From time to time, I venture to the territory of the enemy. That is, I visit opposing arenas and rate them from a Thunder's fans perspective. Oklahoma City likes to boast that they have the best arena in the NBA, and there's no other way to prove it than to go out and experience it for yourself.
A few years ago, in the post-Gasol/pre-Randolph era, I remember watching the Thunder take on the Grizzlies in Memphis. As I stared at my television screen, all I could think was, "Man, what a terrible arena." The fans were barely audible, numerous open seats were visible, and on-screen messages constantly implored the crowd to start cheering. It seemed to me as if the team's move to Memphis was a mistake. They looked better suited for a more viable major market, like Kansas City or St. Louis.
When I actually went to their arena this Wednesday, I experienced a complete 180. I couldn't have been more wrong. Granted, the situation had drastically changed. What I saw on TV some years ago was a meaningless game between two of the worst teams in the Western Conference. Today, I saw two of the best teams in the West fight for their lives.
But what Memphis had accomplished was more than filling the seats. I've been to a few other NBA arenas in my time, and I can classify them in three distinct categories. Boston and San Antonio are openly hostile environments, with extremely passionate fans. If you go into them with an opposing jersey, get ready to take a verbal beating. Miami is what I'd describe as a totally apathetic arena, with people merely there for style points and not ready to show any sort of passion. Dallas is a mixture between the two. But Memphis is something totally on its own. Basically, the arena is like one gigantic party. And when I use that term, I mean it in earnest.
There's no way I could describe it generally, so here's a few specifics I'll describe in a lame attempt to re-create what I experienced. A man in the section above us was constantly heckling Westbrook, to the point that everyone got sick of it and started booing him instead. The banter around me was mostly jubilant, and most people knew exactly what they were talking about. (I've never been to an arena where most people actually know whether a player is shooting off the dribble or not.) After the win, a man below me shouted, "Woooooeeee! I'm gonna pop my collar!" Upon exit from the arena, I was accosted by several individuals, but not in a hostile manner as I was in Boston and San Antonio. Rather, I was given fist bumps, shakes of the hand, and et cetera. Outside, I saw two kids breakdancing as they left the Forum. The conversation they had between each other went like so:
"They'll win next time!"
"There won't be a next time, playa!"
"There will be a next time in the future! Daaaaaaamn!"
I know that these short moments are hard to combine into a complete whole, so I'll summarize it in another way. When I left the arena, I felt good. Sure, I've felt triumphant when leaving San Antonio in victory, or perhaps proud of the try the Thunder gave when I left Boston. But I've never had a warm feeling in my heart after a loss. I truly felt like the fans cared about their team, but I knew that they didn't care for all of the silly hostility and namecalling that normally goes with being a fan.
The people in the arena obviously didn't like that I cheered for the Thunder, but they accepted that I was a part of the atmosphere, rather than singling me out and constantly jeering. It might be because there were other Thunder fans in the arena (yes, there are bandwagoners), but I have a feeling the same thing would happen for any matchup.
If you're looking to see the Thunder away from the Peake, I'd urge you to skip Dallas and make the drive out to Memphis. At roughly 7 hours, it's about equidistant with San Antonio and Houston as the second-closest arena to Oklahoma City, and it's certainly doable in a day or two. The drive is pretty simple, as all you do is take I-40 East until you hit Tennessee.
The parking situation around the FedEx Forum is extremely favorable. There's obviously the expensive options nearby the arena, but you can find free parking if you look hard enough. The only drawback is that the area south of the arena is really undeveloped, so I'm not exactly sure how safe it would be to leave your car there unattended. Regardless, if you're willing to pay a 5, you can find a spot about 5 minutes away. (The same can't be said for the OKC.) Here's a full parking map if you need it.
The arena is downtown, so the entertainment options, including Beale Street, are right around the corner. There are hotels downtown, but if you're looking for a cheaper place you might want to venture out to the suburbs. Congestion isn't much of a problem though, as Memphis is only about 60,000 people larger than Oklahoma City.
The layout of the arena is done well, with lower level seating maximized in some places. Tickets aren't too overly expensive (though they do have a higher face value than OKC tickets), and you can generally find seats at the box office for a regular season game. The arena is built for basketball, so the seats in the lower section of the lower bowl are permanent, as far as I can tell. The only disadvantage is that the seats are a bit narrow, and there's cupholders that get in the way of your legs (if you're 6' 5", like me).
Another advantage of having the arena being basketball-only is the non-digital scoreboards. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in the Peake wishing that there would be stats shown somewhere in the arena, like rebounds, blocks, steals, anything. In the Forum, all of the stats are on display via old school light-up boards. The score, players, and points are all permanent on the main scoreboard via old school lights as well. At the Peake, it's all digital, so they take it down during timeouts, which can be quite frustrating. The only disadvantages to the basketball-only old school vibe are that the lights on the scoreboard can sometimes malfunction, and that the screens aren't as big, so fans in the upper deck can't see what's going on.
Out of all of the NBA arenas I've been to, Memphis has to be my favorite, next to Oklahoma City and Golden State (for obvious reasons). Great fans, reasonable prices, great location, unbelievable atmosphere. I might be a bit biased because my experience was during an overtime thriller, but I digress. Go see Memphis!
Do you have any experiences at enemy arenas? Let us know in the comments!