Allow me to take a minute and share with you the greatest moment in the Oklahoma City Thunder's brief history.
April 30, 2010. In their second year in Oklahoma City, the 8th seeded Thunder make the playoffs for the first time and are trying to do the unthinkable in upsetting the top-seeded Lakers.
The Thunder fall behind 2-0 after a pair of games played in Los Angeles. But as soon as they return to home crowd at the Ford Center, where they went 27-14 in the regular season, things change drastically and immediately. The Thunder roll to two impressive victories before dropping Game 5 back in LA. That puts the Thunder in need of another miracle upset to force the series to a seventh game.
And, again with the backing of a raucous home crowd, it looks like they are going to get it, up 94-93 with just a few seconds left.
I remember that last minute vividly from my seat near the roof of the Ford Center. The Thunder force Kobe Bryant into an off-balance jumper that clangs off the iron. For a split second, the Thunder have the win in their hands. But a young, raw Serge Ibaka misses a blockout on Pau Gasol, and the Lakers' big man corrals the rebound and converts the putback.
A few seconds later a desperation three clangs off the side of the rim for Russell Westbrook, and the dream is over.
95-94. Lakers in six.
The building goes silent as 18,342 fans hush in unison, the final shot coming tantalizingly close to lifting the Thunder, and the rest of Loud City, to a statement victory.
Then it happens.
As shocked fans gather themselves, it starts slowly, from a few corners of the arena at a time. Ten seconds later everyone is on their feet, doing everything they can to show their gratitude to a team that had taken them on the most magical of NBA rides.
But that happens in every arena across the country, from grade-school basketball to the day the slipper comes off Cinderella in the NCAA tournament.
No, that moment wasn't what was special. What was special is how, 90 seconds later, the fans were are still growing louder and Thunder players, clearly taken aback by the sheer level of devotion, huddle and look around the arena in amazement, their own disappointment giving way to abashed gratitude.
I was there that night, working a menial, minimum-wage gameday job where the highlights included laying the plastic court used outside the arena at Thunder Alley and standing at the pop-a-shot for hours while kids and drunken adults took their turn missing the goal entirely and throwing the ball down the concourse for me to chase. Most of us were there simply because we wanted to be a part of the wave, the atmosphere, this team that had swept our small-market city off its feet. We wanted to be part of The Thunder, and that's what drove us every day regardless of how much the work sucked.
But there was one perk to the job, and that was being able to watch the last five minutes of every game from the top level of the arena, where you had simultaneous access to both the rafters and the life-size cardboard cutouts of Jeff Green.
That's how I was present for that inspiring moment, and it was precisely at that moment that we knew. Looking around at the small gaggle of sweaty, worn-down coworkers exhausted after our 12-hour shift, I saw the same bittersweet look of pride that was on the face of every fan in the building.
We just knew big things were coming. We knew that the Thunder had the youth, the talent and the drive to make it happen. More than anything, we knew that this city had their back, would get them there through sheer will if nothing else, because no one else in the nation had the fans we did.
We knew this because this was Oklahoma. This was the city that had its emotions toyed with four years earlier by the NBA and the Oklahoma City Hornets, when we didn't know any better than to give Jannero Pargo a standing ovation for getting hot while on the wrong side of a 20-point blowout. This was the city where every fan took it as a personal offense when the pundits said the city was too small to support an NBA team and we thought we could buy enough $8 tickets and $4 popcorns to prove them wrong.
This was the city where everyone bought in, and games in Loud City were something of a great equalizer. You were just as likely to bump into Wayne Coyne or Mayor Mick in the concourse as Joe from across the street, and you knew that if you did they'd be wearing the same stupid t-shirt (most likely deposited on your seat hours before you arrived by me) as you were.
In short, we knew we had something special going on, in that way you instinctively know how to breathe or that way sometimes you just know you've found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. After all, this was the only city in the country that brought the rabid support of a college fanbase to the pro game, and damned if we weren't going to propel the Thunder to an NBA title in short order.
Fast forward three years.
