History was made twice when the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 106-90 and advanced to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. In the National Basketball Association annals, of course, the game goes down as the one in which, for the first time, the young Thunder were able to get past the Lakers in a playoff series. Perhaps more broadly, the Thunder eliminating the Lakers will be remembered as a changing of the guard between the old NBA—represented by 5-time champion Kobe Bryant—and the New NBA, epitomized by Kevin Durant.
It was another first from that game, however, a much more personal one, that will stay with me. As I sat in front of my couch with the wreckage of a PBR 6-pack of tall boys around me, I found myself, in an unprecedented moment, feeling disappointed by a Lakers loss.
Coming from a Boston sports fan, this admission is the equivalent of saying it’s too bad that the Yankees are without Mariano Rivera for the season. Next to the Bronx Bombers, the Lakers are the most hated franchise of the Beantown loyal. So deep is the dislike of the Boston fan base for these two clubs that a loss for either of them is the next best thing to a Celts or Sox win.
The Lakers defeat, then, at the hands of the upstart Thunder should have been cause for celebration. It would have been, if not for one simple fact: I just can’t get behind Oklahoma City.
Collectively and individually, the Thunder are likeable. Kevin Durant is one of the game’s top five players and a class act. James Harden has a kick ass beard. Perk is still the chippy, sneering, just-do-your-job-and-don’t-give-a-damn-about-personal-stats rebounding and defense machine that he was in Boston. Russell Westbrook is wholly innocuous. In fact, aside from Derek Fisher, who is sullied from his time with the Lakers, there is not a member of the Thunder that I mind.
I want to cheer for the Thunder. I worked myself into a drunken, LA-hating frenzy and attempted to do so. I just can’t.
The seeds of this conviction sprouted during game two of the series, when Metta World Peace—the gladiator formerly known as Ron Artest—released a baseline shot that ricocheted off the side of the backboard and out of bounds. World Peace, in case you don’t remember, was suspended for the final game of the regular season and the first six games of the playoffs for a dirty elbow that concussed James Harden. So it was no surprise that when he missed badly and turned the ball over, the OKC loyal, wearing identical blue and white shirts, responded with wild cheers.
OKC fans are known as some of the most rabid in the game, their enthusiasm even garnering Chesapeake Energy Arena the moniker of “Loud City.” Despite this, there seemed to be something missing in their collective derision of Metta World Peace. It was certainly loud. It was no doubt coordinated. It was beyond enthusiastic. So why, to my mind, did it come up short?
Reflecting on how World Peace, had he similarly taken a cheap shot at a Boston player and returned to play at the Garden, would be treated by Boston fans, what was lacking from the roar of the Thunder’s home crowd became apparent: hatred. Pure, unvarnished, alcohol-fueled hatred. The kind of hatred that is typically reserved for baby killers and rapists. The kind that Ahab heaped upon the humped back of the White Whale.
While not every fan in the home of the Boston Celtics could be expected to become all bent and mutilated in their rage against Artest, you’d better believe that any time he touched the ball, there’d be a significant number of drunken, red-in-the-face, livid, cursing, spitting fans ready to turn their first-born into a battle mace and relive 2004’s Malice in the Palace. Assuming that some drunken Irish prick from Southie failed to shank World Peace as he made his way into the stadium, verbal shivs assembled from $8 beers, blue collar pride, and a disturbing amount of passion for Boston sports would be flung from the stands all night.
Before the Thunder-Lakers series got underway, the following twitter message went viral in Oklahoma City: “ATTN All OKC Thunder Fans: When Metta is introduced tomorrow night, don’t make a sound. Turn your back to the court and be silent.” In a separate effort designed to have a similar effect on fan cohesion, the Thunder promotional department handed out free T-shirts, resulting in blue and white stripes of fans throughout the stadium.
Something about all of this coordination strikes me as terribly hokie…Okie hokie. Dressed in their identical blue and white shirts, standing uniformly and obeying the demands of the Jumbotron, I felt as though the wholesome display of Midwestern enthusiasm could just as easily be reserved for a Superchurch assembly as it could a professional sports event. Was that Kevin Durant delivering a tomahawk dunk or James Dobson saying that gay marriage will lead to donkey-man love? No matter. Just shut up and cheer.
