'This is the next best thing': OKC Thunder fans find a way to cheer virtually in NBA bubble
I wasn't in the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Saturday, but the familiar chants of "O-K-C" and "De-Fense" were constant from the Thunder's virtual fans.
Thundor was there, adorned in his luchador mask with his painted chest and belly, dancing and casting his virtual voodoo over the Utah Jazz players when they lined up to shoot free throws.
In those ways, being a virtual fan for the Thunder's first regular-season game in the bubble was much the same as the real thing. Thunder fans are enthusiastic about their team whether they are sitting together in Loud City or individually in front of their laptops.
I was one of nearly 300 Thunder supporters invited by the team to be a virtual fan during Saturday's game against Utah in Orlando, Florida.
Avatars of hundreds of Thunder fans partially surrounded the court where the Thunder met the Jazz. At tip-off, we couldn't stand up in front of our web camera at home until the team made their first basket like we normally would do in the 'Peake, because our avatars would disappear in Orlando.
So, we compensated by raising our arms until the first goal. My wife wondered what the heck I was doing. I did feel a little silly.
In some ways being a virtual fan is even better than the real thing. The beer and popcorn are much cheaper, and after the game ended I didn't have to wait for a downtown parking garage to clear before heading home. I was already there.
The NBA has partnered with Microsoft to provide the virtual fan experience in Orlando.
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"The league was looking for a new and engaging way for teams' fans to be part of the Orlando experience," said Dan Mahoney, Thunder vice president of broadcasting and corporate communication. "This is pretty groundbreaking technology that the league and Microsoft have put together for this. ... When you don't have fans, this is the next best thing."
The Thunder reached out to season ticket holders first to participate, then corporate sponsors and community and fan groups to fill the seats. Mahoney said the response from Thunder fans was tremendous.
Thunder fans joined fellow supporters during the game through Microsoft Teams on their computers, laptops or phones. On one screen on your device, you could get the game in real time. On the other screens around the game, there were Thunder fans interacting with each other and cheering for the club.
It was like watching a Thunder game during a Zoom meeting. A Thunder cheerleader and Storm Chaser were part of my group Saturday, as well as super fan Thundor. Fans had to sign a waiver to participate, saying they wouldn't hold up signs or hurl obscenities at the officials.
Moderators from the Thunder sat in to make sure fans stayed well-behaved online, although we were allowed to boo, but there was little to boo about on Saturday. The Thunder dominated from tip-off until the final buzzer to defeat the Jazz.
Thundor, though, made sure the officials in Orlando could see his displeasure, even if they couldn't hear him, by giving the thumbs down.
The Thunder wanted to keep the arena in Orlando as full as possible of virtual fans, so there was a waiting room of Thunder fans to replace you if you left your seat for a long period of time.
Many of the fans attempted to watch the game on television Saturday at the same time, but the TV feed was almost a minute behind the live feed through the computer. Still, we kept the TV broadcast on in our homes to try to find our virtual selves.
"I saw myself a couple of times," said Garrett Haviland, a.k.a Thundor.
Overall, Haviland gave the virtual fan experience a B+. Only the technology issues in the setup kept the grade from being an A. I gave it only a B for the same reason, but I am a 60-year-old man who is technology-challenged, so I am not sure who is to blame.
We both agreed that in the current COVID-19 environment, it was a blessing to be able to root for the Thunder again.
"Given our current situation, it provides the best alternative to being there live because you get to be in a room with other Thunder fans," Haviland said. "Some you recognize from the arena. You get to cheer on the team together. Given the option of, 'Do I want to sit in my living room and watch it by myself or do I want to watch it with a group of supporters?' I will go with the fans every time."
Thundor was definitely the star in our group Saturday, fielding questions during halftime from the other fans such as how long it takes his body paint to dry. For Thundor, being a virtual fan was a chance "to get all riled up again." All of us had missed Thunder basketball.
"I scratched a little bit of an itch, for sure," he said.
Still, being a virtual Thunder fan in an arena in Orlando can't replace the real thing in Oklahoma City.
"If you are missing the basketball atmosphere, this is the closest we can get right now,'' Haviland said. "We have a really special atmosphere at the 'Peake and so it's something we can't really replicate in a virtual world, but we did the best we could. We definitely filled every seat we had."