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.
"We tried to get her to bed early this week, with the camp going, so she could get some rest," said Melton, of Choctaw. "But with the games going on, we let her sleep on the couch, but she didn't go to sleep."
When point guard Eric Maynor showed up for a visit, camp coaches blew their whistles and the children yelled in unison "Go Thunder!"
Bud Carter, 93, has come to know the players well. He works for Huntleigh USA, which provides security screening for NBA players flying through Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport.
"Those guys are really my boys. I screen them all the time," Carter said. "They're a great bunch of young men."
Thunder pride is felt statewide, said Tulsa resident Sarah Neal, 34.
"There's really a great kind of community feel. Go to any sports bar showing the game. You're sitting with strangers and you're high-fiving each other, buying each other drinks. It's a great time for our state," she said.
At Bedlam Sports in Tulsa, co-owner Steve McCormick has had to make room for all the Thunder gear.
"People feel like they're on the team, and 'I've got to get in there and get the stuff,'" he said.
Oklahoma City resident Roberto Velez, 24, is one of those fans. Clad in a blue T-shirt that said "We're One," Velez waited for a flight at the Phoenix airport and explained why — even though he's originally from Miami — he easily changed allegiances.
"It's been these young players prove they could beat the legends from championship teams like the Lakers, the Spurs and the Mavericks," Velez said. "Such a brand-new team deserves at least one ring."
Cornett and other city officials began laying the foundation to attract a NBA franchise after Hurricane Katrina, playing host to the New Orleans Hornets for two years. It was enough for some Oklahoma sports fans to begin pushing the Sooners' seven national football championships and Oklahoma State's 34 national wrestling titles to the back of their minds.
"It just started out with the Hornets, and then getting a team of our own has been a dream come true," said Eric Loftis, a season-ticket holder who lives in Norman. "We just forgot about football and everything else. It's just our team, the only team we've ever had."
Associated Press writers Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City, Sean Murphy in Phoenix and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa contributed to this report.
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