You don’t have to hand out shirts to get Boston fans on the same page; they’re already wearing green and white. Shit, they’ve been wearing the colors all week. Celtics fans LIVE green. They ARE green. Celtics games aren’t just some mass gathering for Bostonians to take part in when they’re not in church. Celtic games are church; the sport of basketball is a religion.
A fired up Boston crowd has the collective energy of a Rage Against the Machine concert. In OKC it sounded more like the high-pitched hysteria of a Justin Bieber concert. Where they chant “Beat LA!” Boston fans chant “Lakers Suck!” What is the OKC equivalent of Boston fans in unison screaming, “Bullshit!” to a bad call? Do they together shout “Bless Your Heart!”? We’ve got the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping up to Boston” blasting over the loudspeakers. What do they have? “Okie from Muskogee”?
Celtics fans tend to hate Lakers fans for the same reason they hate the Lakers team itself. Namely, it is a clash of cultures: East vs. West…cold and dark New England vs. warm and sunny L.A…sports as life vs. sports as entertainment…the Staples Center as a place to see celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Flea vs. the Garden as a place to see guys from the neighborhood like Paulie, Jimmy, and Sal.
But I’ll take a sunglasses-wearing Jack gesturing from the front row and whipping the yellow and gold faithful into a frenzy any day over the high-school pep rally environment, led by Rumble the Bison, of Chesapeake Energy Arena. One gets the sense that any fan who didn’t turn their back on Artest during his introduction or failed to wear the appropriate t-shirt would be ostracized not only from the crowd, but the community. Yes—sports are about a collectivist frenzy. But when games start resembling North Korean state funerals, one has to wonder if the all-for-one sentiment hasn’t gone too far.
I’d be lying, however, if I said that the only thing that irks me about the Thunder is their fan base. It’s the way that fan base got their team in the first place that similarly causes my sports-loving skin to crawl.
Let us not forget that the team currently known as the Oklahoma City Thunder was formerly the Seattle Supersonics. The club was moved to OKC from Seattle in 2008 following a legal dispute. During 41 years in Seattle, the franchise made 22 playoff appearances and won a championship in 1979—only the second championship won by any Seattle professional sports team.
The Thunder have been a National Basketball Association team for four seasons. Of those, only one campaign—the inaugural 2008-2009 season—was a losing one. In their second season, the Thunder made the playoffs. A year after that, the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks.
Loving a team is very much like loving a person: you have to see, over the course of time, not just their best, but their worst. You need the glory—but also the heartbreak. You need the ups and downs…the spectacular wins and heartbreaking losses. Because love, after all, is as much about suffering as it is about pleasure.
Watching the Thunder fans—who have been through all of one losing season—cheering on their team is like hanging out with a new couple that is always holding hands and sucking face. How must Seattle fans—who languished through the losing seasons that led to the lottery picks that led to the drafting of players that has put the Thunder in the conference finals twice in as many years—feel? Their plight is the equivalent of patiently waiting and working towards sex with a girl, only to have her split with you and fuck the brains out of some other dude. And even worse, that dude calls it “making love” and insists on the missionary position every time.
Kevin Garnett recently raised the hackles of Philadelphia supporters by calling them “fair-weather”. In regards to OKC fans, it can’t even be said whether they are fair-weather or not. Until the Thunder go through a losing spell, their fans are the equivalent of kids from a Game of Thrones who were born during the long summer. One day, Okies, winter will come. When, and only when, it does shall we know your true character.
So much for the Thunder. As for the other three teams that remain in the hunt for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, my thoughts are as follows:
The Boston Celtics
Doc Rivers admitted that his team is operating on a razor-thin margin of error. And that was before Avery Bradley, one of the NBA’s premiere on-the-ball defenders, was ruled out of the playoffs due to a shoulder injury. Now, that margin of error is all but gone and the Celtics, whose aging legs were painfully obvious in their 7-game scare with the 76ers, face the task of trying to keep up with two of the league’s most freakish athletes—Dwyane Wade and Lebron James—with two of their best players—Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—banged up.
