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Oklahoma City fans
A sea of blue awaited the Thunder and Nuggets in Game 1 in OKC.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Raucous crowd gives OKC a true home-court advantage

By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 20 2011 9:16AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's more than one member of the Karl family making adjustments for Wednesday's Game 2 at Oklahoma City Arena.

Denver coach George Karl will try to slow down Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 72 points in Oklahoma City's 107-103 win Sunday in Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series. Karl says his 6-year-old daughter, Kaci Grace, will show up with earplugs.

"She was crying (at Sunday's game) because the noise was too loud,'' Karl said. "That's a bad thing for a 6-year-old girl, but it's an awful good thing for an NBA basketball team to have that emotion and that enthusiasm in the building.''

Karl might have been playing some mind games before the series when he talked about Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks and his players, known to just about everybody else for humility, being "cocky.''

But Karl sounds quite sincere this time. He really loves the fan support the Thunder receive.

"I'm a huge fan of Oklahoma City, other than they took my team out of Seattle,'' said Karl, who coached the SuperSonics from 1991-1998 before they moved two time zones away in 2008. "I like small towns. I say this as compliment, so I hope Oklahoma City takes it as a compliment. I look at Oklahoma City as the Green Bay of the NBA. Green Bay is a marvelous place to watch an NFL game. It's probably the best place in the world to watch an NFL game.''

Oklahoma City isn't the tiniest NBA city, but it's close. Only New Orleans and Salt Lake City are smaller in population and only Memphis and New Orleans have smaller television markets.

Still, Oklahoma City has played to 97.7 percent capacity or better in each of the past three seasons, including the inaugural 2008-09 campaign in which the Thunder started 3-29 and finished 23-59. The only other NBA teams that can make that claim are Dallas, Portland and the Los Angeles Lakers.

When it comes to fans at Oklahoma City Arena being loud, just ask Kacie Grace. Or forward Nick Collison, one of three players (along with Durant and Westbrook) who have been with the Thunder throughout its tenure in Oklahoma City.

"It can't get much louder than that,'' Collison said of the atmosphere at Game 1. "The fans get there early. It's definitely a different feeling when you run out for layups and everybody's already there and ready to cheer. It's a fun atmosphere.''

The arena already was packed 20 minutes before Sunday's tipoff when the Thunder took the floor, receiving a big ovation. It didn't help immediately as Oklahoma City fell behind by 13 points in the first quarter. But the Thunder came back to win, and the players said fan support had a role in that.

It was a huge occasion last spring when the Thunder unexpectedly made the playoffs and threw a serious scare into the Lakers in the first round, falling 4-2. In the three games in Oklahoma City, the Thunder won the first two by an average margin of 13 points and nearly won a third before the series ended on a last-second tip-in by Lakers forward Pau Gasol.

So far, the atmosphere doesn't seem much different from last season. Before Sunday's game, "Thunder Alley'' again had been set up outside the arena, complete with carnival-type games for fans, opportunities to win tickets and a television to view the game. Bands again played within earshot of the venue.

Inside, fans again were welcomed with a T-shirt waiting on each seat. On Sunday, it was hard to find anyone in the capacity crowd of 18,203 not clad in Thunder blue.

Expectations are obviously higher a year after the Thunder were the No. 8 seed against the No. 1 Lakers, who were on the way to a second straight title. This time Oklahoma City is No. 4 and favored to dispatch No. 5 Denver.

General manager Sam Presti is a big reason expectations have soared. He's made savvy trades and Draft selections since taking the job in the summer of 2007. And, now, Thunder fans have a reason to cheer.

Then again, they cheered hard two years ago when they had fewer reasons.

"When we weren't winning a lot of games, I give them a lot of credit because not a lot of people stick with a team that's 3-29,'' said Brooks, who took over that season after the Thunder had started 1-12.

The Thunder averaged 97.7 percent of capacity in 2008-09. Since then, Oklahoma City has played to 98.9 percent last season and 99.7 percent this season, when an average of 18,148 fans per game showed up.

"We have great fan support that stems from a tremendous amount of civic pride that's held in this community,'' said Presti, whose team went 30-11 at home during the regular season. "And we're very fortunate to have the universal support of the city and the state.''

With that in mind, one of the tallest buildings downtown is adorned with signs on each side declaring, "Let's Go Thunder.'' Painted on sidewalks near the arena are similar messages.

As for the fans inside, they appreciate their hoops. This is not simply football country.

"They're real fans,'' said Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, who says the roar of the crowd can elicit "goosebumps'' for him. "They don't just come to be entertained. They're real fans.... At a lot of arenas, fans just want to be entertained. They go to a basketball game like they go to a movie. But here they really come to cheer.''

Said Collison: "It feels like the whole community is behind us.''

No doubt someone in the community would be happy to provide Kaci Grace with earplugs before Game 2.

Chris Tomasson has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter @christomasson.

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