Why do OKC Thunder fans greet team at Will Rogers Airport? To say thanks for 'a fun ride'

Shannon Friedman remembers standing behind a chain-link fence at Will Rogers Airport's general aviation terminal on April 15, 2023.

The clock read 3 a.m. as Friedman and a few hundred other people greeted the OKC Thunder's players, who'd just landed after suffering a play-in tournament loss to Minnesota.

That marked the end of the season for OKC, which went from a 24-win team the previous year to falling one win shy of making the playoffs. And while a postseason appearance ultimately wasn't in the cards, there was reason for optimism.

"We thought they showed a lot of promise," Friedman said. "We were really excited to see what the future would hold."

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, left, and Aaron Wiggins high-five fans at Will Rogers World Airport on Saturday after the Thunder's road loss to the Mavericks in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, left, and Aaron Wiggins high-five fans at Will Rogers World Airport on Saturday after the Thunder's road loss to the Mavericks in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night.

It didn't take long to find out.

OKC arrived this season. It became the youngest No. 1 seed in league history, and it reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

OKC's breakout campaign came to an end on Saturday with a 117-116 road loss to Dallas in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. But the team landed at Will Rogers Airport just past midnight and was greeted by yet another pack of loyal OKC fans, including Friedman, who congratulated the Thunder on a great season.

"This is the future, and it's only going to get better from here," Friedman said. "It's sad that the season is ending, but it's also really exciting. Next season, who knows how far they can go?"

That's the question everyone is asking.

OKC has a young core led by MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It's projected to have around $35 million in cap space. It has the 12th overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft along with a wealth of future draft capital.

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But most importantly, OKC now has playoff experience that'll make it better prepared for future runs.

"They got that experience now," said Thunder fan Garrett Haviland, who also made the trip to the airport Saturday night. "The NBA needs to be on alert. This is the last chance that they've got to punch the Thunder. Next year, we punch back."

Haviland is better known by the name "Thundor."

He attends Thunder home games shirtless with a cape and a luchador mask, distracting opposing players from behind the basket as they attempt free throws.

Haviland has been going to games since OKC's first season in 2008. He saw the Thunder's NBA Finals run in 2012. He saw stars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook come and go.

But what Haviland saw this season was different than previous OKC teams, or any team for that matter.

The Thunder became the youngest team in league history to win a playoff series, and it did so with an unrivaled level of charisma. From barking like a dog with fans to celebrating as a group during postgame interviews with Bally Sports Oklahoma's Nick Gallo, OKC's players were entertaining both on and off the floor.

"It's contagious," Haviland said. "They have a contagious energy about them. They're able to feed that into the crowd. The crowd is able to give it back to them. It has just made for a lot of great memories."

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Haviland stood out with his Thundor costume during Saturday's greeting party, but he wasn't the only eccentric fan.

A family of seven made the 90-minute drive from Elk City. Another group came equipped with head cutouts of Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and, of course, the dog emoji.

OKC's fans showed out to support the players, who were understandably reserved following the heartbreaking loss. But most of them cracked a smile as they high-fived the crowd through the fence.

That's the purpose of the greeting party, which has been tradition among OKC fans for years. And they already have next year's one on their mind.

"It was an unforgettable season," Haviland said. "It's been a fun ride. ... This time next year, I want to be doing a lot more celebrating. And I think they've got the team to be able to do that."

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder fans greet team at airport after exit in NBA playoffs