The Thunder have accomplished some of the big things that seemed so close on that wild night. They climbed the ladder. They made the Finals. They brought us Thunderstruck. They've clinched the top seed this season. Simmons finally stopped referring to them as the you-know-whats. They've done everything but dethrone the King.
But, increasingly, they're doing it without us.
In Sunday's decisive Game 1 victory over the Houston Rockets and frenemy James Harden, the stands were draped with blue shirts that read "Together." Only fewer people wore them than they did on that night three years ago. Even worse, the stands cleared out long before the end of the game. Sure, the game was already decided and it certainly wasn't early, but this is the much-heralded Oklahoma City fan base. The concept of leaving early was unthinkable only a few years ago when we could only dream of playoff basketball in Bricktown.
And it's not the first time it's happened. I've seen more fans this year stay away from games against the league's worst teams despite the presence of multiple superstars on the Thunder. The Thunder have sold out 109 straight games, but the ‘Peake is emptying before the game's final buzzer with more and more regularity, and even seats stay empty farther and farther into the third quarter.
That's not to say the fans aren't some of the best in the league, something coach Scotty Brooks went out of his way to acknowledge on Sunday. And I'm almost certainly overreacting to a degree. But I can't help but think back to that surreal moment three years ago and wonder what those hungry, frenzied fans from 2010 would say to us now as we quietly slip out the door in hopes of making it home just a few minutes earlier and hit the bed as we stare at the Thunder car flag on our nightstand that we haven't quite got around to putting on just yet.
Maybe it was inevitable.
Like that poignant song that makes you pull over to the side of the road or that unparalleled rush of your first time behind the wheel, maybe that level of devotion is unsustainable. Maybe the novelty of the NBA has worn off. Maybe those diehard fans will always take a step back when the business of the NBA - from the first time CP3 returned to the 405 to the apocalyptic day Harden left it - cuts too close for comfort. Maybe it's the fate of all sports fanbases to become desensitized to greatness when it occurs with the regularity that Durant and Co. are bringing. And maybe it's just impossible for fans to bring it every night at the same high level we've grown accustomed to in Oklahoma.
Either way, it scares that paranoid part of me, that corner of my mind that wants there to be no doubt in anyone's mind that Oklahoma is just as different as we like to think. After all, if we want superstars to believe it's a state worth playing and living in, that it's not the "vast wasteland" Charles Barkley famously described it as, then we have to prove beyond a doubt that it is and will always be someplace special, where the usual rules and passing fads of other pro franchises don't apply. We need this to be true, because as the very existence of the Thunder proves, if you forget your team for long enough they will eventually forget you.
But I don't believe that decline is inevitable. I won't believe that. After all, this is Oklahoma City, where Sooners and Cowboys gather at the ‘Peake in peace and even agree to forget for a short time Kevin Durant's unforgivable sin of being a Longhorn. Where 18 years ago we proved we could come together like no one else in the face of tragedy. Where we turned a desolate downtown waste into a booming entertainment district through shared sacrifice and civic pride through the MAPS program. Where we bring that same distinctive sense of Oklahoma pride to our Sooners, our Pokes, our thunder and our Thunder.
Thunder fans have an ironclad reputation for a reason, and it's because they've earned it. But as great as the laurels may be, they aren't forever. Remember that after the frenzy of the postseason is over; as the team slogs through the second night of a back-to-back a year from now; as the team rebuilds a decade from now. Kevin Durant has nightmares about what happens when he slacks off for even a minute, knows that if the Thunder want to earn their first title nothing can be taken for granted. It's a lesson anyone sitting a bit farther back, whether it's five feet off the bench or five stories above it, would do well to remember.
Don't blow it.
And please, for my sake, wear the stupid shirt.
Corbin Hosler is a sports writer from Norman, Oklahoma, covering high school and University of Oklahoma sports. He is an avid fan of gaming of any kind, staying up far too late watching games, much to the chagrin of his wife. He can be reached at Chosler@cox.net or on Twitter at @Chosler88.