If Boston fans are honest, however, they’ll admit that the team really has no business at all being in the conference finals. In addition to the aforementioned injury problems, it has the weakest bench of any Celtics team over the last few seasons in a season in which the bench was supposed to be a strength. But that was before they lost two players to heart problems. TWO players with bad aortas in one season…has that EVER happened? Perhaps the arrhythmic curse of Len Bias is visiting the team on the 25th anniversary of his shocking death.
The Celtics have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals mostly on pure grit, veteran savvy, and competitiveness. That, and the fact that Derrick Rose shredded his knee in the first round. In order to win, the Celts need to keep things ugly. If neither team scores more than 90 points, I like the Celtics’ chances. This team is like a ground fighter. It wants to take you to the mat and rip body shots with its defense, eventually wearing you down and choking you out. When forced to stand and trade punches with an opponent, the Celtics, who often struggle to score points, are probably looking at a loss. To win out, the Celtics will have to play flawless offensive basketball and hope that their opponents’ best player suffers a Bias-esque tragedy.
Because the modern NBA is like the Nazi Party in that if you want to make it to the top, you’d better be young and physically strong. Could the loyalty of Celtics fans somehow be transformed into healing powers, then the Green would steamroll the remaining competition. Short of that, the Celtics will fall in six games to…
The Miami Heat
Heat fans are something like Thunder fans in terms of inheriting a team. Miami, of course, has had an NBA franchise since 1988, but they were effectively granted a new team with the signing of Lebron James and Chris Bosh. During their public introduction the new signees, along with stalwart Wade, made it clear that they planned on winning multiple championships.
It’s probably inevitable that these guys win at least one; there’s just too much talent on the team to reasonably expect otherwise. But it’s also inevitable that every basketball fan not living in South Beach will be united against them. The universal aversion to this team is something like the impulse that tells you not to commit incest. There’s just something wrong about the Heat. Sure, you can buy a team. You can also pork your cousin behind the woodshed at a family picnic. That doesn’t mean that it’s right…or that what results is legitimate.
Unfortunately, they will defeat the Celtics and go on to face in the NBA Finals…
The San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are the Mitt Romney of the 2012 NBA playoffs. The Spurs, like Romney, have altered their game significantly over the years, going from a primarily defensive team to one that now rarely fails to put up 100 points a game. The Spurs can play D when they need to, though, or do whatever it takes to win, really, making them once again similar to the Republican nominee. But the way that the Spurs are most like Romney is that they have a very good chance of winning the whole thing…yet does anyone, save for a small collection of southerners and assorted rubes from the rest of the country, really want them to?
Among Spurs detractors, two common reasons are cited for their dislike:
1) The Spurs are boring; and
2) The Spurs have won four championships already, including 3 out of the last 10
To be fair, the Spurs play an up tempo style these days and are far less boring than they were during their dynasty years. Furthermore, considering that I’m a supporter of the team that’s collected more NBA championships than any other, I can’t knock any side for winning too often.
The Spurs probably SHOULD win. They’re well-coached, deep, and haven’t lost a game since early April. And that’s exactly why I want them to lose.
The Mavericks winning the title last year was a feel-good story. It vindicated the careers of future hall-of-famers Dirk Nowitski and Jason Kidd and delivered the city of Dallas its first NBA title. I could get behind the Mavs winning it all, in short, because it was good for basketball from a fan’s point of view.
Faced with the likelihood of a Heat/Spurs final, there is little to cheer for as a fan of the game. Sure, you may say, Boston fans want it to be Celtics/Lakers every season. Well, at least that matchup would inspire some of the old school, hard-nosed competition that made the NBA great.
Instead we have two teams that encapsulate what sucks about the NBA today: namely the flopping, the prima donna treatment of superstars, the buddy-buddy mentality of players, and a style of play that favors finesse over force. We have two teams bound for the NBA Finals that almost nobody likes. Presumably, the series will elicit worse ratings than the XFL.
But that’s not to say that I won’t be tuned in for every single game from here on out. While there may not be much to cheer for, there will be plenty to scream at…from my couch, surrounded by yet another pile of empties. Sport, after all, is nothing if not an excuse to kill a bunch of empty stomach beers on a weeknight. As Homer Simpson rightly pointed out, it’s not about winning or losing…it’s about how drunk you get.