OKLAHOMA CITY — Linda Thompson remembers more than what it was like to go to a Thunder game in the heyday of live basketball here.
She remembers what it was like to leave.
The energy on that trek back to the car. Walking under the bridge into Bricktown with a throng of people blocks from the arena still riding the high of a Thunder win.
“Everybody’s yelling ‘O-K-C! O-K-C!” said Thompson, a season ticketholder since 2011. “People were just going berserk. I remember those days. It was just so exciting.”
She hopes it’ll be like that again, but Thompson doesn’t know.
On Sunday, the Thunder will host the Denver Nuggets in the 16th home opener since the OKC franchise relocated from Seattle and left behind the Sonics name and history.
It’s a matinee game pitting Denver’s reigning NBA champs against the Thunder’s up-and-comers, the sort of stalwart-vs.-upstart matchup that used to be a signature at what’s now the Paycom Center.
Back in the day, those games were white-hot tickets in OKC. And the opponent — the Kobe Bryant Lakers, maybe, or the Tim Duncan Spurs — would be met with a vicious 1-2 punch: the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the tidal wave of sound cascading down from up in Loud City.
What was then called Chesapeake Energy Arena — colloquially, The Peake — became known as one of the hardest places to play in the NBA. A “Final Four college-type atmosphere,” said Mark Mitchell, a Thunder season ticketholder from Day 1.
So it was notable last month when, during his preseason news conference, Thunder general manager Sam Presti alluded to a change in atmosphere at his team’s home games.
In addressing OKC’s inexperience, Presti noted that the Thunder “will need encouragement” this season as it looks to build on an appearance in last season’s NBA Play-In Tournament.
“They’re still one of the youngest teams in the league,” Presti said. “There’s still a lot of inexperience, and there’s going to be a lot coming at them. One day we want to have a real home-court advantage again, and we understand that we have to earn that. As is the case in professional sports everywhere.”
That home-court advantage line was almost an aside. But it stood out like it had been swiped with a highlighter.
Here was the GM of the Thunder, onetime owners of perhaps the league’s most impactful atmosphere, expressing hope for — but not certainty of — a supportive crowd.
And it wasn’t hard to see why.
When Loud City went quiet
For years, the Thunder consistently had full houses — a listed attendance of 18,203, filled to 100% capacity.
But the team held fans out of the arena in 2020-21 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And when the NBA returned to normal in 2021-22, OKC — beginning a teardown and rebuild of its after trading franchise cornerstone Westbrook — dropped to an average attendance of 14,877.
That was 81.7% of capacity, which ranked 26th in the NBA. Last season, the Thunder’s average attendance of 15,534 was 85.3% of capacity, 29th in the league.
But those numbers are only part of the story.
There are empty seats, sure, but the games feel different, too. The fans who showed up got less intense as the stakes lowered and losses mounted.
In this year’s annual preseason survey of NBA general managers, OKC didn’t get a single vote as the team with the best home-court advantage.
“It’s almost like we’re kind of turning into an NBA market, if that makes sense,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been to games in other cities, and it’s more of a social event than it is a sporting event.”
Mitchell called that “sad.” He longs for the days of those rowdy crowds.
So does Hayden Peterson.
You might not know the 22-year-old recent University of Tulsa graduate, but there’s a decent chance you’ve seen him.
A rare opportunity to sit courtside last season resulted in the Thunder using Peterson’s photo in promotional materials. His image pops up on the new video boards at the Paycom Center and in ads attached to Thunder ticket emails, his right arm raised in celebration and his face frozen in a celebratory scream.
Peterson isn’t an every game presence — he doesn’t have season tickets — but he’s been attending games since he took in the franchise opener when he was 7 years old.
Like Thompson, some of his fondest memories come from those moments after a big win, the energy palpable and the chants echoing through the concourse.
Last October he went with friends to a Thunder-Clippers game, saw the sparse crowd and told his buddies, “I haven’t seen it this bad.”
There are lots of reasons why.
The obvious one is that the team got bad.
In one stretch of the Thunder’s heyday, the franchise won 47 games or more nine times in 11 seasons. And then it managed 46 wins combined in two seasons from 2020-22, the throes of a rebuild now considered ahead of schedule.
“I think in a lot of cities, the arena is full regardless, because the team has been there so long and you have diehard fans and they support the team through thick and thin,” Thompson said. “And here I think the fans were spoiled because the team got good so fast. So you had a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon, but they were kind of fairweather fans.”
But there probably are other factors.
COVID couldn’t have helped, an interruption in fans’ habit of attending games. And the Thunder’s TV deal — which has limited cord-cutters’ legal streaming options for watching games — isn’t ideal for fans looking to connect to a young team.
Those who didn’t routinely see OKC early last season, Mitchell said, “had no idea how fun they were.” Eventually, they seemed to catch on.
“As the season went on and people started realizing that they were starting to win and it was actually worth your money to go to a game, more and more people showed up,” Peterson said. “And that was actually really cool to see.”
Pump up the volume?
Anecdotally, Thunder fans are showing signs of life.
Mitchell notices his group texts are perking up with Thunder talk of late, including a friend this week lamenting that he can’t see the team on TV. Mitchell can’t make it for the Nuggets on Sunday — 10-year-old daughter Avery is playing the final soccer game of her season — but he had no trouble selling them.
“A couple years ago, you had to give them away,” Mitchell said. “In the beginning, you could buy season tickets and go to 30 games and make money (selling the rest). And then, two, three years ago, you couldn’t sell them for $2.”
And even when OKC’s losses were piling up, coach Mark Daigneault noted, there were fans whose support never waned. He cited an early season game against eventual NBA champ Golden State two years ago in which the underdog Thunder hung tough before losing.
“We dropped to oh-and-whatever, and they gave us a standing ovation,” Daigneault said. “And it was after a losing season, and we hadn’t won a game yet that year. We had the youngest team in the league. That really stood out to me. That was really impressive to me. I think it just speaks to the support. I think the first time around, when the team’s winning 50 games every year, it’s easy to get excited about that. But I thought that showed the true colors of the fan base, in that circumstance, to give us that kind of appreciation.”
So there are reasons for optimism that maybe the old days can make a comeback.
Thompson — who said she used to pace Loud City in frustration with the way the Westbrook/Paul George-led teams of 2017-19 would play “so beneath their level” — has found joy even in the doldrums of the past two seasons. The 76-year-old loves the Thunder’s effort, its spirit.
It’s “beautiful basketball” now, she said. She hopes more people will come to see it.
Mitchell switched streaming services this fall to get access to Bally Sports and the Thunder games. His daughter Halle, a freshman at OU, can log into the account to watch from her dorm now that it’ll be harder to attend games with her dad.
“And now my youngest is starting to go to games, too, and she’s not having as much fun as my other daughter did, so she’s not getting into it,” Mitchell said. “So I really want it to become an event again. And honestly, I think it will.”
Peterson — these days the literal poster child for Thunder fandom — said he’ll be “extremely disappointed” if it doesn’t.
“For a Thunder fan like myself, who follows the team very closely, there’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “I personally think it really could be one of the most fun Thunder seasons ever. So I’m stoked. I’m planning to be there opening night. And if it’s not a sellout crowd, I’m hoping it’s gonna be pretty close. But, I mean, looking at the stats last year, I’m a little worried.”