Sports fandom wouldn’t exist in its current form without some level of belief, and Oklahoma City is no ordinary fandom. It’s a far cry from the media frenzy that make up the Los Angeles or New York experiences, and it isn’t quite like the hallowed halls of San Antonio, Portland, or Salt Lake City, where a bona fide culture has been cultivated and nurtured over decades of mostly winning basketball.
Oklahoma City is a college town masquerading as a big league city, and I love it. There’s no other market quite like it. I don’t mean that in a back-handed way; I was born in raised in Oklahoma City, and I’ve watched our market swell and shine since the Thunder’s inception in 2008. The word ‘blessing’ gets thrown around a lot here, but the Thunder have been exactly that.
Before Kevin Durant left to join the Golden State Warriors, the hardest bit of adversity that the Thunder and their supporters had endured was making the Finals and losing at the hands of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Do you know how many fans would kill for a Finals berth? A playoffs appearance? A competent owner, diametrically opposed to the one who continually makes short-sighted, reactionary moves, alienating his fanbase? Looking at you, James Dolan.
The hardest bit of adversity Thunder fans had endured were the multiple knee surgeries for Russell Westbrook, Durant’s Jones fracture — which, handled correctly, wouldn’t have cost him the better part of his second-to-last-season here. And still, after all of that, a season later, were one game — no, one quarter away from a real chance at bringing home some hardware and further cementing their legacies in Oklahoma City.
The hardest bit of adversity that Thunder fans had endured was giving up James Harden for what seemed like a bag of chips and a bottle cap, but in return, gaining a player in Steven Adams who is arguably more loved than the beard ever was in the ‘Peake. Not to mention the fact that Adams is a far better brand ambassador than Harden ever could have been.
So when Kevin Durant left, the city and state collectively lost its sh*t.
And they did it again last night, when Kevin Durant returned for the very first time since his defection, his decision to don a different shade of yellow and blue.
It seemed as if the stars could align, and, with hope against hope, the Thunder could topple Durant and the Warriors. Perhaps if Oklahoma City hadn’t beaten Cleveland on a magnificent all around performance the game prior, expectations wouldn’t have been as high in the minds of fans.
But who was I kidding? The expectations would have been the same even if Oklahoma City had lost to the Cavs, or the Phoenix Suns, the Brooklyn Nets, the Sacramento Kings– this was the return of OKC’s ‘most loyal subject,’ as Mayor Mick Cornett (more than a little creepily) put it. The fans wanted (figurative) blood and suspended their sense of disbelief for a day in honor of that.
Durant grew up here, from 19 to 27, and the city grew up with him. It was akin to a romantic relationship, and when Durant decided a divorce was in order, we were all hurt. And it hurts see him do what we witnessed him do a countless number of times: channel the negative energy, turn it around, and unleash it in a hyper-focused beam of light at any obstacle in the way–even if that obstacle was the team he spurned at the altar. Despite the lopsided final score, the crowd hung around and tried their best to cultivate and harvest their own form of energy.
“Basketball is fun in general, especially in an environment like this,” Durant said. “The crowd was amazing. They were loud — as loud as I’ve ever heard them.” He playfully quipped ‘they could have been louder,” in his walk-off interview. Translation: he heard you loud and clear.
Durant’s averages of 37.7 points and 65.6% shooting against the Thunder is proof positive that this isn’t just another matchup for KD. It’s not personal, but it is business. This was best evidenced by his exchange with Russell Westbrook in the third quarter:
Walking to the bench for a timeout, Westbrook took the occasion to talk to his former pal — not something he’d ever done so brazenly, at least publicly.
Russ, in the animated fashion we’ve seen him talk before, sent a volley to Durant.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ he yelled, as a suited Enes Kanter came to his side to join in.
Durant limply put his arms up in protest, as if the energy expended was not quite worth it.
‘You’re losing. So what.’
Just like the last two contests, big brother had the last word. He was just trying to take care of business. And, though Westbrook is an alpha competitor, he also knows the difference between work and life.
“It’s over with,” Westbrook said afterward. “He plays for his team. I play for my team. That’s it.”