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Behind Enemy Lines

10:29 AM EDT on April 14, 2011

Sure, he hasn’t played a game all year, but 30-ft decals aren’t cheap, so The Rose Garden is going to use it.

This will probably surprise some of you, but I like NBA basketball. I know, shocker.

Anyway, I recently found myself in Portland, Oregon, home of the Trail Blazers. According to many reporters who cover the league, their venue--The Rose Garden--is among the best in the sport. Of course, the support for such accolades is usually short on detail. Having a free night while in town, I got a ticket and decided to check it out.

What I learned is that Oklahoma City has a lot to learn about being an NBA fanbase.

The playoffs begin this weekend, and if last season was any indication, a lot is going to be made by the media about how much of an effect the OKC fans have on the team play. I even witnessed first hand the incredible atmosphere of game 6 against Los Angeles. The what used to be called Ford Center nearly exploded from the noise of 16,000 jubilant fans (adjusted for all the rat bastard Laker fans who snuck into the arena). They collectively willed the team to a near upset of the eventual champions.

In Portland, the game I witnessed carried far less weight. It was the final home game of the season, on a Tuesday night, the Blazers had already clinched a playoff spot, and their opponent was one of the least popular teams in the league--Memphis. Making matters worse, the Grizzlies decided to rest their best players for the playoffs. Yet the atmosphere was still ridiculously intense.

From tipoff until the outcome was clear, the Portland fans were keyed in. I've been to middle of the week games in Oklahoma City, and if the other team was someone as boring as Memphis, the crowd slept through. Here is what set Portland apart: 

EVERYONE WEARS TEAM GEAR

Being from out of town, I wasn't exactly sure how to get to the arena. It turned out the best way was to follow the people wearing red. Everyone was wearing something that said "Blazers" on it and was in team colors. In fact, the entire time I was at the Rose Garden I saw exactly one person not wearing an outfit that was not promoting the home team. It was a guy wearing a Thunder t-shirt, and it was me while looking in a bathroom mirror.

EVEN THE GIRLS NERD OUT

At the OKC Arena, the primary demographic refusing to conform to wearing team gear is women. They just don't find it cute enough. In Portland, the ladies in attendance not only wore just as much Blazer paraphernalia a the guys, they actually were more likely to crank it up to 11 by wearing face paint.

OPPOSING TEAMS ARE THE ENEMY

During the game, the most lasting impression was the crowd angrily booing O.J. Mayo after a made three pointer. I thought it was odd, since players make three pointers all the time, but it turned out that Mayo made the gesture of making an "OK" symbol with both hand sand putting the O's over his eyes. This is a common post long range shot celebration called "3 goggles." Just about every player in the NBA, as well as college and pick up basketball, does this now. The fans of the Trail Blazers, however, do not accept that celebration be done by anyone other than Blazers on their floor and Mayo became persona non grata after this point.

THEY EMBRACE EVEN THE SCRUBS

Thunder fans know the regulars well. You don't see much love for the guys on the bench, though. Trail Blazer fans were just as enthusiastic about the seldom used subs. It was no surprise that there were tons of fans wearing the jerseys of high paid stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy. I was taken aback by the number of people who had shelled out $120 for a swingman Rudy Fernandez (well, after watching the Bieberesque promos they ran for the guy on the jumbotron, it was clear he has a strong female following) or came to the game with homemade signs rooting for third string point guard Patty Mills. When is the last time a fan bought something to show their support for Byron Mullens?

RESPECT FOR THE LITTLE THINGS

Basketball is in the DNA of Portland residents. By wearing a Thunder t-shirt around town, I was approached several times by complete strangers who wanted to have an in depth conversation about basketball. This rarely happens in Oklahoma City, and when it does I usually have a cosmetic discussion about how Kevin Durant is awesome. In Portland, I ended up talking about the pros and cons of sitting starters before the playoffs and how San Antonio's role players make them so unbeatable.

This translated to the game where the crowd cheered for good screens or heady decisions.

To be clear, I don't point out these things to dismiss the Oklahoma City crowd. However, the Portland experience showed me that there was a lot of room to improve as a fan base.  Most of that will occur as we grow with the team. To date, the Thunder has been a novelty that is cool. Going to games is a social event where people want to be seen, and less about seeing basketball. Over time, we too will grow enamored with the little things.

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