Michael Peters: Tulsa's excitement for Thunder could rival Oklahoma sports king
BY MICHAEL PETERS World Sports Editor
Saturday, October 20, 2012
10/20/12 at 4:44 AM
Related stories: Crowd pleasers: Record crowd sees Thunder win in Tulsa.
A game for Adam.
Read Michael Peters’ blog.Original Print Headline: Thunder changing sports priorities
THE OKLAHOMA CITY Thunder dethroned one king Friday night at the BOK Center.
Can another, more prominent monarch be that far behind?
A crowd of 18,233 fought traffic and stood in lengthy lines to watch Oklahoma City beat the Phoenix Suns - the most people to ever see an event in the four-year history of the building.
The previous record of 17,931 was set in February 2010 by George Strait, the reigning king of country music.
If you believe this groundswell of Tulsa-area Thunder excitement will wane any time soon, we've got some ocean-front property in Arizona to sell you.
The better question: Should Oklahoma's undisputed sports king - football - start looking over its shoulder?
The team was quick to say how much it respected the history and tradition of the state's college football teams when the preseason schedule dictated OKC's media day go head-to-head with the Sooners' weekly gabfest in Norman early this month.
On Friday night, the Thunder certainly flexed its muscle on a day and month usually reserved for football.
Fans roared when Kevin Durant was announced as the final member of the Thunder's starting lineup. They even started up an obligatory OKC chant in the game's opening minutes - a development we're sure will devastate the most hardcore Oklahoma City haters in the community.
And they did it despite the fact James Harden, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha all sat out, despite the fact Durant and Russell Westbrook played limited minutes after the first quarter and despite the fact Friday's game was meaningless at almost every level.
Just don't tell that to those in attendance.
"It couldn't be any better," said Skiatook's Ben Johansen, who brought his 8-year-old son Brent. "It's fun to have something local to root for. It doesn't hurt they're good."
It certainly doesn't. But these days the Thunder succeeds in almost every way, on and off the court.
Not only was Friday's performance a referendum on OKC's basketball product, it was a tribute to the club's marketing acumen.
The team started promoting this exhibition with newspaper and television advertising during last year's run to the NBA Finals.
It scheduled the game on the only Friday night in the month without a full schedule of high school football. It brought Tulsa fans all the bells and whistles of its usual in-game extravaganza, including the Thunder Girls and Rumble the mascot.
At halftime, the team turned the floor over to Owasso's Folds of Honor Foundation. It's hard to get more community-oriented than that.
But at the heart of the Thunder's success is a core of young talent that might lead the NBA in likability.
If you could eat dinner with one Oklahoma sports figure, who would it be? OU coach Bob Stoops, who will no longer take phone calls from fans during his weekly call-in show, or Durant, who drove from OKC to Stillwater during last year's lockout to play flag football with a bunch of Oklahoma State students.
"For the fans to come out tonight and show their support means a lot," said Durant, who is so popular in the state he's able to show up at an OSU-Texas football game in Longhorn gear and still not offend anyone. "To play in front of them is special. That was fun."
For the fans in attendance, it seems like Durant's sentiment was an understatement.
"It's a fantastic building," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "The energy was good, and the players appreciated it.
"The excitement has grown the last three or four years. We're playing better basketball."
Oh, yeah, about the basketball team. The defending Western Conference champs are still pretty good.
There's probably only one player on the planet better than Durant. Along with Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder's Big 3 is the envy of the NBA.
Even with Dwight Howard's move to the Los Angeles Lakers, OKC is a favorite again to win the West. And with a little more from its supporting cast, the Thunder could give Miami another run for the title.
About the only thing that could take the bloom off OKC at this point is the team being unable to resign Harden, who without a contract extension will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
The fans at the BOK rained down a chant of "we want Harden" in the second half, trying to coax the guard, who was being held out with a groin injury, into the game.
But not even that minor setback could derail what was an impressive high note for the Thunder on Friday night. One even George Strait couldn't match.
Thunder fan Bobby Case, a 10-year-old from Claremore, sports his James Harden beard. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World