When are sports about more than sports? Always.
I tweeted this afternoon that the Thunder playoff run has united Oklahomans in a way that we haven’t seen since the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Obviously, there is no comparison between a silly game and that tragic event. Don’t write me off as delusional yet. I would never want to be insensitive to those who lost their lives. But I still think my analysis holds water. Let me explain.
There was a sense of pride in that city, and in our state, during the weeks that followed that heinous attack. People were all of a sudden proud to call Oklahoma home. Years later, if you go to the bombing memorial downtown, you can’t help but resonate with the line in the state song, “...the land we belong to is grand.”
That same spirit has popped back up on the radar in recent weeks. Historically, for many sports fans, myself included, the NBA playoffs drag on way too long. That is not the case this year. This year, they can’t last long enough. For over a month now, whenever I talk with anyone from Oklahoma, and I mean anyone, all they want to talk about is the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can hear the unspoken words in their Okie accent, "That's our team! That's our state!"
People who never liked basketball before all of a sudden love basketball. My friend Amy, who comes from a long line of Oklahoma State fanatics recently tweeted, “I’ve never loved any team more than I love the Thunder.” That’s a bold statement in a state that has historically been divided into two collegiate sports camps: Sooners and Cowboys.
Then there’s my own brother who, growing up, hated sports. Seriously, he hated them. As a kid, he would never play with me. Truth is, it would have been more fun (and slightly more competitive) for me to play one on one with a broom wearing a pair of Horace Grant goggles. You get the idea. Sports just weren’t his thing.
So you’ll understand how big of a deal it must have been for him to put down $125 a few weeks ago to attend game 4 of the Western Finals with me. People who hate sports don’t spend that kind of money. Is he just a bandwagon fan? Of course not, he’s lived in Oklahoma his whole life.
You see, people who don’t like sports don’t realize that these games are never about athletic performances alone. Sure, we diehards love to quote stats and are impressed by our favorite athletes’ abilities to seemingly jump out of a gym. But that’s not why we love sports. And that’s not why we love our favorite team.
We love these overpaid strangers because they connect us to something bigger. They remind us of our dads and take us back to that magical summer of 2008. Or 1998. Or even 1968. They make a new city or university feel like home. They make you proud of your roots. In a sense, they are the dialect of our culture. I will go as far as to say that if you live in a sports-obsessed community and don’t partake in the “rah-rah” chants every now and again, you will always be an outsider.
Ask my friend Tony, who abhorred professional sports until moving to Lexington, KY. A few years later, he’s the biggest University of Kentucky fan I know. It’s not because he all of a sudden loves watching tall guys dribble balls, it’s because he speaks a new language. But wait, you say, the Wildcats aren’t a professional basketball team. Okay… okay… [chuckle] you’re right. They’re not.
Just listen to the complaints of the still-committed Seattle Sonics fans whose team moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City four years ago. To these fans, watching “their team” become “my team” and blossom into a title contender is akin to running into that ex-high school sweetheart at homecoming years later. Only now she is hot. Why is she now hot? Well, any Freddie Prinze, Jr movie will tell you that she is now hot because she stopped wearing glasses. It’s as simple as that.
But that’s neither here nor there. These Sonic fans are not whining about a basketball team being relocated. Heck, they didn’t really support the team the last couple of years they played in Seattle. But it’s not about sports. To them, their culture was taken from them. They talk about games with their dads in the 80's, not Shawn Kemp’s monstrous dunks. You can't blame them. All they want is their memories back.
Which is exactly what Kevin Durant and company have been creating for Thunder fans all season long. And it’s exactly why I’ll be watching tonight in a Ruby Tuesday in Knoxville. Watching and hoping that this young, frustratingly, wonderful team can figure out a way to play well down the stretch and force game 6 (and 7?) back in Oklahoma City. It’s not just about winning. It’s about another night of texting my friend Tyler. It’s about another night of my normally level-headed wife tweeting phantom phrases like, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?!? #thunderup” after Lebron draws another questionable foul call. And in my case, it’s about providing an opportunity to watch my grandfather’s hometown team try to make history while sitting in his living room with my little girl.
We like sports, not because of the games themselves, but because of whom we watch them with. So, if you are watching tonight, feel free to text me.