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Thunder Family Values

Yes, the Sonics divorced Seattle, but you can’t blame Oklahoma City for picking up the pieces.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant

After you turn 40, weird things start happening. Your hair might change colors or disappear entirely. You fall asleep earlier, and more quickly, almost like you’ve been drugged. Your eyesight starts getting wonky. You start eating healthier, or you swing the other way and become an outright glutton. You’re attending more funerals than weddings and can’t figure out what changed. I could go on and on. Just know that nothing is stranger than being friends with a couple that suddenly/inexplicably/unbelievably gets divorced.

The first reaction: Either “I can’t believe it!!!” or “I knew it! I told you!”

The second reaction: “What happened?”

The third reaction: “All right, that’s what they’re saying happened … but what really happened?”

And many times, something happened. The particulars determine whether you can remain friendly with both sides, or whether you have to pick one spouse over the other. If it’s an amicable separation that happened because the couple couldn’t live together anymore (for whatever reason), but they’re remaining friends for the sake of the kids? That’s an easy one. If your old college roommate jettisoned his wife and three kids for a 20-year-old yoga instructor? Not as easy. Your wife would rather shave her legs with a cheese grater than double-date with the new couple.

And that’s how I felt about Seattle’s pro basketball situation for the longest time. This was the ugliest of sports divorces: The Sonics (our buddy) left Seattle (the wife with three kids) for the yoga instructor (Oklahoma City). Translation: The new owners hijacked the team as David Stern twiddled his thumbs and looked the other way. If that wasn’t bad enough, they took young Kevin Durant with them — a potential superstar who was clearly destined for special things, someone created to score points the same way sharks were created to eat. And as Oklahoma City blossomed into such an entertaining contender those next four years, it was impossible (at least for me) to forget about the Seattle fans. That wasn’t just any market. The Sonics had fantastic fans. They won the 1979 NBA title. They were playing in a thriving city. How could Seattle lose its basketball team, and why wouldn’t the NBA want a team in Seattle?

Everyone defended Seattle because that’s what happens in a divorce: If there’s a victim, everyone sides with the victim. But in this case, there was a second victim … Oklahoma City fans. Remember, THEY didn’t steal the Sonics. They would have preferred an expansion team. They never wanted to be the 20-year-old yoga instructor. When the Sonics moved here and changed their name to the (I still can’t say it), what were OKC fans supposed to do? Feel guilty? Avoid the games? Not support the team?

And to everyone’s surprise, the yoga instructor turned out to be pretty awesome. Which is what makes this situation so damned awkward. With the possible exception of Portland, no NBA team means more to its city. This goes beyond having the loudest fans. There’s genuine devotion here. These people arrived a good 45 minutes early for last night’s Game 1 — and by “these people” I mean “everyone with a ticket” — then clapped their way through pregame warm-ups with such infectious enthusiasm that I remember saying to a friend, “No way these yahoos keep this up for three hours, they’re going to burn out.”

Wrong. You know what burned out? My eardrums. My head is still ringing. This wasn’t just a show for the Finals. I flew to Oklahoma City for a regular-season game 18 months ago; they brought it that night, too.

The simple explanation: Oklahoma City has really good fans. The complicated explanation: They care a little bit more because the team matters more to them. Before Durant showed up, Oklahoma City was The City That Had The Bombing. Outsiders knew Oklahoma for football, the Nebraska rivalry and 1995’s terrorist attack, and maybe not even in that order. The locals came to accept that over time. During my first trip here, I lost count of how many people asked me, “Did you go to the memorial yet?” They want people to see it. They want outsiders to understand what happened here, how it changed the lives of everyone that day and every day going forward.

Every time Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti acquires a new player, he has them visit the memorial. It’s the only way to fully comprehend the horror of what happened. You never really recover from losing 168 locals, including 19 children, as well as just about an entire block of your downtown. You never stop thinking about how unfair life can be sometimes, how one lunatic shouldn’t be able to carry that much sway. Presti wants incoming players to understand the stakes. You just joined an especially close-knit community that’s bonded forever by a horrific tragedy. This is like nowhere else you have ever played. You have to understand why they’re wired this way. He encourages them to glance around the stands during their first home game, to remember that every one of the 18,000 fans was probably affected by the bombing in some way.

So that’s part of what makes Oklahoma City’s crowd so special. The other part is a little more familiar: It’s the only-child syndrome. When you only follow one professional sports team, everything gets magnified, everything gets heightened, everything means more … basically, you lose your minds. If you’re from a four-team city, or even a three-team city, imagine grouping your passion/angst/affection for those teams into one mega-team. How would you handle it? For instance, how would I have handled the Celtics’ collapse in the Miami series if that was my only team? Would I still be wearing the same clothes from Saturday? Would I be passed out drunk or in a coma? Would I be writing my fourth straight “Woe is me” column?

Welcome to Oklahoma City, Portland, Edmonton, Sacramento, San Antonio, Montreal, and many English cities in the Premier League. When you’re the only team in town, every moment matters. Digging a little deeper, professional sports has a way of validating smaller American cities. When the Whalers left Hartford, suddenly there wasn’t much difference between Hartford and New Haven. If the Kings leave Sacramento, suddenly the distance between Fresno and Oakland isn’t that vast. Even one pro team validates a city in the following way: We matter enough to have a pro team. That’s why the Oklahoma City fans showed up early, that’s why they spent three hours cheering, that’s why my head is ringing, and that’s why my friend Nathan said, “This is like a great college crowd, but with older people.”

