PERFECT MATCH: THUNDER, OKLAHOMA



HE COULD HAVE RATTLED OFF a number of things.

Fifty-two wins ... a playoff berth ... improved defense ... nine-game win streak.

But Thabo Sefolosha went with his gut. Only 12 hours removed from a season-ending Game 6 loss to the L.A. Lakers, Sefolosha was wrapping up his final media session at the team’s practice facility. The Swiss native was asked to name his favorite part of the season.

“I guess the day we came back from Dallas and we had the fans outside of the airport,” Sefolosha recalled. “Coming back and seeing the fans, that was pretty special. It gave me goose bumps coming down the plane, so that was pretty special.”

Sefolosha slows down. For a second, it looked like he was about to retract that comment. But another moment just flashed across his mind.

He continued: “Actually, I think it was the first game of the playoffs when we came out and the crowd was standing up, clapping for five minutes and cheering ‘Beat L.A.’ That was pretty nice.”

Season Ticket Member Ken Dickenson, 41, can recall both moments, because he was there for each of them.

He and his family, along with 100 or so other Thunder fans, were pressed up against the chain-linked fence outside the tarmac where the team plane landed only hours after it had clinched a playoff berth with its April 3 victory at Dallas.

Dickenson had loaded up the family car and came from Edmond to welcome back the Thunder. They waited about 45 minutes before the plane actually landed and the players, to their surprise, were greeted with cheers, hand-made signs and noise-makers for a job well done.

When the players made their way to the crowd, high-fiving and shaking hands through the fence, it made Dickenson’s night.

But when Nick Collison pulled his car around, parked it in front of the horde of fans and began signing autographs and posing for pictures, it made an everlasting memory for Dickenson.

“Everyone kind of swarmed his SUV,” Dickenson recalled. “I kind of felt sorry for him. But he was really cool about it.”

Collison was cool about it because he cares. He understands the player-fan connection. So does the rest of the Thunder.

And it’s moments like those that have strengthened the bond that’s developed between the Thunder and the state of Oklahoma ever since the franchise arrived here in July 2008.

The 31 Ford Center sellouts, the early-to-arrive, don’t-leave-till-the-buzzer crowd, the local businesses hanging team colors and signs on their buildings and store fronts, the car flags and decals seen on the roads, it’s all a product of the relationship between organization and community.

For Dickenson, the relationship is more personal. He said he and his 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son have met several of the Thunder players in the mall. Dickenson fondly recalls a brief moment he had at a Season Ticket Member party with forward Jeff Green, his favorite player.

“It makes it really easy to be a fan because they’re always smiling, they’re always happy to see you,” Dickenson said. “They’re always willing to give an autograph. I think it’s an approachability kind of thing. And I think when you do that, the fans get behind you even more.”

KEVIN DURANT IS CONVINCED the kids who live in his neighborhood know his schedule.

Durant has a glass door, so he sees them coming.

“They come at the right time,” he said.

And when they ring his doorbell, whether they want an autograph or are there just to chat, Durant doesn’t turn them away.

“If I was a little kid and I knew an NBA player lived down the street, I’d be the same way,” he said. “Hopefully they continue to come by because I like things like that.”

A team co-captain and first time All-Star, Durant has been approached by scores of Thunder fans this season. He said he’s met a wide range of them, from the elderly to the businessmen to the abundance of children.

He said the kids in his neighborhood still make chalk drawings on his driveway, something that began back when the team relocated to Oklahoma City. Durant knows a lot of fans by name. He’s become friendly with many throughout the season, mostly during the time prior to tip-off, when he signs a countless number of autographs and poses for pictures for the earliest of fans to arrive to the Ford Center. Durant Tweets other fans and has even given away tickets and KD2 sneakers through his Twitter account.

He loves the way the community has embraced the Thunder, something he thinks the organization has done in return. The support is something he doesn’t take for granted.

“I think with how we are on and off the court, we show a lot of maturity, we show a lot of class and people really draw to that,” Durant said. “There’s a lot of nice people here, good-hearted people here and we’re very privileged to be a part of a city like this. And I think everybody sees how much we’re dedicated to the game of basketball and this community, and they draw to us. I’ve seen it grow over the last two years and it only gets better.”

THE T-SHIRT FOUND its way to the black reclining chair in front of Nenad Krstic’s locker stall a little more than an hour before tip-off of Game 6.

Made by a diehard Krstic fan living in Arizona and shipped to friends in Oklahoma City, the black T-shirt has been spotted at home games and even on the team plane.

The shirt is a tribute and spinoff from one that was made for legendary wrestler Andre The Giant.

It reads: “Nenad Krstic Has A Posse,” and the shirt has a nicely stenciled mug of the Serbian center.

Krstic got a kick out of it once he was told the meaning of "posse." Collison spotted a few fans wearing one before a home game and immediately made the Andre The Giant connection. The Thunder reserve wanted one for himself. A few months later, he was wearing it on the team plane to Dallas.

Holding it in his hands, Krstic flashes a wide grin.

“That’s amazing,” he said. “It’s really nice and it’s funny, too. I appreciate it.”

Chris McDaniel, 31, designed the T-shirt in honor of his favorite player.

“Nenad was the barometer for me on the team,” he said.

Born and raised in Lawton, McDaniel moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., last December for a new job with a modeling agency. A frequenter of the thunder.nba.com game-night chat, one night McDaniel decided to put “Nenad Krstic has a posse” out there. Fellow chatters liked it and suggested he make a T-shirt. McDaniel did the artwork, showed a few people and printed up a batch. He’s fielded requests for 30 T-shirts so far.

And even though he’s miles away from the Ford Center, McDaniel renewed his season tickets for the 2010-11 season, even though he knows he won’t be able to make many games. Off the top of his head, McDaniel said he’ll be there for the season opener and at least a handful of other games.

“All the other tickets,” he said, “will go to the posse.”

WHEN KRSTIC WENT BACK to his native Serbia last summer, he said the locals had heard about Thunder fans and the Ford Center.

“They’ve heard about the atmosphere,” Krstic said. “If I give an interview, one of the questions is always, ‘How’s the crowd and the fans?’ ”

Krstic said he’s noticed a difference in the community support since he arrived here in late December of 2009. And there’s days when he comes home from a practice or game and finds a baked cake from a neighbor on his doorstep.

“Even when you walk down the street, people recognize you,” he said. “They’re more likely to say, ‘Hello.’ They’re starting to feel like it’s their team, the home team. It’s the second year, but sometimes it takes longer to realize.”

Dickenson could relate.

He thought of last season as being a bit of a feeling-out process for everyone involved.

It’s been a different story this year.

When the team is on the road, Dickenson constantly finds himself checking the score on his cell phone or staying up late to watch game highlights. This season has even made a fan out of Dickenson’s wife, Amy.

“My wife is not a sports fan,” he said. “But this year she was excited. It was awesome to see. In Game 6 of the playoffs, I don’t know how many times she would turn to me and say, ‘This is so cool.’ ”

It’s one example of what Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti cited Monday when he spoke of the passion, loyalty and civic pride the organization has received.

“We’re going to try to give back through every opportunity we have in the community,” Presti said, “because the concept of ‘Rise Together’ is as much about the community as it is the people in our uniforms.”

Contact Chris Silva