Andrew Unterberger is somewhere in the middle of the United States. Here’s his report from Oklahoma City…
Someone please tell me what the fuck it’s doing being so cold this far south? OK, so maybe my dreams of consistently sweating through temperatures in the 70s and 80s as I traversed the country’s lower half were never particularly realistic — aside from my afternoon in Phoenix and maybe a couple hours in San Antonio, I don’t think I’ve gotten much warmer than the 60s. But as I drove north to Oklahoma City and saw the temperatures on my car thermometer drop from the low 50s to the 40s and gradually to around freezing, I couldn’t believe it — at the very least, I figured I’d be able to go until my DC trip before I had to see my breath again. I thought I was so clever (accidentally so, anyway) structuring my trip to spend the start of the winter closer to the equator, but I guess no matter where you are, December eventually finds you. Bummer.
Anyway, no time for fretting over that, since the Ford Center was to mark my third game in as many nights, and after a goodbye Sunday brunch with my grandparents, I was off to see the Thunder take on a suddenly very despondent Cavaliers team. Hard to believe that when going over my schedule with my friend Jake at the beginning of the trip, he had actually earmarked this as potentially one of the better matchups, but an easy W at this point would continue my sudden hot streak and do me just fine.
The Stadium: Driving up to my parking lot about a quarter-mile from the stadium, I easily identified the arena by the big “Ford” sign protruding from its exterior. But as I walked up, I realized that the Ford sign was not actually connected to the arena, but rather just an advertisement for a nearby dealership. Indeed, the name was not to be found anywhere along the building’s outsides, as least as far as I could tell. (A fan named Chris answered “I like that the name’s not on it anymore” when I asked him why he liked the stadium, so evidently this was a relatively recent development). Later Wikipedia-ing revealed that in fact naming right negotiations with Ford had recently stalled, leading to their name being stripped from the building in favor of the uncontroversial “Oklahoma City Arena” until sponsorship could be settled. Was this common knowledge? I had no idea.
Anyway, the building’s exterior was relatively innocuous, and I was too cold to do much exploring anyway. The insides were nice enough — I like the court’s look, and the press row was right behind the scorer’s table, giving me my best view of the trip so far. The only weird or particularly interesting thing about the stadium, really, was the pervasive Christian influence in and around the game. A local Chase building had some of its windows lit in the shape of a cross, and the game’s halftime and post-game entertainment was CCM recording artist Chris August. (Can’t say I was a fan, though he did a nice cover of “I Want You Back” in his second set.) A reader even Tweeted me to ask me what I thought about the team’s opening prayer, though I guess I missed that backstage talking to Royce Young of Daily Thunder. Not overbearing, exactly, but I get the feeling they weren’t doing Hanukkah Night at the OCA last week.
(By the way, before I stray too far from the subject, who the hell decided on “Oklahoma City Arena” as the stadium’s temp name? It’s so rare these days that a team gets the chance to name a building without having to cater to a sponsor — why not run with it? Call it the Lightning Factory, or the Sonic Boom, or, here’s an idea — what about the Thunderdome? It’s what everyone’s going to call it anyway, why not get some mileage out of it? Would they have to pay royalties to Mel Gibson and Tina Turner or something? Honestly, the lack of creativity in this league sometimes…)
The Game: Within about five minutes, this thing was over, by about ten minutes, it was officially an exhibition contest. For a 15-8 team, the Thunder hadn’t exactly been knocking people on their ass this year — Royce talked to me about how many of the team’s Ws this year had been by seven points or less — so going in, I guess it was possible that the Cavs would scrap their way to at least a respectable loss. But right out of the gate, the Thunder just started pounding dunks on the Cavs — a Westbrook-Durant alley-oop, a Harden-Green breakout slam, and of course, the Harden posterization of JJ Hickson you’ve undoubtedly read all about by now. The Thunder looked about as dynamic as I’d ever seen them on offense, and even as the Cavs battled back to within ten by the end of the half, there was no question who the better team was going to end up being that night.
So yeah, about those Cavs — it’s amazing how quickly they’ve gone from being the feel-good story of the early season (beating the Celtics in their opener, starting 4-2) to the most depressing team in the league (losing their last eight games to drop to 7-17). This was my third game seeing them on this trip, and I’ve now intercepted them at their scrappy underdog stage (winning in Philadelphia) to their tough-out-but-struggling stage (a tough loss at home to the Nets) to them now being the walking dead against the Thunder. Even when I was in Cleveland at 4-2, the fans seemed to have the sense that this team was overachieving, and now, you look at some of the rotation players (Jawad Williams? Manny Harris?) and wonder how this team is gonna win another ten games all season. It’s hard to see how any team would come back from their annihilation/humiliation in front of a season-high national audience a few weeks ago, but with a team like this … start scouting those lottery picks, Cavs fans.
