Note: This article will be different then most on WTLC in that I'm going to write it from a first-person perspective, totally devoid of analysis and weak attempts at objectivity. So if you're interested in my experience as a fan, then read on.
Flying into Chicago after some months abroad was a thrilling experience. I had a Doritos Taco for the first time, saw old friends, and was glad to be home. But I knew the thing I was looking most forward to was getting back to see the Thunder play Game 4. So, after dragging my friends out of bed at 5 AM in the morning, I set off to see my first Thunder game in 5 months.
But, through a series of unfortunate events, the trip back was delayed to the point where I couldn't make it even remotely on time, and had to give up hope of seeing the Thunder on that night. I was knackered, to say the least.
As I sat in a Tulsa Red Robin watching a game that had seemed close but so far, a wonderful thing happened. The Thunder won. And it wasn't through an advantage of the home crowd, or the re-emergence of the Thunder's stars. It was almost a total change in strategy, with Perkins and Ibaka leading the offensive charge. Even though I was already up way past yesterday's bedtime, I still felt like I could take on the world after watching that game.
It then occurred to me that this was no normal playoff run. This could be the one. The one where the Thunder finally took it all home for Oklahoma City, and started a much sought-after Dynasty. Sure, I might have been thinking irrationally and wishfully, but if the Thunder were going to be on their first championship run, I wasn't going to miss it, come hell or high water.
So I took a serious look at my bank account and decided to shell out way too much cash for some seats behind the goal during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. I figured if the Thunder were to win this thing, this would be the game re-broadcast on ESPN Classic and NBATV for years to come. The time the Thunder came back from two games down to take the West.
As my friend and I embarked on the long trek from Oklahoma City to San Antonio, we realized we didn't have directions to the AT&T Center. So we called a friend and asked for the address. We put the address on the GPS, and eagerly watched the ETA slide further and further before 8PM. It was looking like we would make it on time. After years of support and months of staying up until 2 AM to watch games abroad, I would finally get to see the Thunder play again.
Unfortunately, my friend had directed us to a local AT&T Store.
Below: The Rest of the Rambling!
After a couple seconds of freaking out and swearing vengeance, my other friend and I found our way to the AT&T Center, deep into the first quarter. The place was the strangest arena I had ever seen. It seemed to be on it's own and separated from the city, making free parking elsewhere nigh impossible. Plus, it was surrounded by strange warehouses and piles of dirt.
Upon entering the arena, we saw a sea of white, "Go Spurs Go" written in bold black letters on the far wall, and imposing banners advertising past championships. I had entered arenas as an opposing fan before, but I had never entered late. Walking down the steps in Thunder blue is one of the most intimidating experiences one can ever have, except, perhaps, for war.
As we tried to enter our seats, we experienced some good-natured ribbing, and one woman even offered me a hug, welcoming me to San Antonio. But from that point on, things just got nasty. Worse than Gregg Popovich nasty.
Before I go on, though, I'd like to make clear Zeb's rules of cheering in opposing arenas. These rules are pretty much designed to heighten the experience without getting me kicked out. I'd like to emphasize that these are NOT rules I want other people to follow, but they are simply the rules I like to embody.
1. When the Spurs are shooting a free throw, distract them. Hundreds of fans waving balloons is impressive, but you have no idea how effective a well timed shout and accompanying jump can be. If you can affect the game in any way, your work is done.
2. Don't curse, and don't drink. Though I don't think much of cursing and I don't drink anyway, these two things are surefire excuses for the officials at the arena to kick you out. You're the guest in their arena, and there's kids around. Acting like an uncontrolled idiot will get you nowhere.
3. Be mindful of the people behind you. You're trying to help your team, but the people behind you paid for their seats too. Stand up only during free throws, when your team scores, and when everyone else does. Sit back down as fast as possible so no one misses any real action.
4. Keep it positive. You're there to cheer on your team, not destroy the other one. It's perfectly fine to insult someone when they shoot a free throw, but making constant jokes about how the other team is old, can't shoot, whatever just incites rage and does nothing for anybody.
