The Oklahoman

Thunder welcomes fans back, and fans welcome the return

- Jenni Carlson Columnist The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK

Bryan Rodriguez and Mackenzie Means knew the arena doors didn’t open until 5:30 p.m.

Knew, too, the game didn’t tip off until 7.

But well before 5 p.m. Monday, they were sitting on a concrete retaining wall outside Paycom Center waiting for the Thunder’s preseason opener against the Hornets. It was the first time the Thunder had welcomed fans to a game since the pandemic began, and Rodriguez and Means were the first fans there.

“Actually, we’ve been here since …” Means said, glancing at Rodriguez. “3:30,” he said.

They laughed, but they weren’t going

to miss this.

Thousands of other Thunder fans felt the same way. Even though Monday was an exhibition game — nothing counts until the regular season starts in a couple weeks — it was a significant night for the Oklahoma City faithful.

Fans haven’t been in the stands for a Thunder home game since March 11, 2020, the night Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID and the NBA stopped the Thunder-Jazz game moments before tipoff.

Before the evening was out, the entire league was on indefinite suspension.

Even though the associatio­n returned to action last season, the Thunder was the only team not allow fans.

“I didn’t think it was gonna be this long,” Rodriguez said of not being able to go to a game. “It’s been a while.” Almost 19 months.

Or to be exact, 572 days.

But Monday afternoon, the arena — Chesapeake Energy Arena the last time fans were in it, Paycom Center now — came back to life. Concession stands filled with candy and burgers, beer counters with bottles and cans. Escalators hummed, and workers buzzed.

A voice on a walkie talkie echoed around the concourse.

“I’m running out of barbecue sauce,” it said.

“OK,” another answered, “we have some barbecue sauce downstairs.”

A worker sat a couple boxes in front of a rapidly filling apparel shop.

“It’s getting to me,” he said, breathing heavily and patting his heart.

It’s understand­able — everyone’s a little out of practice.

Having fans back even had the Thunder a bit out of sorts. Veteran big man Mike Muscala was so excited about the return of the fans that it affected his pregame routine.

“It was a little hard for me to take my pregame nap,” he said. “It’s exciting for me. Excited for the young guys. Excited to just get out there in front of the fans and compete.”

The Thunder, of course, played in front of fans on the road much of last season. Even though capacities were reduced, there were still people in the stands, and the Thunder could tell the difference.

“Honestly, the NBA did the best they could at getting fake crowd noise piped in,” Thunder forward Isaiah Roby said, “but there’s nothing like having a real crowd in the gym. You can feel the energy from the crowd.”

There was definitely energy in the arena Monday night.

Now, it wasn’t playoff energy. Wasn’t even big-time primetime-game energy. But for a preseason game?

Fans oohed at Josh Giddey’s deftness, ahhed at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s craftiness and even booed when they thought the guys with the whistles missed something.

“I’m still not used to it,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said before the 113-97 loss about having the fans back. “I was driving here today, and I’m kinda thinking, ‘It’s hard to put yourself there.’ “It’s been a long time.”

Angela Love felt the layoff. Known for wearing a neon blue bob wig and sitting in the section behind the north goal, she was in the arena the night the NBA stood still. She knew that Jazz game might be the last time the Thunder played for a while.

Still, as days became weeks and weeks became months, Love was reminded of a comedy skit she’d seen once upon a time — you eat a bag of cookies, but you don’t realize you’ve eaten the last one.

“You don’t get that last enjoyment,” Love said.

She went to a couple events for Thunder fans during the last year, a Christmas party and a draft gathering, but it wasn’t the same as going to a game.

So, she had to be at Paycom Center on Monday night.

“Because I’ve always been there,” Love said.

Rodriguez, who has been a fan of OKC’s NBA team since the New Orleans Hornets days, was bummed he didn’t get to make the trip from his home in Enid for a game last season. He got an NBA fix during a trip to Miami. He went to a Heat game.

Still, it wasn’t the Thunder. “That was a bummer,” Rodriguez said of the Thunder not allowing fans, “but it’s here now.”

And Rodriguez, Means and thousands of other Thunder fans weren’t going to miss their opportunit­y to be there, too.

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