Thunder crackles over Houston

Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Tulsa’s BOK Center delivered on its promise…this is one helluva place to watch a basketball game.

The Oklahoma City Thunder rolled into Tulsa for their first game on Oklahoma soil Monday night; an exhibition game vs. 7’ 6” Chinese gargantuan Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets.   The game was also the first victory for the franchise as Thunder superstar Kevin Durant exploded down the stretch to lead the Thunder to an exciting 110-104 victory.

Just over 10,000 fans attended Tulsa’s first NBA game since 5,673 watched the 76ers beat Dallas on October 11, 1996; only the fourth ever NBA game in T-town, the other two having been played way back in 1985.  The Thunder will play their first official home game Tuesday night at a sold out Ford Center.

For those who thought it strange that the Thunder were actually the visiting team this close to home, the explanation is fairly simple.  The Rockets were originally booked to play the Orlando Magic at the BOK, but after the Seattle Supersonics moved the team to Oklahoma City in July, special arrangements were made with the Magic for the Thunder to play in their stead, giving OKC a chance to play a pre-season game in Tulsa.

This was also the first big time basketball game played in Tulsa’s sparkling new arena.  This writer went in looking for the answers to two major questions:  First, how will the BOK rate as a big time basketball venue and second, will Tulsa support the Thunder?

Any discussion of the BOK always starts with traffic flow and parking.  Other than police directing traffic around some local restaurants, (a concern that must be addressed in future planning), there did not appear to be any major traffic or parking issues outside the BOK.  Inside, the foot traffic moved very smoothly, although concession stand lines on the South side seemed a little long, especially considering attendance figures.  There were short lines on the North side and on the top level, which is curious.  Were people only hungrier on the South side?  I believe it is because most foot traffic came in from that side.  Perhaps lines will be shorter when people learn about the other available concession areas.

As for the arena itself, there isn’t really a bad seat in the house.  The upper level of the BOK is very similar to Gallagher-Iba arena in Stillwater, a very steep pitch with unobstructed view right down to the court.  Before the game I went to the very top of the arena and found Clete Straub of Tulsa sitting in a seat on the very top row, doing the same thing I was doing…checking out the view from the top.  “This isn’t my actual seat,” said Clete, “I just want to get a look at things from up here. “  His opinion of the view, “I don’t think you could see the names on their jerseys, and maybe not the numbers, but there is still a great view of the court.”  Even though they are good seats, at tip-off no one was sitting in the top row and only about 30% of the top level was occupied.  The lower level and luxury suites were over 90% full.

As for the aesthetics, the Williams sponsored scoreboard is a spectacular multi-media work of art and there is a high-tech light ring that circles the entire middle level of the arena, flashing messages, scores and upcoming events – very cool.  One of the Rockets employees who has been to arenas all over the country, remarked that the BOK is “very impressive”, and that the luxury suites were as nice as he’d ever seen; although he did get lost getting there.  This is the most impressive arena I have been in since visiting the old Boston Garden in the late 90’s.

The question as to whether Tulsans will support the Thunder is a split decision.  Pete, one of the BOK usher staff, was disappointed in the 10,007 turnout.  “If the Ford Center can sell out, then we should sell out,” he said.  “It is very disappointing that more people aren’t here.”  On the other hand, Brian Facchini, Thunder Director of Basketball Communications, was thrilled with the turnout.  “This is more people than we have played in front of so far this year.” (Previous games at Missoula, Sacramento and Oakland.)  “We are very glad to be in Tulsa and thrilled at the fan support.  We hope to see all of these people at our home games this season.”

Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo agreed with him.  “This is a tremendous venue and the crowd was great.  They were behind us from the beginning and fed us a lot of energy down the stretch.”  The crowd was kind of up and down between passive observers and cheering fans through out the game, but really roared to life in the last 8 minutes when Kevin Durant made his big plays and leading the Thunder to tie and eventually take the lead with a minute left.  For a half full arena, it was amazingly loud, which is another sign of a good basketball arena.  It reminded this writer a second time of that little noise box to the West of Tulsa, Gallagher-Iba.  A full BOK will rock, too bad so many people stayed home Monday night.

When asked if the Thunder will play any more games at the BOK Coach Carlesimo said, “It is obviously up to Clay (owner Clay Bennett) and Sam (GM Sam Presti), but I would love to play some more games up here.  We have made it clear from the beginning that we are Oklahoma’s team and Tulsa has been very supportive.”  Due to contract obligations with the Ford Center, no regular season games will be played in Tulsa, but it is likely the BOK will see more pre-season games in the future.

As for the game itself, the first impression was just how much room a 7’6” 310 lb Chinese basketball player takes up.  Yao Ming is an amazing athlete and he made our little old 6’-10” guys look like a 7th grade player guarding his high school aged brother.  The second observation is just how young the Thunder are.  Other than Joe Smith (13 years), former OK State star Desmond Mason (8 years), Earl Watson (7 years) and Chris Wilcox (6 years), the Thunder players have less than 4 years NBA experience.  It was fun to watch them joking around on the bench, obviously still kids at heart.

The Rockets mascot, Clutch the bear, was also a lot of fun.  In a “hidden camera” stunt, the mascot posed very still and then when people walked by he jumped out and scared them.  Watching startled people jump is always funny, but the best part was a little girl who came back after being startled and kicked him in the family jewels, which is just plain funny, I don’t care who you are.   Clutch also “ate” a cheerleader whole through some kind of trick costume, did a magic trick, and sprayed water on some of the crowd.  ImageHe was laugh-out-loud funny and brought a lot of extra energy to the game.  Michael Ravina, Thunder Manager of Basketball Communications says there is no word yet from the Thunder as to their new mascot, but whatever it ends of being they have a similar goal of bringing a lot of fun to the games.

The Thunder’s lack of size and experience showed at times throughout the game, especially when Yao was in, and the score showed it with the Rockets leading most of the game.  But the Young Thunder kept chipping away until they tied the game with 1:00 to play.  The crowd kept getting louder and louder over the past 5 minutes and built to a very impressive crescendo as they watched Kevin Durant score 20 of the last 28 points, block 2 shots, get a couple of rebounds and overcome great efforts by D.J. Strawberry and Brent Barry of the Rockets to take over the game.

This was a truly great basketball experience.  I went into the BOK Monday night as a general basketball fan who voted against Vision 2025 (which funded the new arena) and I came out as a fan of the BOK Center and a fan of the OKC Thunder.

About the author:
Dan Hedman is the Founder of Faster Athlete Athletic Development and the Executive Director of Perfect Practice Athletic Center in Tulsa.  PPAC provides private, small group and team training with professional coaches in speed, agility, power and skills for all sports ages 5 through professional.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 14 October 2008 )