Five nights in to the 2014 NBA Playoffs, Toronto gets the award for best home fans so far.
For Games 1 and 2 against the Brooklyn Nets, Raptors fans inside and outside the Air Canada Centre behaved like a great sports crowd should. They were passionate, aggressive, supportive, spontaneous, and above all, loud.
This is a rare occurrence in North American sports, where pumped-in arena music, jumbotron-prompted chants and Kiss Cam rule the day.
From the pre-game introductions in Game 1, Raps fans set the tone by berating the Nets’ Kevin Garnett with fervent chants of “KG sucks” just because. He has never played against them in a playoff series before, but they hate him with a passion all the same. Raps fans (with a helping hand from Masai Ujiri) have given this matchup the feeling of a rivalry when no such thing exists – an impressive feat.
At the end of the Game 1 loss, Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce did his usual headband toss into the crowd as he walked into the tunnel. The difference this time? Instead of keeping the sweaty game-worn accessory as a souvenir piece to sell on eBay, Raps fans threw it straight back at him:
An individual female Raps fan in the third row also impressed me late in Game 2. With KG guarding an inbounds attempt in front of her by waving both arms in the air, she responded by mocking him and waving back:
Indeed, they have a sense of humor up north.
But the lasting take-away from the two games has to be the overall energy and noise created.
At one point early in the second quarter of Game 1, players could not hear the ref’s whistle because of the din the fans were creating. When the Raps tied the series in Game 2, the energy in the building and in Maple Leaf Square was comparable to a championship-winning celebration in some cities.
Very rarely do you see thousands of fans turn up to an NBA arena to watch the game on a big screen outside. Raps fans did so twice in four days – waving towels, getting drunk and screaming their heads off at every big play:
Raps fans are extra thirsty for success having not been in the postseason since 2008 and it shows, but make no mistake: they have always had this in them.
Despite only making it out of the first round once in their existence, they have always ranked relatively high in attendance. Last season was their fifth straight year posting a losing record, yet they finished 13th in attendance. And they have always been boisterous when given something to cheer about (or against).
Anyone who watched Vince Carter’s first game back in Toronto after joining the Nets will remember the vociferous boos aimed his way and the creative anti-Vince outfits on the display.
Vitriol combined with wit: a glorious recipe.
When the Raps faced the Nets in the 2007 Playoffs, they stepped it up again by flawlessly executing a two-in-one chant of “Let’s go Raptors, VC sucks”:
In 2008, they relentlessly mocked Dwight Howard with “Howww-ard” chants as he missed free throw after free throw:
Knicks fans used to do a mean “Scotttttt-ie” for Scottie Pippen in the early ‘90s (when there were questions over Pip’s mental toughness), but this is a rare technique. Raps fans did it to Vince too (“Caaarrrr-terrrr”) and are the first in many years to pull it off properly.
No-nonsense intimidation is something Raps fans pride themselves on. One Raps message board regular stated that they must make the ACC a “living hell” for their American visitors. This is the kind of rabid desire English football fans approach games with, and it must be applauded.
It is this edginess that helps make the Raptors crowd superior to the often-heralded Oklahoma City Thunder fans.
How do Thunder fans compare?
Routinely, Thunder fans seem to be brought up immediately in any debate over which team has the best crowd in the NBA.
Certainly, Thunder fans have one of the longest sell-out streaks in the league and are louder than most. They have good reason to be: they have won 50+ games in each of the last five seasons and have spent their entire existence watching the maturation of two transcendent superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They do not know what being irrelevant feels like.
Moreover, they are loud in a predictable and friendly, “we’re happy to be here” sort of way. Their vocal support is manifested in the same incessant, mind-numbingly robotic drone of “O-K-C! O-K-C!” over and over again.
They lose points for their lack of targeted hostility and lack of spontaneity. They lose points for their constant use of air-inflated thunder sticks, clapperboards and other artificial noise generators.
I understand that the thunder sticks are a staple throughout the NBA. They are distributed to home fans behind each basket to use as a distraction when an opposing player is at the free throw line. It only seems to be Thunder fans, however, who bash them together with as much ferocity during a break in play as they do during a Dwight Howard foul shot. See here for example:
Childish at best.
Worst of all, they lose points for leaving games early. This is something Miami’s crowd is rightly criticized for, but greater attention needs to be paid to early departures and empty seats in OKC.
In Game 2 versus the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, several fans left early and missed one of the most ridiculous 4-point plays in NBA history. See the empty seats behind KD as he launches the miracle shot:
What good is a sell-out streak if fans are missing moments like this by leaving early with games in the balance?
Could it be that these early exits are due to old women needing to get home to bed? Possibly. I have seen more over-50s females at Chesapeake Arena than any other professional sporting venue – and that is perhaps part of the reason for the Thunder’s more-jovial-than-intimidating atmosphere. Maybe the epic chants of “bullllll-sh*t” that follow questionable calls against the Raptors in Toronto are not as prevalent in OKC before the old dolls in the crowd do not want to use profanity:
Thunder fans are also increasingly guilty of arriving late.
See the vast swathes of empty seats on show midway through the first quarter in a game against the then-first placed Blazers:
Or here midway through the first against LeBron James and the Heat:
Even in Los Angeles and New York, fans manage more often than not to navigate far heavier traffic and far more crowded public transport to pack the arena in time for tip-off for a marquee game.
In OKC, fans are missing to start the fourth quarter at times too:
For a crowd with a reputation like the Thunder’s, this is unacceptable. The prevailing idea is that with nothing else to do and no other major league sports teams to root for in Oklahoma, Thunder basketball means everything to the locals – they live and die with every KD jumpshot and Westbrook foray into the lane. Why then are we seeing this lackadaisical approach to big games? There is no excuse, and the myth that they are a different breed of passionate to other fanbases needs to be put to rest. They are good, but they are less intimidating and less reliable in their attendance than the great Sacramento Kings crowds of the early 2000s or the great Utah Jazz crowds of the late ‘90s.
The “Community,” “Together,” “Family,” “We are Committed” and “Rise as One” themed t-shirts given out in OKC before games are all a subtle nod to their identity as a small-market team and a subtle dig at the big city metropolises, as if they are somehow not in it together to the same extent as OKC, as if those city slickers are less equipped to support their team.
Yet in Round 1 it has been Toronto, a cultural melting pot, thriving tourist destination and fourth largest city in North America that has truly risen as one – indoors and outdoors – to support its team most impressively.
Tonight, it’s the turn of the Bay Area, one of the largest urban conurbations in America, to show its worth as a sports community as the Golden State Warriors host Game 3 of their series against the Clippers.
Bet on the Warriors fans to once again create an environment more raucous, vibrant and spontaneous than anything OKC produces. Bet on them to arrive early and to not leave if the game’s outcome is at all in doubt. Bet on them to direct a cascade of boos and a few choice “flopper” chants at Blake Griffin. It’s what great sports fans do. It’s what Thunder fans don’t do enough.
The Thunder remain one of the better crowds in the NBA, but the model fanbase they are not.