Yup, it’s the Old School of crowds, right down to Blue being involved. Last night, they may have broken the modern record for “Most Local Fans Who Actually Attended Their Own NBA Team’s Playoff Games.” A source working in the ticket industry told me that (a) of the four conference finalists, Oklahoma City represented just 5 percent of the total available tickets listed on the secondary markets (StubHub, etc.), and (b) 10 times more Finals tickets are being resold for the Miami games than the Oklahoma City games. That’s why outsiders had so much trouble finding quality tickets for Games 1 and 2 … well, unless they were Jim Goldstein or Worldwide Wes.

In general, it’s a fan experience unlike any other. You know that sea of goofy blue T-shirts that stand out in HD so splendidly? Everyone wears them. Everyone. They have the highest “goofy T-shirt per fan” percentage ever. Even local ladies have no problem throwing them over a cocktail dress. And they never stop cheering and yelling. When their boys were trailing by 10 in the first half, you would have thought the game was tied. Whenever a referee’s call goes against them, they flip out like a drunk movie producer being wait-listed at a Sundance party. How could you do that? WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? YOU’RE THE WORST!!!!!! If their team makes a run, they cheer through the ensuing timeout like it’s nothing. Throw in the artificial noise (constant) and it’s just an unsettling place to play. Opposing players must end up feeling like Mel Gibson’s kid in Ransom when he was being held in that dark room with the earsplitting music.

At the same time, you never forget you’re in Oklahoma City. Not for a second. The locals have been impossibly friendly and welcoming, shades of Indianapolis during Super Bowl XLVI, only with the added wrinkle that everyone is overwhelmed that the NBA Finals actually came to Oklahoma. Before every game starts, someone walks out to midcourt and says a prayer. During the national anthem, everyone holds their hand over their heart and sings. The video screen keeps flashing the words “Oklahoma,” and the fans chant “Oh Kay See! Oh Kay See!” constantly. Does any other fan base chant the name of its city and not the team’s nickname?

It’s the perfect match — a proud crowd with endless energy and a proud young team with endless energy. From a basketball standpoint, one thing stood out about Game 1: Only this particular Oklahoma City team can make the 2012 Miami Heat seem a step slow. After spending the last round wearing down the creaky Celtics, suddenly, the Heat are the ones that can’t stop the other guys from running off misses and playing above the rim. LeBron can match the athleticism of Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook and Harden; Wade picks his spots. Who else on Miami can get there? Remember, Oklahoma City pulled away last night getting a quiet 36 from Durant (the only NBA star who could score 36 as his fans are yelling at him to shoot more) and one of those “He Did What?” games from Westbrook (a 27-8-11 that, in person, didn’t seem nearly as effective). The third member of their “Big Three” (Harden) played just 22 minutes. Their best performances came from two role players: Thabo Sefolosha (terrific second-half defense on LeBron) and Nick Collison (10 rebounds in 21 minutes).

If anything, I left Game 1 feeling like Oklahoma City could leap a level in this series. They’re already 9-0 at home in the playoffs; could they run the slate? Is there some 1987 Minnesota Twins potential here? On the flip side, the Heat can’t win the title settling for jumpers like they did last night. You win titles at the rim and the five feet of territory surrounding the basket. That’s how the 2010 Lakers won Game 7 against Boston. That’s how Dallas turned last year’s Finals around. And that’s how this series will be decided — on that five feet, and to a lesser extent, on the incredible LeBron/Durant and Wade/Westbrook matchups (even if they aren’t defending each other as much as we thought).

That reminds me, Oklahoma City and Miami have similar problems (if you could call it that): They’re better off running everything through their best guy (LeBron for Miami, Durant for Oklahoma City), but their second-best guy is good enough that he feels obligated to assert himself, too. It’s a constant tightrope for both teams. When it became clear that Durant was heating up in the fourth quarter, the frustrated fans were hollering, “GIVE IT TO KEVIN!!!!” They couldn’t help themselves. It’s a thankless role for Westbrook, who played at warp speed for four quarters and has been cast into that “middle child” role — probably forever — but at the same time, there couldn’t have been six other players in NBA history who score more effortlessly than Durant does. After two straight baskets, the guy sitting right behind me flipped out and just started screaming, “Give it to him! Give it to 35! Just give it to him every time! EVERY TIME!!!!!!!!”

You know who it was? Micheal Ray Richardson. He wanted the whole section to hear him. The implication was clear. I played professional basketball. I was really good once upon a time. I am blessing this experience for you. And he did.

For that reason and many others, I found myself feeling happy for the Oklahoma City fans after they clinched Game 1. You’re not supposed to like the 20-year-old yoga instructor, but that’s the thing — they never asked to be cast in that role, and you can’t fault them for embracing their boys from Day 1. They love Durant the same way Seattle would have loved him. They cheer the Zombie Sonics just as loudly as Seattle cheered the Sonics once upon a time. Is it possible to feel happy for Oklahoma City while continuing to feel absolutely, unequivocally terrible for Seattle? Actually, yes.

(The lesson, as always: Divorces suck.)