When I first started writing this piece, I didn’t know how to approach it or where to take it. I grew up a military brat, and when we lived overseas, our experience can be best described as sheltered due to living “behind the gates.” It’s this mindset, which I believe, has kept me from experiencing other teams and other team cultures. I honestly don’t feel the need to explore other teams as I have everything I need here in Oklahoma City. A great, young team, a fervent fan base, an excellent front office, and an ownership group, that for all intents and purposes, appears ready to break the bank in order to keep their young core together.
I know a lot about the Thunder. I know the players, their stats, their comforts, their weaknesses, etc. But as a blogger, I’ve learned to look at other things not related to players and stats. The recent lockout opened up a Pandora’s Box of knowledge, not entirely related to the game of basketball, but instead to the business of basketball. While I can’t say that I’ve become an expert on such things, I have begun to put the pieces together and observe things such as fan attendance, TV money, corporate sponsorships, the dynamic between the community and the team, and future projections.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a game with two of my friends in Indianapolis, where the Pacers were playing the Washington Wizards. We got great seats from Pacers superfan, El Pacero, and were ready to became Pacers fans for a day. We were told to round up some Pacers gear before the game. We were staying in downtown Indy, 4 blocks from the arena. I figured, “how hard would it be to find some Pacers gear this close to the arena?” So I headed to the downtown mall and started looking around. Surely there would be some Pacers gear in an athletic store. Asked around and nothing. Next, I went to the Indianapolis Colts store and asked an employee if there were any places to get some Pacers gear in the mall. The employee thumbed his nose at me and said, “There’s no place in the mall to get Pacers’ gear since their store closed down last year.” One of my friends actually trekked it over to the Pacers store in Bankers Life Fieldhouse and got the gear we needed.
We finally got to the arena and were cheering for the team from Area 55, the cheer section authored by Roy Hibbert, where only the wildest and craziest fans sit. We learned the chants (“Whoomp, there it is” every time a Pacers free throw fell through), did the arm signals (X sign for David West), both hands opened and in the air for Hibbert (to signify his jersey number 55)), and had a great time in that first quarter.
But we also noticed something else. More than 50% of the arena was empty. Now, mind you, I could have stood up and cheered with the Area 55 crazies for the entire game. But my friends, who are about 15 years my senior, have a life’s worth of old football and running injuries on their bodies and would have preferred to sit. So, with the arena so empty, we decided to make our way down to see if we could score some better seats. After an unfortunate alcohol accident (one the guys I was with fell and spilled his beer), we were sitting in the end seats on the lower bowl lamenting the loss of a full cup of golden brew, laughing our butts off, and enjoying the game.
After halftime, we tried our luck at heading to the sideline lower bowl seats. Everywhere we looked in the lower bowl, the upper half of the sections were completely empty. We slipped past the ushers and enjoyed the rest of the game 15 rows from the floor. And it turned out to be a pretty good game. It was a 2-point game with 8 seconds left. While the arena got a little loud, everyone in the arena was basically glued to their seats.
The experience was completely surreal to me. Not the game itself, but the arena experience was, surprisingly, a bit depressing. If the Thunder were ever involved in a 2 point game in the 4th quarter at the Chesapeake Arena, that place would be rocking and everyone would be on their feet making noise. It wouldn’t matter who the opponent was. That’s how it’s always been in Oklahoma City. Even when the Hornets were in town, we were known as Loud City. While that may have been a marketing ploy concocted by the Hornets’ arena staff, it worked for us and we ate it up. That slogan became us.
This is where I revert back to my military upbringing. I’ve “grown up” under the veil of OKC basketball. All I’ve ever known is to be loud and cheer like hell for my team. If we are up by 20, scream because we are winning. If we are down by 20, scream even louder, because that may provide the spark to uplift the team. So when the Pacers were up by two with 8 seconds left, and no one was on their feet, I didn’t know what to think.
So, I asked around town why the 2-14 football team (the Colts) is so wildly supported, while the basketball team that is playoff-bound is left to fend for itself. The most popular response was that the team hasn’t been good in a while. While that may be true, the Pacers gave the Bulls a helluva first round matchup last season in the playoffs and are currently 10 games over .500. The second most popular answer was that the city still hasn’t gotten over the Brawl and the Stephen Jackson night club shooting incident. That completely floored me because it has been over 7 years since the Brawl and 5 years since Captain Jack donned a Pacers uniform.
The fragile relationship between Indianapolis and the Pacers surprises me because Indiana is known for its love of hoops. No state is associated with the grassroots aspect of basketball like Indiana. Between the Hoosiers movie, French Lick being Larry Bird’s hometown, and the constant replays of the Bob Knight-led Hoosiers team, the last place I thought would be a struggling in terms of basketball fandom would be Indianapolis. But, apparently, such is the thin line between fanaticism and empathy.
And let me be clear. The piece is not, in any way, shape, or form, indicative of what may be the true situation in Indianapolis. I went to one game, in which they played against one of the worst teams in the league. Everybody has an off-day, even fan bases. The truth may be so different from my little one game sample, that I may have a couple Indianapolis fans mad at me for writing this blog. But in comparing this to the only thing I know (OKC), I still find it a bit puzzling that the arena was only half way full for a strong playoff team.
I hope I’m wrong concerning what I saw in Indianapolis. Maybe it was an aberration. A statistical anomoly in the world of numbers. I just saw the New York Knicks face the Pacers in the Fieldhouse and the place was packed. Good for you Indy. You have a good, up-and-coming team. I hope the Fieldhouse is full to the brim when the Thunder play the Pacers in Indy on Friday. I hope Area 55 is raising hell for the entire game and pumping that crowd up. I hope El Pacero dons the mask and drums the crowd into a frenzy. I hope it’s a close game. Annnnd, I hope the Thunder come out of there victorious.