The united family attitude the Thunder uses to describe itself is not limited only to the players in the locker room, but to the entire organization, the fans and the city it represents.
On Friday afternoon, it was abundantly clear that Oklahoma City has embraced this Thunder team with open arms and with the love, respect and care normally only reserved for family. More than 4,000 fans, according to the Oklahoma City Police Department, gathered in a clearing near Will Rogers World Airport to greet the team after its return flight home from Miami, where the team fell in the NBA Finals.
The massive lot of fans’ parked cars was adjacent to an area the Thunder organization had set aside for fans to join together and cheer on the team as it returned home. Busses took players and staff from the plane directly to a stage in front of the mass of fans, where numerous players took the microphone and thanked the fans.
“This season was special to us,” forward Kevin Durant said. “We came together as a group and that built us closer and that built that bond closer every single day. I love these guys, they’re my brothers. Last night was one of the toughest times we ever had as a group, but coming home we knew we’d see you guys in the morning. One thing I can tell you is that we’re going to come back and work for you guys every single day as hard as we can to try to get back and try to bring it to OKC.”
Durant, hearing “MVP” chants while he spoke, mentioned the time during the offseason when he and his teammates worked out together and continued to learn more about one another on and off the court. Those times exemplify the way the team has matured as a group to understand that each and every day holds the possibility for growth.
Next to the microphone was guard Russell Westbrook, who referenced a poignant moment he felt with the fans early in the season, which juxtaposed his 43-point, seven-rebound, five-assist outburst in Game 4 of the Finals. Westbrook commended the fans on having his back after a slow start to the season, including a game at Memphis when he shot 0-for-13. The next home game, when Westbrook stepped to the line, the entire crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena began chanting his name. It was a surreal, loving 18,203-person hug that helped pick up Westbrook right when he needed it.
“I just personally want to thank you guys,” Westbrook said. “You guys helped me a lot. I started the year off very tough and you guys lifted me up. I just want to thank you guys for all the support and we’ll come back better next year and be better. I know our coaching staff and all our guys appreciate everything you guys do. You make everybody feel comfortable.”
Another person who received such an ovation during the season was veteran guard Derek Fisher, who joined the team mid-season, signing as a free agent. The former Los Angeles Laker is a five-time NBA Champion, with the fifth of those rings coming a month after the Lakers beat the Thunder in round one of the 2010 NBA Playoffs. Regardless of the fact he was a former foe, Fisher received a standing ovation when he was first introduced to the home crowd on March 21 against the Los Angeles Clippers. In addition, he received “One More Year” chants as he took the microphone on Friday.
“I thanked these guys last night for allowing me to come in as a new guy and become a part of the team,” Fisher said “I wanted to make sure that I thank all of you as a community for allowing me to become a part of the Thunder, be a part of the city, be a part of the community. I had a great time.”
Another player who is still relatively new to the Thunder is center Kendrick Perkins, who also has Championship mettle during his time as a Boston Celtic. Even he, coming from an organization where “Celtic Pride” is the slogan and the team has 17 NBA titles, has been in awe of the way Oklahoma City has rallied around its players and proven its dedication to the team on a daily basis.
“I played in Boston for eight years and I thought they were the best fans in the world,” Perkins said, pausing. “Until I got to OKC and I saw what it means to be a part of something special. In this offseason each and every one of us is going to get better and try to do what we can to win the championship next year.”
The unique nature of the way Thunder fans cheer for their team is not lost on these Thunder players. Many of the younger players like James Harden have never played for another NBA team, but in traveling to all other 28 arenas throughout the year, it’s obvious to the Thunder that it is extremely lucky and privileged to have such an amazing fan base that supports the team through thick-and-thin.
“I just want to say thank you for all the support that you guys give us, year in and year out, every single game,” Harden said. “It really means a lot to us. Just the support, I don’t think any other NBA team has the support that we have.”
Harden felt the love from Thunder fans through a difficult NBA Finals and was greeted by familiar “Fear the Beard” chants as he walked to the front of the stage. His fellow 22-year-old teammate, forward Serge Ibaka, was encouraged by his teammates to also talk to the fans, even though English isn’t his first language. Ibaka is fluent in five tongues and got his point across extremely effectively, saying that even though he’s played in other countries, the Thunder fan base is the best he’s experienced.
“I want to thank you guys for your support during the season and the Playoffs,” Ibaka said. “I’m so happy to be here with you guys and with this team. … You guys are the best fans in the NBA and the best fans I’ve ever seen.”
Another multi-linguist in the Thunder’s starting lineup is Thabo Sefolosha, who is a part of the Thunder’s bright future that features a roster where the majority of the players are 26-years old and younger. The Thunder feels it is a family and wants to continue to grow and improve together, along with the city and its fans.
“I have just two words,” Sefolosha said. “Thank you. You guys are just amazing. Coming back here, we wish we had more to celebrate, but hopefully next year. We’ll be working hard and we do it for you. You guys are family.”
As a perfect representation for how the entire day went, Head Coach Scott Brooks thanked the fans and told them what he thought about this year’s team and the season as a whole. The fact that so many Thunder fans took the time to come out to the airport in the middle of a week day to support the team was a clear indicator that Brooks was right on the money.
“There are two things I will always remember about this team,” Brooks said. “One, they played very hard and two, you guys cheered just as hard.”