As soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s schedule was released back in August, I found the date that the Houston Rockets would be playing at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, and I circled it, like I’m sure most Thunder fans did. Russell Westbrook’s return has been perhaps the most highly anticipated game in OKC all season long, and with good reason.
Up until he was traded to Houston last summer, Russell Westbrook spent his entire career in Oklahoma City. At 19 years old, he was still becoming a man, and over the course of the next 11 seasons, he grew into someone that Oklahomans loved and respected.
It was hard to see him traded, and we all knew it was coming when it finally happened, but once the trade was finally announced, it hurt. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and I’ve lived in the OKC metro area since I was 5. I’ve been an NBA fan since I was 8 or 9, but my team was the Los Angeles Lakers back then because of Kobe Bryant. I never could have dreamed that Oklahoma City would have a professional basketball team.
It’s still a surreal feeling every time I sit in Chesapeake Energy Arena, whether it’s in the lower bowl or in Loud City. I like to get to my seat early so that I can take in the entire arena and everything going on around me.
I’ve sat in those seats for many memorable games.
I was there in 2012 when the Thunder went on a 9-0 run to finish the game and defeat the Lakers 77-75 in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals to go up 2-0. I still remember chanting “BEAT LA!” with thousands of other fans. I still remember Steve Blake missing the corner 3 to try to win the game for the Lakers. I still remember thinking “We’ve got a chance to win a ring.”
I was there on April 11, 2016, when Kobe Bryant played the final road game of his career. It was a 112-79 blowout for OKC, but it was a crazy feeling for me as I watched my favorite player as a kid wrap up his career against my favorite team and my favorite players as an adult.
I was there on April 4, 2017, when Russell Westbrook tied the single-season triple-double record, notching his 41st of the year. We chanted, “MVP! MVP!” Russ waved, and went right back to work as the Thunder defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 110-79.
I won’t be there tonight, unfortunately, as Westbrook makes his return to Oklahoma City. I’ll be at home, and I can only imagine my reaction when the Thunder organization does whatever it will do to honor him. I’m sure a video will play, and at its conclusion, fans will rise to their feet for a standing ovation. I’ll be surprised if it lasts fewer than a couple minutes.
Regardless of the color of the jersey and the name on the front, I will always be a Russell Westbrook fan. He did a lot for Oklahoma City, not just on the basketball court. He rubbed many people the wrong way, but I think it’s fair to say we don’t really know the real Russ, just the one that he choose to project on the hardwood. Even though I have never met him, and though we likely have very little in common, I have many fond memories of him, and I always felt like we could be friends.
Those days are gone, though. Westbrook plays for Houston now, and there’s a new era of basketball in OKC. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it prior to the start of the season, but it didn’t take more than a couple of preseason games for me to start to get excited. The future of the Thunder franchise is a bright one, and I’m thrilled that I get to be here to experience it.
I love Russell Westbrook, and I always will, but I love this city and this team so much more. So after the video ends tonight, and once the fans are done with their standing ovation, and it finally comes time for tip-off, let’s not forget one thing, Thunder fans: basketball should be more about the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.
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