In a downtown that 10 years ago lacked entertainment options, cheers of "OKC, OKC" roared from bars and restaurants on Tuesday night. Fans clad in Oklahoma City Thunder gear poured into the streets hugging one another, while others sailed down the Bricktown Canal cheering on water taxi boats, all celebrating a pinch-me moment in time.
The Thunder moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle in 2008, after OKC impressed the NBA by taking in the New Orleans Hornets temporarily after Hurricane Katrina. Now, Oklahomans are overjoyed like the parents of a first child to find their own team in its first NBA final. It's the first major-scale pro championship event held in the city, which has been known largely outside its borders as one solely obsessed with college football, one still so closely associated with sombre images of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But a blossoming downtown renewal, mixed with an unlikely championship battle with the vaunted Miami Heat, has OKC fans ecstatic and staging their own unique party.
The Thunder beat the Heat 105-94 in the first game of their best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Thursday.
"Ten years ago, the idea of all of this renewal in Oklahoma City seemed silly to me, who would really come downtown to frequent these businesses, when people really just came here a couple of times a year, mostly for minor-league baseball or the state fair?" said Thunder fan Bradley Weldon. "But look at it now. The Thunder have really helped draw people into this."
A bar owner ran onto his patio yelling "half-price appetizers for the rest of the night." Police patrolling crowds pulled up to patios on bikes and horses to peek at televisions. Fast-food joints held viewing parties too, as did cafes and night clubs, even frozen-yogurt shops. Many stores gave discounts to fans in Thunder gear, while entire office towers had staff members at work Tuesday dressed in identical Thunder T-shirts.
Fans jammed a pregame outdoor fan festival area called Thunder Alley, not deterred by a shooting that happened there during the playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, despite the fact that it's closed during games now. Tour guides on water taxis pointed proudly to a site where Thunder star Kevin Durant will build a restaurant right next to that of Oklahoma country star Toby Keith.
"People have come from all over to see this team and celebrate in this city, which has changed so much in the last several years, I just can't believe the atmosphere," said Randy Branden, who drives a water taxi down the Bricktown Canal. "It has really brought together people of many races and team allegiances. The eyes of the nation are on OKC right now, and people here are so proud of that."
Native American fan Jason Harjo is encouraged to see the mingling of so many different races, and is tickled to see college fans of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas all getting along.
"If it wasn't for the Thunder playing now, we would already be talking about nothing but college football," Harjo said. " Oklahoma fans arguing with OSU fans, obsessing about Notre Dame's visit to Oklahoma this fall like we have been discussing non-stop for years. We have had nothing else to focus on, but look at OKC now."
Packed inside Fuzzy's Taco Shop on Tuesday, fans decked in Thunder gear and fake beards, inspired by Thunder guard James Harden, chanted "MVP, MVP" when Durant's face came on the screen.
"We're in love with Durant because of how amazing he was been here, but he did go to Texas, so whenever they announce him, some Oklahoma fans have to do a quick upside-down hook-em horns before we cheer for him," Weldon said with a laugh. "We might be divided by college loyalties, but we all come together for the Thunder."