Itinerant Fan

Chesapeake Energy Arena

I’ve long been fascinated by markets that have just one team in the “big four” professional sports leagues. Typically the city’s love for the team is rabid, thanks largely to the team not having to compete with another one for attention. And if the team is a championship contender and boasts one or two bona fide star players, well, the adoration is only that much stronger.

The NBA has quite a few teams that match the above description, but Oklahoma City might be the clearest example. It did such a good job supporting the displaced New Orleans Hornets for two seasons that it got its own franchise just a year later (albeit at the expense of poor Seattle). Since then, the Thunder have become one of the league’s marquee teams, featuring not one but two legitimate superstars, and the team went all the way to the NBA Finals in 2012.

As a result, OKC and its fans get plenty of national television exposure these days, and home games at Chesapeake Energy Arena can be tough to get into. But I tried anyway, making a visit to “the Peake” just after the new year to see what it’s like watching pro basketball in Oklahoma. And I found there are a couple things about it that make it a truly unique experience.

  •   The Approach

    Chesapeake Energy Arena (note: most locals drop the “Energy” and call it Chesapeake Arena, thus the signage in which “Energy” is barely visible) sits in what can be best described as the south edge of downtown Oklahoma City, along a major drag called Reno Avenue. The business core and the few tall buildings you’ll find in OKC are within a few blocks, as is a more lively section of the city known as Bricktown (more on that below).

    With Interstate 40 not far away, access to the area is not hard, and neither is parking — there are lots and structures all around, including an underground garage at the Cox Convention Center across the street that costs $8 to enter. In fact, it seems the majority of fans are entering the arena on its north side, facing Reno Avenue, and many of them are coming from inside the convention center.

    If you’re a visitor to OKC and you’re staying downtown, then it’s easy — just walk. Most major hotels in the downtown area are within a few blocks of the arena, the most convenient of which being the Courtyard Marriott just next door, no crossing of streets needed. This is where I stayed, and before and after the game the hotel lobby is a beehive of activity even though there’s only a modest restaurant inside. The city’s Amtrak station is also close by, at the corner of Reno and E.K. Gaylord, but it’s not a practical mode of transportation to the game unless you’ve decided to come up from Fort Worth for it.

  •   The Build-Up

    Booking.com

    Downtown OKC isn’t a hoppin’ place when compared to many American big-city downtowns, so if you’re in the immediate vicinity of the arena you’re probably best off going inside. But just a block east, on the other side of the Amtrak tracks, you’ll find Bricktown and a much more lively nightlife scene. There are many, many restaurants and bars here, including Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse, Bricktown Brewery and Earl’s Rib Palace, all of which are happy to cater to basketball fans. There’s also a Sonic Drive-In, located right next to the headquarters of the fast food purveyor.

    If it’s still daylight, Bricktown is a cool area to take a stroll through. The city’s minor-league ballpark is there (on this winter day, it hosted tube rides on a man-made slope built on top of the infield) and the small canal that winds through it makes for a picturesque place to walk. There are also a few tributes to notable OKC natives, including statues of Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench outside the ballpark and a street christened “Flaming Lips Way” (yes, named after the rock band, which formed in OKC).

  •   The Ambiance

    Most sports venues around the country do a pretty good job taking on the personality of the city it’s in and the fan base that regularly fills it, but Chesapeake Arena and Oklahoma City are just about a perfect fit for each other. The arena is nice but not audacious, the amenities plush but not exorbitant, the layout straightforward and uncomplicated. And just like almost everybody else I met during my brief stay in OKC, the staff is exceedingly polite and helpful.

    On the main concourse, you’ll find two sit-down restaurant/bars right next to each other, but other than that it’s the usual assortment of burgers, hot dogs, BBQ, nachos and the like. There were a couple of interesting options, including baked potatoes and bags of gourmet candy (the latter was being sold at a cloth-adorned table staffed by two ladies, not unlike something you’d see at a high school game). In the end, I kept it simple — I had eaten an OKC specialty, an onion burger, not long before the game — and just had an order of fries, served in a paper cup. The cashier who handed it to me said, “They’re just out of the fryer, so be careful when you reach in there.” See what I mean about exceedingly polite staff?

    There are a couple other things about the game experience that are uniquely Oklahoman, or at least regional. First off, along with the pregame national anthem, they also have an invocation (OK, a prayer). Then, when the game begins, everyone remains standing. I tell you this now as a public service announcement so that you don’t potentially embarrass yourself like I did, because I had no idea how this custom was supposed to go. Do I sit after a minute? When the other team scores? Never? I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it was option 2, and when the Wizards scored the game’s first basket, I reached back for my seat only to realize no one else had moved. Then the Thunder scored, and at THAT point everyone sat down. So if you didn’t already know, don’t sit down until the Thunder score a point.

    My seats were behind one of the baskets in the upper deck, in what the arena has christened “Loud City.” (I had seen the signs while watching Thunder games on TV, and thought to myself that they were calling the entire fan base that a la Portland’s “Rip City” or the Clippers’ “Lob City,” but it turns out that, according to the in-arena signage, the name only applies to the upper deck. I guess it’s an effective way to make you feel good about sitting up there.) The view wasn’t terrible but I wound up there because I didn’t want to pay more than the going rate of $75 for seats aligned with midcourt. But if you’re in the upper reaches and you have trouble seeing, you might want to at least be more toward the center.

    It being a Friday right after New Year’s, I was pretty much surrounded by families and kids under 10, though the parties to my left and right both bailed at halftime. It’s too bad, because they missed a good finish and a Thunder win, delivered largely by one of the superstars alluded to above. Late in the game a group of teenagers showed up and asked if the seats next to me were occupied, and I told them that they hadn’t been since halftime. “Cool!” one of them exclaimed, and with that kind of enthusiasm, it’s no wonder the Thunder have thrived in OKC.

The Particulars

Home Teams
Oklahoma City Thunder

Address
100 W. Reno Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK 73102

Year Opened
2002

Capacity
18,203

Upcoming Events
All times local
Marvel Universe Live - Oklahoma City
Saturday, December 16, 2017
11:00 am
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Marvel Universe Live - Oklahoma City
Saturday, December 16, 2017
3:00 pm
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Marvel Universe Live - Oklahoma City
Saturday, December 16, 2017
7:00 pm
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Marvel Universe Live - Oklahoma City
Sunday, December 17, 2017
2:00 pm
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Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder
Monday, December 18, 2017
7:00 pm
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