Dale and Lois Higgins lifted their eyes high above the Thunder hardwood, locking their gazes on the massive screens like everyone else in the arena.
The Kiss Cam was on, and one after another, surprised couples saw themselves larger than life on the screens, freaked out and fumbled around, then finally kissed. But then, Dale and Lois saw themselves. Calmly, they turned toward each other and exchanged a sweet smooch.
Which they are. No couple has appeared during the in-game promotion more the past couple seasons than Dale and Lois. Almost every time they are at a game, they are on the Kiss Cam, and folks go crazy when they are.
“We get as big an ovation as KD does,” Dale said earlier this week sitting next to his bride of 66 years.
As the NBA Playoffs begin, Thunder fans are hoping to spend many nights together over the coming weeks at The Peake. The guys wearing the short pants are the main attraction, but there are many other folks who help give the arena its character and its texture. They have become part of the fabric.
Dale and Lois Higginns are part of the charm. But it goes beyond him in his baseball cap, her with her perfectly coiffed hair and both in their Thunder blue. Theirs is more than a story of love. It is also a story of loss.
But like many Thunder fans, they have found a sense of community that goes beyond what happens on the court, that is more powerful than any Russell Westbrook dunk or Kevin Durant three.
Dale Higgins and Lois Scott were both born and raised in Liberal, Kan., but they didn’t really know each other until after Dale came back from serving in the Navy during World War II. Lois was working in a two-booth deli that was downtown next door to the theater. Because the theater didn’t sell popcorn, Dale would come in before going to the movies.
One night after Lois got off work, Dale offered to drive her home. He asked if she’d like to go out the next night.
“And the rest is history,” Lois said, smiling.
They dated for a year, then were engaged for a year before getting married. Kids soon followed, five girls and one boy.
After several moves around southwest Kansas and northwest Oklahoma, Dale was transferred to Panhandle Eastern Pipeline’s division office in suburban Kansas City. Dale and Lois lived there for 25 years, and with several kids and grandkids in the area, it was a good spot for them.
But as they got older, they wanted to downsize from their four-level house. Property in the Kansas City area was expensive, though.
During a trip to Oklahoma to visit their son, Tim, they realized how much cheaper houses around him were. They bought land in a new addition, built a house and moved to Oklahoma City in 2003.
A couple years later, the NBA moved to OKC, too.
Tim was one of the folks who rushed to buy tickets for the Hornets. When he couldn’t go, he gave the tickets to his parents, though they were lukewarm on going at first. Spending much of their lives in Kansas, college basketball was their preference. They didn’t much like pro basketball.
Then, they sat in Tim’s seats. Section 101. Three rows from the court.
“It really isn’t what we thought the game was,” Dale said.
Tim, vice president of drilling at Unit Drilling, kept his tickets when the Thunder came to town, and Dale and Lois had come to like the games so much that they used the tickets every chance that they got. Friends of Tim’s started joking with them, “Oh, you guys are the reason we don’t get tickets anymore.”
Tim made sure they got tickets one February night two years ago. It was his mom’s birthday, and he had a surprise for her. Sitting in the court-side section just on the other side of the basket from the Thunder bench, he had gotten to know one of cameramen who worked that area and asked if his mom and dad could get on the Kiss Cam.
Dale and Lois were a hit. The arena roared when they appeared on the big screens and exchanged an adorable kiss.
Dale and Lois thought it was awfully nice that Tim would set things up, that the cameraman would oblige, but they figured their first appearnce on the Kiss Cam would be their last. But they had been so popular that the next time they were at a game, the cameraman came back to them.
Another sweet smooch.
Another big ovation.
Over the next year or so, Dale and Lois became the Kiss Cam couple. They made dozens of appearances, and they were always near the end. The big finale. The dependable closers.
“It’s been a real fun thing,” Dale said.
“We were at Ted’s one day,” Lois said of the popular Mexican restaurants, “and this couple kept looking at us. When we got up to go out, they were standing outside waiting on us.”
That’s not the only instance Dale and Lois have been recognized. There was that time at Dairy Queen in Ardmore when a group of gals realized who they were. There was another time at Applebee’s when a woman came over to their table, chatted for several minutes, then after she’d gone, Dale and Lois found out she paid their bill. And then, they were eating before a game at one of the restaurants at the arena when a young man approached their table and asked to have a picture taken with them.
“It’s ridiculous,” Lois said of the attention. “It’s just ridiculous.”
All of this Kiss Cam hubbub makes the Higginses laugh and smile and shake their heads.
But it also helps them remember.
One Friday evening last winter, Dale and Lois invited Tim to the house to celebrate his 57th birthday. Lois made meatloaf and German chocolate cake.
She always made German chocolate cake on his birthday.
It was a day of celebration for several reasons. Tim had been battling health problem for months, including a bout with a potential deadly strain of staph infection that required a serious dose of antibiotics. The drugs were so powerful that they messed with his innards. He ate sparingly for several weeks. But he’d been feeling good, and that night at his folks’ house, he ate well.
The next day, he went with a few friends to a casino near Durant. They gambled. They ate. They celebrated. Well after midnight, Tim said good night and headed to his hotel room.
The next morning, his friends got up and headed home. They called Tim before they left, but when he didn’t answer, they figured he’d had a late night, turned off his phone and slept in.
Throughout the day Sunday, they kept calling and trying to reach Tim.
He never answered.
Finally on Monday morning, they returned to Durant and demanded that hotel personnel let them into his room. They were worried. After some haggling, they were allowed in.
Tim’s body was on the bed, his hands above his head, his legs crossed. It looked like he had laid down and gone to sleep, but medical examiners determined that at some point, he died in his sleep.
It was ruled an accidental death, and Dale and Lois were left to guess as to what happened. Was it the drugs that he took for that staph infection? Was it the infection itself? Was it something else entirely?
“We don’t know,” Lois said sitting on the couch only a few steps from the dining room table where everyone had gathered for Tim’s birthday dinner. “He was feeling so good Friday night, it was just a shock.”
Dale and Lois spent the next few months settling his estate, and for a long time, the last thing they wanted to do was attend a Thunder game. How could they go to the arena and enjoy themselves? How could they use those tickets and sit in those seats?
But eventually, Dale started to think about how Tim loved giving them the tickets.
“Tim would want us to go to the ballgame,” Dale thought. “When he couldn’t go, he wanted us to go.”
So, they started going again, not to every game but to one here and there. And what they found were people who were ready with hugs and shoulder pats and hand squeezes. Fans who sat around them wanted to make sure they were doing OK. Same for the Thunder and arena staffers who they’d gotten to know. The elevator operator. The bartender. The security guard.
Dale and Lois still don’t know many of their last names. There’s Don. Joy. Will. Teresa. Megan. Jessica. Bobby. Harry. Sherry. Eddie. But those folks and so many others have become a blue-clad support system.
“It’s just one big happy family,” Lois said.
Dale and Lois aren’t sure what they’re going to do with Tim’s Thunder tickets. They renewed for next season, but since Dale is 87 and Lois is 83, they just aren’t sure how many games they’ll attend or whether they’ll keep the tickets beyond next season.
But they know if they stop going to games, they’ll miss all the people they’ve gotten to know. Oh, as much fun as the Kiss Cam has been, they could live without that. But not being in the arena and part of the fabric would be difficult.
Their lives wouldn’t be the same.
Neither would Thunder games.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.