Thunder a winner with fans
OKLAHOMA CITY - No matter how many ways the Oklahoma City Thunder find to lose, they certainly don't seem to have any trouble finding people to watch it happen.
Despite having an NBA-worst 2-21 record heading into the weekend, the Thunder are one of the bigger draws in the league. Only this week did Oklahoma City fall out of the top 10 in attendance, and that came after the two smallest crowds of the season came to watch losses to Golden State and Memphis - two other teams near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Still, the Thunder are averaging 18,473 fans per game to rank 12th in the NBA, just ahead of West playoff contenders Phoenix, San Antonio, and Houston.
So far, the town that agreed to shell out $121 million for arena improvements has received only one home win in return.
"It's important that we play well here. We love the support. The players love it," said interim coach Scott Brooks, who was promoted after P.J. Carlesimo was fired.
"We've been around a lot of other buildings and it's not like this. We definitely need to give them something they can go home and feel good about."
It looked like the Thunder might finally have a breakthrough Wednesday night, when they led Memphis by 21 in the second quarter. But another meltdown dropped them to a miserable 1-11 at the Ford Center.
The local newspaper has even been highlighting how long it's been since the team's last win at home - Nov. 2 against Minnesota.
"Considering how things have started here for us, that means a lot just to be able when we come out to see almost a packed house almost every night," veteran forward Joe Smith said.
"Things are getting better on the floor, but we still have to find ways to win games in the crunch. Just to see them sticking with us the way they have is a great feeling."
The question, raised as the franchise prepared to move from a much larger market in Seattle, was whether Oklahoma City would continue to support the team if the losses kept piling up.
The locally based ownership group even included a clause in its Ford Center lease agreement that would allow it to leave after six years if ticket revenues fall off.
"We're very pleased with the fan response," spokesman Dan Mahoney said. "We think the fans in Oklahoma City have proven what we said would be the case: that Oklahoma City can support an NBA team."
Their loyalty is being tested right now.
The team, which won a franchise-worst 20 games last season, is on pace to break the NBA's record for fewest wins in an 82-game season set by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who won only nine times.
"I think since this is our first year here, they're excited about it. They want us just to play hard and leave it on the floor, and I think we've done that for the most part the last few weeks," Brooks said. "But going around to other arenas, it's not like this.
"You have the select teams that are selling out, but we're right there. Every night, it's a good crowd and it's good for our players. Not too many times you can not win a lot of games and have a good crowd."
The base for the Thunder's strong attendance comes from a five-day stretch in September, when the entire stock of about 13,000 season tickets was sold. The team even turned away some potential season-ticket buyers, saving the rest of the 6,000 or so tickets for partial-season plans, groups, and game-day sales.
Of those, 3,500 tickets are available at $10 apiece, and Mahoney said he thinks fans have found the Thunder to be an affordable entertainment option.
Their numbers are easily outpacing the expansion Bobcats' first season in Charlotte and the Grizzlies' first season in Memphis after moving from Vancouver, with both teams averaging about 14,400. They're also ahead of the Hornets' first season in New Orleans, when average attendance was 15,650.
About the only measure that finds the Thunder even slightly behind is a comparison with the first year of the Hornets' temporary relocation to Oklahoma City.
Through 12 games, the Hornets were averaging 18,756 fans - although that total was inflated by two early appearances by regional favorite Dallas and one by the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.