This is not normal.
Fans of the NBA’s other 29 teams don’t routinely await their team at the airport after both big wins and bummer losses. Fans of the NBA’s other 29 teams don’t stay up well past midnight, living and dying with every break and bad bounce then travel to the team’s hangar in the wee hours of the morning with signs and a chorus of cheers. Fans of the NBA’s other 29 teams don’t stand and wait in wretchedly wet conditions, braving the remnants of a storm, ignoring area thunder and lighting just to show their appreciation for all of 10 minutes.
Thunder fans do.
“No,” said Nick Collison. “It’s not normal.”
Late-night airport greetings have become the latest show of support that sets Thunder fans apart. The Thunder faithful has met the team at Will Rogers World Airport at least four times since last year’s initial welcoming, when the Thunder clinched its inaugural playoff berth following a win at Dallas. The most recent gathering came early Friday morning, just past 1 a.m. after the Thunder landed following a series-evening six-point win at Dallas in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
Fans also welcomed the Thunder back home following the triple-overtime instant classic at Memphis in Game 4 of the semifinals. That night, the team didn’t land until about 3 a.m. following that 3 hour, 52 minute marathon. Another welcome was conceived and carried out following the Thunder’s disappointing Game 6 loss against the Grizzlies.
“We’re really appreciative of the fans we’ve got,” Collison said. “It speaks to the consistency that they’ve shown, in good times and bad. I think that’s the most rare thing about our fan base.”
A few Thunder players have come to expect the crowds. Most Thunder players do not.
“We’re not really thinking about it a lot of times,” Collison said. “We’re thinking about the game or whatever. But it’s a nice surprise for sure.”
The groundswell of support is organic, too. Fans have flocked to the airport on their own. The Thunder hasn’t organized a single trip. And really, that’s an understatement. The Thunder hasn’t so much as made public the arrival time of the team plane. Every aspect of this trend has been a grassroots effort. And so far, the strong show of support has done a surprisingly spectacular job of spurring the Thunder in subsequent games.
Following that playoff-clinching win at Dallas last season, the Thunder returned to the Ford Center on the second night of a back-to-back and defeated Minnesota by eight. Kevin Durant scored 40 points. Russell Westbrook dished a career-high 16 assists. Following the triple OT game against the Grizz, the Thunder spanked Memphis by 27 points. No starter needed to play a single second of the fourth quarter. And after the second-half collapse against Memphis in Game 6, the Thunder came back and cruised to a 15-point series-clinching victory in Game 7. Durant scored 39 points in 39 minutes. Westbrook recorded the first Game 7 triple-double since 1992 and only the fifth in NBA history.
The fans were frantic in each one of those games. Now, there’s no telling what we might see Saturday night in Game 3.
“I think every arena is really loud in the playoffs, and ours is exceptional,” Collison said. “But that consistency of us knowing they’re behind us all the time is huge for us.”
It’s undeniable at this point. Thunder fans are hands-down the best in the NBA.
UPDATE: I had forgotten this fact since April of last year, but Royce Young over at DailyThunder.com is the brains behind this whole movement. He encouraged fans to flock to the airport after that inaugural playoff-clinching win at Dallas. Here is video of that very first welcoming. This is now growing into quite the tradition. Thunder fans should be extremely proud.