand a word they say. We are spoiled by the work of our A/V crew and you should remember how lucky you are next time you are in the Forum.
- The only redeeming thing about the arena experience was that I was able to purchase a souvenir size COKE for $5.50, as opposed to the over-priced PEPSI that is forced on us at the Forum.
- After the game, a woman behind us leaned down and said “Don’t let a few bad apples spoil Oklahoma City for you. Have a safe trip home.” That was a very sweet and sincere statement, similar to what we have said to opposing fans in our section over the years. It was odd, however, that she felt so compelled after such an uneventful and non-confrontational game. If she was worried that what we had experienced would make us think Thunder fans are rude and rowdy, she really has no idea what a hostile sports environment is like.
In summary, I would say that the Thunder fans are spoiled and operate with a major sense of entitlement. They are not entirely unlike the Clippers fans in that regard. They were gifted a very talented player (and team) by the NBA and have never tasted true sports adversity. To the credit of real Clippers fans, they know adversity and mediocrity…better than any fans, perhaps. Maybe the Westbrook injury and failing to win a championship this year will give them a little peek behind that dark curtain, but even then their disappointment only reinforces how good they have had it. In my opinion, until a fan base has struggled through 23-win seasons, blown lottery picks and then finally watched a group of players grow together, they cannot truly be held among the class of the league, no matter how loud they are prompted to get.
We are lucky that we have a game experience that is built on a foundation of understanding the game of basketball, appreciating our hard-fought success and rooted in a city-wide competitive spirit. We are lucky to have Grizz and Rick Trotter and the entire crew that works tirelessly behind the scenes to make the Forum electric. If OKC hits peaks that are louder than Memphis, it is negated by the deep valleys of awkward silence that exist for much longer stretches than the boisterous noise. That would never be said of a playoff game in Memphis, which never dips below a 6-out-of-10.
Ultimately, it was a cool experience and I am glad I made the trip. The only way I would go back, however, is if one of you wants to charter a jet. Hopefully a few of them will make the trip here on Saturday. If they do, you can rest assured that the crew at FedEx Forum will find them, put them on the screen and we will boo them mercilessly. And they should be flattered. It is a sign of respect as much as anything. Give ‘em hell.
Grind on, Memphis.