5. Ignore the haters. Haters gonna hate.
Anyway, the people sitting around me couldn't have been more openly hostile towards my friend and I. After I cheered for the first Thunder basket, the woman behind me ripped the free T-Shirt off my seat and declared that I wouldn't want it anyway. All heck broke loose from there. A woman to the left of my friend shied away from him as if he were a rapist. A woman behind us kept hurling constant insults about what horrible people we were. Another woman about three seats to the right and back of me demanded that I stay in my seat because her three month old couldn't see (because I was clearly standing up during plays and blocking her line of sight).
Pretty much everything came to a head when we (possibly) made Tim Duncan miss two free throws during the second quarter. Curses were thrown, and the woman with the baby ran out of her seat and three rows down to say "Put that sombrero down or I will rip it out of your hand!" At that point, I tried to calmly tell them that it was just a game, and that they were over-reacting. It shut them up, but their rage still burned.
At half-time, a usher quite rudely told us that jumping shook a camera that was next to us, and if I held up my sombrero it blocked a camera. She pretty much threatened to kick us out.
So we complied, and trudged on through the second half through more seething rage from the Spurs fans around me. The man to the left constantly called us witches, while another woman to the left constantly told us to "Shut the f*ck up." A section away, a woman called my attention to inform me that I was fat. Not realizing this, I lost all my self-confidence and cried all the way back to Oklahoma City. In her mind, anyway.
But, despite all of this sheer and utter madness, all of this inhumanity, all of this chaos....it still managed to be a wonderful experience. You could tell that Spurs fans were passionate about their team, and really wanted a win. The game was amazing, with points where I thought the Thunder would cruise to victory, and points where I thought the Thunder were destined for hopeless defeat.
Even late in the game, we all had our doubts. Our offense was stumbling, and the Spurs were craftily climbing back. After Westbrook broke the short dry spell with a jumper, Tim Duncan responded with one of his own. The Spurs were one possession away from taking this game right out of the Thunder's grasp.
Then, like a ray of sunshine, came James Harden. I wondered what the hell he was doing at the top of the key, and why the ball wasn't moving. I had images of turnovers and bad threes flash through my mind. But somehow, some way, James Harden crossed the ball over and hit an absolute miracle of a three. I don't remember how the crowd reacted. All I know is that I said, "Screw the rules, I'm celebrating". So I and the approximately 40-50 Thunder fans in the arena partied in our seats while the rest sat in shock. And the people in OKC partied in their living rooms, throwing the leftover pizza into the opposite wall.
The feelings one gets at that moment are impossible to describe. Sure, all I really witnessed was a wealthy basketball star from LA with a crazy hair-do put a ball through a hoop. But what I felt at that moment were the people from the state I grew up in coming together to support the sport that I hold so dear. I saw some of the greatest athletes in the world perform at an elite level. I saw and felt the emotions of thousands, possibly millions of people rise or fall in a single second. A holy man might call it a religious experience. But personally, it made me grateful that I lived in a time and place where communication is such that we can all experience moments like this live. It also made me grateful that these emotions were decided by the arc of a ball, rather than the barrel of a gun. Hopefully, the entire world will one day share in this reality.
But, once I got back down to earth, I realized that the Thunder had gone up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals, and I would get to see the NBA on TNT crew live, which was pretty sweet. I mean, I'm one of the few who got to see Shaq eat a Charles Barkley Pinata with my own two eyes. Impressive, eh?
I'd just like to close this by saying that the majority of Spurs fans I met were total class acts. There's always going to be an element of that resentment they have, but most of them cordially talked to me after the game, or made some good-natured jokes. A lot of them knew what they were talking about, and had obviously followed the NBA for some time. They do have a chip in their shoulder, being in such a small market and ignored by national media, but it only helps reveal their true passion. And the people who sat in our section were clearly not long-time fans, and probably hadn't been to a regular season game this year. I'd be willing to bet most of them were scalped.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my uncontrolled rambling about the awesomeness that was Game 5. Here's hoping it's the game we all remember as the start of the Thunder Dynasty.