Susan Clark is shy and soft-spoken — until Russell Westbrook toes the free-throw line.
Then, she rises out of her seat, takes a deep breath and belts out three words so loudly that people watching Thunder games on TV can often hear her.
“Come on, Russellllllllll!”
She does it before every free throw, does it when the normally rowdy home arena grows quiet, does it with such vigor that the Thunder point guard just had to know who she was.
“It surprises me every time I do it,” Clark said.
It’s been a little over a week since Westbrook came back after surgery No. 3 on that right knee. While his return was welcomed by Thunder fans everywhere, no one greeted him quite like Clark. She has been at The Peake for every game. Section 115. Six rows up. Seat on the aisle. Vocal cords warmed up and ready to go.
She was there even when he was sidelined, but it just wasn’t the same. Some folks told her that she should do her yell for other players while Westbrook was out. How about Kevin Durant? Or Serge Ibaka? Or Kendrick Perkins?
Clark couldn’t do it.
“It’s only for Russell,” she said.
The whole thing started almost five years ago. Clark and her husband, Gene, were Thunder season ticket holders from the beginning, snagging seats in the same lower-bowl section where they sat when the Hornets were in town. They hadn’t been NBA fans — the Oklahoma State Cowboys were their passion — but they took to the Hornets right away.
Same with the Thunder. The players quickly became beloved by the Clarks.
Then during the 2009-10 season, Westbrook became a lightning rod for criticism. He shot too much. He didn’t let Durant shoot enough. He played with a chip on his shoulder. He couldn’t possibly play alongside Durant for long.
Susan Clark didn’t understand it.
“I’m like, ‘Can you not see what an outstanding athlete this man is?’” she said.
One night when Westbrook was going to the free-throw line, Clark heard some grumbling in the arena.
She’d finally had enough.
“Come on, Russellllllllll!” she shouted.
That was the first time she did her yell, and it felt so good to show her support of Westbrook that she started doing it every time he went to the free-throw line.
There were plenty of people around her, though, who weren’t too keen on it. They gave her dirty looks. They shook their heads. They waved her off. One woman even turned around, snarled at her and said, “I really don’t think that helps.”
It sure hasn’t hurt. Westbrook has shot at least 80 percent from the free-throw line each of the past three seasons, and his percentage this season hovers around that mark again at 80.1.
Clark has only missed three games during the past four-plus seasons, and if there’s a chance Westbrook might be on the floor during a game, she doesn’t leave her seat. No bathroom break. No concession stand run. No way she’d miss a free throw.
Before games, she drinks hot tea to loosen up her vocal cords. During games, she always has cough drops in her purse in case she needs a little pick me up. And even though Westbrook’s drive-the-lane, take-the-contact style means he shoots free throws often, Clark’s voice has never failed her.
She waits until the crowd dies down, waits until the announcer says “Russell Westbrook at the line”, waits until the referee tosses Westbrook the ball, then cuts loose.
“I try to sustain it out for a little while,” Clark said.
“People around us think that I know him,” she said. “I’ve never met him. Probably never will.”
But if she could, she’d ask whether he was OK with her yelling before his free throws. She doesn’t want to be a bother, and if he said he didn’t want her to yell, she’d abide by his wishes.
Though there’s evidence that Westbrook is fine with it. Earlier this season during the game against Toronto, players were mulling around midcourt as they headed back onto the floor at the end of a timeout. Knowing the yell came from the sections behind the scorer’s table, he asked folks who it was. They turned and pointed toward Clark.
Clark’s husband nudged her and motioned toward the court. She looked, and Westbrook was staring right at her.
When their glances met, he smiled and slapped the scorer’s table.
A stamp of approval, it seemed.
Clark, who works in the accounting department at Grace Living Centers, still marvels at how far things have come. Like Thundor wearing his Mexican wrestling mask and yelling at opponents with his megaphone or that cute elderly couple smooching at the end of the Kiss Cam, her “Russellllllllll!” has become part of the fabric of Thunder games.
Clark’s as loud as anyone.
“I just cannot believe I do this in front of 18,000 people,” she said. “I can’t believe I stand up and do that.”
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.