But the night wasn’t about the Cavs, it was about the Thunder, and things couldn’t have looked much better for them. A couple big shots from Kevin Durant in the third quarter helped push the lead into Hit-the-Locker-Room-early territory, and the fourth quarter featured prominent minutes for Garbage-Time All-Stars DJ White, Royal Ivey and BJ “No I’m Not Calling You Byron Quit Fucking Asking” Mullens. (The latter even got a couple nice highlights on both sides of the ball out of it, though I was too distracted staring at his god-awful facial scuzz to really take notice.) Final Score: Thunder 106, Cavaliers 77.
The Fans: It being a Sunday afternoon against a bad team, I was dreading the cavalcade of “Actually, the turnout is usually much better than this, too bad you weren’t here last week when…” type excuses from the locals to explain the stadium’s poor attendance. But when I looked up from press row at tip-off, I saw that the stands were actually pretty well-filled — some empty seats to be had, sure, but good percentages on both levels, and definitely no barren sections. “I think other teams are pretty shocked [by the turnout] — they’d like to have these fans,” a fan named Anita told me when I asked about the city’s embracing of the team. “I look at games at other arenas and see a lot of empty seats. These don’t have that many empty seats.”
An impressive showing, indeed, and those fans in attendance were treated to a SportsCenter highlight package of a game. In terms of response, it wasn’t quite the decibel-record-cracking levels of the first round of last year’s playoffs, but it was appropriately loud for the cavalcade of threes, dunks and and-ones that the Thunder successively racked up against Cleveland. “The Hornets spent a few seasons here, and people were excited, but it was more about the NBA itself–come see Kobe, come see LeBron…” Royce explained to me. “Now it’s all about the Thunder. Oklahoma’s a college sports town, and the Thunder has stolen the thunder of college sports.” (Don’t worry, he looked appropriately sheepish at the semi-intentional pun.)
Distracted by Chris August, I didn’t get to talk to as many fans as I’d have liked, but those I did seemed unconcerned with any kind of power struggle between Durant and Westbrook. “No way,” fan Chris responded to my questioning about it. “Durant’s the leader of this team. No matter what.” (Anita had no idea that Durant was even supposedly struggling to begin the season.) Royce brought-up the well-circulated Simmons theory (SG Mention Counter: 4) about the situation paralleling that of Avon and Stringer from “The Wire,” but wasn’t completely sold on it. “Russell Westbrook, 10-15 times, has been all alone on a fast break, and dropped it off to KD for a dunk,” he explained. “So I think that shows that a rivalry doesn’t really exist.” (Royce also said that at the time of the ’08 draft, OKC folks-to-be were hoping to land Jerryd Bayless or Brook Lopez, so perhaps it’s all found money with RW anyway.)
Most Popular Jerseys: Durant probably still edging out Westbrook, though I imagine it gets closer every day. And I’m pretty sure I was the only asshole in a building to show up in a Sonics jersey. (Hey, it’s still a Durant — I just like the Sonics’ look more.)
Also Worth Noting: Perhaps the most exciting part of a rather exciting evening of basketball came courtesy not of anyone on the Thunder or Cavs, but rather from one Robert Yanders, half-court-shot contestant. After coming up short on most of his shots leading up to the big one, Yanders gave the crowd the “Let Me Hear It!!” hand level-raiser, and took a running start for his big heave. Swish. The crowd went absolutely ballistic — even some of the vet guys in the press row applauded, and it’s fucking impossible to get a reaction from those seen-it-alls — as Thunder mascot Rumble chased an ecstatic Yanders around the court. In the bathroom later in the quarter, I saw Yanders getting interviewed on TV, and he gave the building all the credit: “The fans is my sixth man.” Range, swagger, press-conference cliches — get that fan a contract!
Swag Acquired: Figured I had to get at least one this trip, so I picked out a Thunder basketball (Thunderball?) for $20. I waffle on the Thunder’s team colors — occasionally just comes off as a muted Knicks to me — but the white, yellow and blue work surprisingly well for roundball. It looks like a slightly hipper version of the old ABA ball.
2010 Jam of the Day:
Taylor Swift – “Dear John.” If it isn’t about John Mayer, it’s still a classic. If it is about John Mayer, it’s one of the ten greatest accomplishments of American pop culture this century.
Fourth game in four nights coming up later nearly 500 miles east at FedEx center. I’ll sleep when I’m officially unemployed again, I guess.