TEMPE — Fandom is a fickle thing. Just the mere sight of certain colors can render a sports fan ill. Fans of the New York Yankees no doubt are repulsed by the sight of red socks, just as Boston fans might balk at any piece of clothing featuring pinstripes.
Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney, both starting pitchers for the Los Angeles Angels, lived in and attended college in Oklahoma. Neither grew up with a professional basketball team to truly call their own, not until the Seattle Supersonics rebranded and moved halfway across the country to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.
Richards was in college, and Heaney was 17-years-old when the Thunder started their inaugural season in 2008. Both noted that they felt like they had to root for the first professional sports team in a major league to come to Oklahoma.
“As soon as we got a team, I felt like it was my Oklahoma duty to support them,” Richards said.
The 29-year-old pitcher was originally born in Riverside, California, but grew up in Oklahoma City and went to the University of Oklahoma.
Heaney, who was born and raised in Oklahoma City and went to Oklahoma State University, said the Thunder were the first professional team that Oklahoma ever really had.
“We’ve had Triple-A baseball teams and minor league hockey teams, but the Thunder were the first of the four major sports,” Heaney said.
Although the Thunder were the first NBA team to take a solidified residence in Oklahoma, they weren’t the first to play in the Sooner State.
The New Orleans Hornets played their 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons in the Ford Center, now known as the Chesapeake Energy Arena. They played two seasons in Oklahoma City, wearing Oklahoma City home jerseys and New Orleans away jerseys.
“After Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets were here for two years, and that’s what started the movement to get the team here,” Heaney said. “I went to a few Hornets games, and in the first year I went to a few Thunder games. They were fun to watch. That was my hometown, and there was finally someone we could root for.”
With the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, the newly created Thunder used the franchise’s very first draft pick on a young guard out of UCLA. That draft pick was used on Russell Westbrook, a player that has come to define the Thunder through his explosive playstyle. Westbrook quickly established himself as a fan favorite.
“He’s the most explosive point guard in the league,” Richards said of his favorite player. “When you make a triple-double a normal thing, that’s pretty remarkable.”
Westbrook averaged a triple-double and won the Most Valuable Player award in the 2016-17 season.
Heaney almost doubled up on the Westbrook praise, but chose to go in another direction, and mention a role player as his favorite player to watch.
“I don’t want to say Westbrook, because everyone says Westbrook,” Heaney said. “I really like watching Steven Adams, because he’s a beast. I like the way he goes about it and the kind of personality he has. He seems like a really good dude.”
One player that didn’t carry immediate love from Heaney or Richards was Kevin Durant, who spent eight years in Oklahoma City and signed with the Golden State Warriors before the start of the 2016-17 season.
Richards didn’t have much to say about the former fan favorite leaving the Midwest for the California coast.
“I’ve made my peace, but it’s something you never forget,” Richards said. “As a fan, it was heartbreaking, and I’m sure everybody else felt the same way. It’s something I’ve put to the side, and I try to move forward from it.”
Heaney agreed that it was devastating, and that as a fan he hated the move, but he also offered other viewpoints on his feelings towards Durant.
“As a professional athlete, I know how hard it is to be scrutinized for what you do and how you do it,” Heaney said. “I can understand his perspective. Realistically, San Francisco and Oakland are cool places to live. I can understand Oklahoma City isn’t for everybody.”
Heaney added that Durant’s philanthropy is a key factor in why he doesn’t hold a huge grudge against the nine-time All-Star.
“The dude was great for Oklahoma City, he did a lot for the community,” Heaney said. “He donated a lot of money, time and attention. When really horrific tornadoes hit, he was extremely involved in the community. Just as a resident of Oklahoma City, I’ll never forget that. It’s pretty amazing what he did.”
“There’ so many different ways I feel about it. It’s hard to put into words, but I try not to get too caught up in it. It’s just a sport and he’s just one person,” he added.
Both pitchers expressed hope that the newest member of the team, Paul George, who was traded to the Thunder before the start of the season, would re-sign with the team.
“I’m hoping and praying,” Richards said. “It seems like he’s accepted his role in Oklahoma City. He’s able to put up his numbers, and Russell is able to put up his numbers.”
Heaney is confident the five-time All-Star will stay.
“Yeah, I think he will,” Heaney said.
Heaney sits four or five lockers away from Richards, and two or three lockers away from center fielder Mike Trout, a Philadelphia 76ers fan. The southwest corner of the locker room sometimes delves into basketball trash-talk, with Trout touting the successes of the 76ers’ “Process,” and mentioning the lack of future for the Thunder.
One player that gets the brunt of the punishment is starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs.
“This guy right here is a Lakers fan,” Richards said, as he motioned to Skaggs. “So we just bury him.”
Richards also mentioned Arizona native Kole Calhoun, right fielder for the Angels, and his Phoenix Suns fandom.
“Kole has the Suns, so he basically has nothing to root for,” Richards said. “Devin (Booker) needs to get out of Phoenix.”
Heaney and Richards expressed an excitement for the potential playoff meeting between the Thunder and Warriors.
“I really hope it happens,” Heaney said. “None of the games have really been close since Durant left. They’ve all been double-digit victories either way. Even with that, they’ve been exciting games. I think it’s good for the game to have that kind of animosity.”
“After the first two times we played them, I’d say yeah,” Richards said. But the other night, we didn’t play so well. I think we’re making strides in terms of getting everyone to mesh. Russell is doing his thing, (Carmelo Anthony) has molded into the player he is now. Paul George, with the exception of the other night, has been one of the hottest players in the NBA.”
As of Wednesday, the Thunder were the seven seed in the Western Conference, but with a four-game difference between the three seed and missing the playoffs entirely, strong play down the stretch is incredibly important. Heaney thinks that when his team is on, they can be unbeatable.
“They’re a jump-shooting team, like most teams are,” Heaney said. “You’ve seen with the Warriors, when they hit their shots, they’re unbeatable, but when they don’t hit, they get beat by the Jazz by 30 points. They can go out there and do that, and so can the Thunder.”