They might be free, but in Oklahoma City, Thunder playoff shirts allow fans to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Scan the crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and nearly all 18,203 fans will be wearing the T-shirt provided on their seat, some topping the designer suit or $50 Thunder shirt they wore underneath. It's not like that in every NBA market.
The Thunder will hit a milestone for Wednesday night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies: The 500,000th playoff shirt will have been given away to fans. That's half a million free shirts since 2010, when the team first made the playoffs.
Die-hard Thunder fans have amassed stacks of T-shirts from the team's four runs in the NBA Playoffs; Edmond teen Jackson Kinnear has even tried collected them all (he's lacking just one.)
But if anything proves how valued these shirts are, it's the scramble that occurs at USA Screen Printing & Embroidery, where the team's playoff shirts have been printed for the past two years, before each Oklahoma City matchup.
Tuesday afternoon, crews were finishing an order of 20,000 shirts headed to the arena for Wednesday night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies. The white Ts read “Thunder Pride” and feature a flag design.
This round of printing started Friday and continued Monday and Tuesday, with workers receiving the weekend off. But that hasn't always been the case.
“If we have to start at night to have it done, we run all night,” said Chris Johnson, owner of USA Screen Printing at 3100 S Meridian.
After the Thunder wrapped up the first playoff series in Houston with a win against the Rockets on a Friday night, all eight presses at USA Screen Printing fired up and ran from midnight to 3 p.m. the next day — in time for a Sunday Game 1 against Memphis.
Johnson said they started calling employees in the third quarter to let them know they'd likely be needed.
“It's called a ‘hot market,'” he said. “We love it.”
Workers are paid time-and-a-half for the odd shift and typically are fed a meal, too.
Companies are proud
The Thunder orders 20,000 for each playoff game at home — enough for all the seats in the arena, plus extras for staff, volunteers, sponsors and some larger sizes available for exchange at the fan information booth.
USA Screen Printing has an extra 80,000 blank blue and white shirts stacked in boxes in a back room, in anticipation of a Thunder win and more playoff games.
Designer Markus Linde worked up 60 potential shirt designs and submitted them to the Thunder two months ago for this year's playoffs.
The team selects one shirt design for each possible home game (Linde's favorite was scheduled for Game 7 against the Rockets, which didn't happen) and turns it into a sponsorship opportunity.
Local companies sponsor the shirts not just for the visibility, but because it associates their names with the pride residents here have for their team.
This year's sponsors have included Devon Energy, US Fleet Tracking, Riverwind Casino, MidFirst Bank, Access Midstream Partners and Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Stores.
Terry Holden, a spokesman for Braum's, said the expense incurred by the sponsorship is worth it. The Tuttle-based company sponsored the “Rise Together” shirts given away for Game 2 against Memphis.
He noticed fans wearing the shirts at an event at his granddaughter's school recently and also spotted the Thunder towels Braum's sponsored last year while playing golf.
“We're not a national company, and the Thunder are certainly a national franchise,” he said.
“Everybody's really proud of the way we're competing.”