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Thunderstruck: OKC goes mad for pro basketball

By Tim Talley

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 2:05 p.m. MDT

Scott Price folds t-shirts at a souvenir stand in Midwest City, Okla., Friday, June 8, 2012. Oklahoma City is gearing up for the NBA Finals, which will start Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma is a football power and its rival Oklahoma State often dominates wrestling, but now the state has something every sports fan can cheer: an NBA finals debutante.

Blue-and-orange Oklahoma City Thunder flags flutter vehicles around the city and the state, a tribute to a team that four years ago was among the league's worst. An Oklahoma City skyscraper has a "Let's Go Thunder" banner strung across it, and a local shop has a giant fake beard at its entrance to mimic Thunder guard James Harden's hirsute style.

Before the Thunder arrived in 2008 — an Oklahoma City businessman moved the team after Seattle balked at building the SuperSonics a new arena — Oklahomans' sports loyalties were split between OU and OSU.

"This is the biggest thing we've had here. This is it," said Tony Wright, a Thunder fan pumping gasoline into an SUV adorned with "OKC" banners.

Oklahoma City has home-court advantage in the best-of-7 series against the love-to-hate-'em Miami Heat and superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But life hasn't always been this sweet.

The first Thunder team won only three of its first 32 games and finished 23-59, the third-worst record in the league. Finding tickets was easy.

"They were giving them away," said Matthew Brown, a recent University of Oklahoma graduate who just moved to Little Rock, Ark.

Now, the games draw so many to Chesapeake Energy Arena that, for a time, they were projected on screens outside. During the Thunder's Western Conference semifinals with the Los Angeles Lakers, up to 7,000 unticketed fans showed up at the 17,000-seat arena, which is just west of Bricktown.

But two weeks ago, a late-night shooting that injured 8 near the arena after a Thunder win put a stop to the big screens. City officials said the shooting was not game-related.

"The crowd's been huge for the pregame, then they're going somewhere else to watch the game, either to a bar or to someone's home," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said "This ever-escalating crowd, who knows how large it would get? And what would happen next?"

Thunder coach Scott Brooks said players and coaches are energized by the fans.

"They feel a part of this and they should. They've done a good job of making us feel that we're a part of this community," he said. "Our players, they love playing here. They know every night that we're going to have the best crowd in the game and they're going to come out and they're going to cheer you on."

Guard Kevin Durant, one of two players who moved from Seattle and who led the Thunder to the conference finals last year, said he's been trying to focus on the task at hand.

"You know there's family calling and friends calling, wanting to come down," Durant said. "But everybody's been doing a good job of giving me my space and just letting me focus on what we need to do."

But many Oklahoma City residents still embrace the team as family.

Helen Jones said she has a photo of herself, Durant and guard Russell Westbrook as a screensaver on her cellphone. And James Harden occasionally drops in for Wednesday night bible study at the Fifth Street Missionary Baptist Church that she attends

"They are so down to earth, clean, well-spoken and when I look at them, I try to get a picture of what they're really, really like," said Jones, a season-ticket holder.

At a Thunder youth basketball camp Friday, Cindy Melton watched her 8-year-old daughter, Caity, and dozens of other children run drills.

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