Thunder Players Excited to Welcome Fans Back to Paycom Center
When the ball gets tossed into the air by the referee on Sunday night in Paycom Center, it will officially mark exactly 600 days between Thunder games tipping off in Oklahoma City with fans in the building.
The Thunder’s home opener against the Philadelphia 76ers begins a three-game home stand that includes clashes with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, the last two Western Conference teams to win the NBA title. It will be a challenging and rewarding experience on the floor for Thunder players this week, but the moments will be even richer because they’ll be competing in front of the people they represent each night – Oklahomans.
“It's going to mean so much to have fans back in the building,” said point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “The energy they bring night-in, night-out, it's gonna be electrifying. It's gonna give us a boost as a team. I'm super excited for it. Fans have a huge impact on the game, especially in Oklahoma City.”
You are our home-court advantage.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) October 24, 2021
See you tonight, OKC.
On Media Day back in late September, forward Darius Bazley gazed up into the highest rows of Loud City, scanned across the club level boxes and down to the seats across from the Thunder’s bench in the 100-level. He soaked in the recognition that within a month those seats would be populated by thousands of loyal Thunder fans who swell with pride every time they see “Oklahoma City” stitched across the team’s jerseys.
With that emotion filling them up, Thunder fans are notorious for swinging momentum in games, be it buoying their guys during a tough stretch or giving the team an extra gear during a crucial run. With their understanding of the game, recognition of the small moments of hustle plays and willingness to lose their voices, Thunder fans have earned their reputation as some of the very best in the league.
“To have fans back, it means everything,” said Bazley. “As a group last year, we tried to do the best that we could bringing our own energy, but there's nothing like having fans in there to rally behind you.”
“Fans can have a huge impact on the game,” added veteran forward Mike Muscala. “When you're going on runs, when you need that extra boost, the energy, to get a stop or to turn things around.”
The Thunder has five rookies on the roster along with a pair of second year players in Aleksej Pokuševski and Théo Maledon, all of whom have never played in front of a Thunder crowd. Like all players who join the Thunder, this year’s rookie class visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum this summer, getting the chance to understand the depth of the community connection in town. With a knowledge of some major aspects of the city’s history, Thunder players are better able to internalize their responsibility to uphold the Oklahoma Standard of work ethic and resilience.
“I've heard so much about it – how good the crowd is and how supportive the fan base is,” said rookie forward Josh Giddey. “I've seen it on TV and on video, so I'm looking forward to being involved in that myself.”
On the other end of the spectrum, 12th year forward Derrick Favors, who played 9 and a half seasons for the Northwest Division rival Utah Jazz, may still have the din of Oklahoma City’s fans rattling around his head from past road trips to face the Thunder. Needless to say, he’s looking forward to having all that crowd noise serve as wind in his sails as opposed to trying to slow him up.
“They're loud,” chuckled Favors. “They're into the game the whole game. They stand before you score the first point.”
“Sometimes during the season, obviously, we get tired,” Favors added. “Sometimes mentally, physically, you're just tired, you're really not feeling it that day. But when you play in an arena where you have fans cheering for you gives you that extra juice.”
As Bazley mentioned, over the last 20 months, Thunder players have been training themselves to ratchet up their own energy in the absence of the spirit the fans provided for over a dozen years of games in Oklahoma City. The team will continue doing that – providing the crowd with as much energy as it is receiving.
Perhaps the man who is most naturally gifted at being a self-activated defibrillator is Luguentz Dort. When the third-year wrecking ball and his teammates rush out on the floor on Sunday night, showered with cheers from courtside to the rafters, there will be a blissful feeling of togetherness in the building.
“It feels amazing, just the fact that we haven't seen everyone in so long,” said Dort. “It's just so fun to play in front of the Oklahoma City fans and for the community to be able to come back and watch us play.”
As the team and fans move onward in lockstep during this Thunder squad’s journey, connections will be re-forged, new friendships will be made and the city will once again enjoy its downtown meeting point. Sunday will be the first of 41 celebrations of the NBA’s presence in OKC and everyone inside Paycom Center will soak up the joy that the game brings, together.