Life as a big NBA fan in Kansas can be lonely. Get used to defending the sport against a long list of complaints without help from hoop-head allies.
“We're not an NBA city, and people don't want to pay attention,” Eddy Brotemarkle said. “No one ever wants to go out to the bars to watch a game. I play fantasy baseball and fantasy football. You can’t find people interested in the NBA.”
Hang on to your 24-second shot clock. The climate is improving for NBA fans, even in a state defined by its passion for college basketball. The arrival of the Thunder in Oklahoma City helps. So does the coming of age for the Jordan generation — 10-year-olds in 1985 are now in their early 30s with a taste for the NBA.
While Wichita will never be a hotbed for pro hoops, the NBA is more accessible than ever. On Wednesday, the Thunder returns to Intrust Bank Arena for a second season with an exhibition game against Chicago. Last year’s game against Dallas drew a sell-out crowd of 15,004. A similar crowd is expected on Wednesday.
When you’re an NBA fan, any progress feels monumental. The search for NBA fans in Kansas is on.
I don't have many friends here that share my passion,” Tim Satterfield said. “We might talk about the Chiefs or KU. The answer I get from the majority of people is that the NBA is garbage.”
Not to these folks. There are NBA fans in Wichita, surviving on occasional trips to Oklahoma City, NBA League pass and TNT’s raucous NBA studio show. For them, the skills and athletic ability of the pros trumps the college game.
Kyle Payton grew up in Wichita. Family roots in Chicago (and Jordan) led him to the Bulls. He will go to Wednesday’s game dressed in his Bulls gear. He is teaching his two children to root for the Bulls, although he suspects Keaton, 8, is falling hard for Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Keaton supplies the big clue when he picks the Thunder when he plays NBA video games.
“Seeing the NBA in person, to me there are no greater athletes than the NBA athletes,” Payton said. “Speed. Elevation. It's unmatched. Watch them shoot. You leave their shooters open and they're going to knock it down. College players won’t. The skill level doesn’t compare with NBA guys.”
Payton is used to arguing the standard NBA objections — no defense, no effort, no teamwork. As a Bulls fan, he objects. Casual fans may glue their eyes to star guard Derrick Rose. They are missing the defense orchestrated by coach Tom Thibodeau.
“Thibodeau’s defense is centered around eliminating corner three (-pointers),” Payton said. “These offenses are trying to hit key spots on the floor. It’s pretty awesome seeing the help defense coming and the big guys moving. If one guy doesn’t rotate, it leads to passes that are going to get a guy open.”
Brotemarkle is a Wichita State fan and he combined his two passions when he met Reggie Miller, his favorite NBA player, while in Los Angeles watching the Shockers play in the NCAA Tournament. Miller, who did color commentary on NCAA games, posed for a picture with Brotemarkle. He agrees that many college basketball fans miss the best parts of the NBA.
“I don't think they get that NBA players are the top basketball players in the world,” he said. “There are guys you can’t stop on a daily basis.”
Satterfield grew up shooting baskets in his driveway, pretending to be Michael Jordan with his tongue out while making reverse layups. His love for the NBA cooled when Jordan retired. LeBron James revived the interest and the Thunder’s relocation from Seattle in 2008 gave him a team to follow. With Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City is easy to love.
“I feel like they have a college-type atmosphere,” Satterfield said. “At a Thunder game, it’s loud from the first quarter on.”
Harley Gaynor, a sophomore at Campus, used to like the San Antonio Spurs. When the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, she switched loyalties. She plays shooting guard at Campus, so naturally Durant is her favorite player. Her favorite place to watch a game is the upper deck at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“If you’re sitting up there in Loud City, it’s incredible how loud it gets,” she said.
This is a glorious time to follow college basketball in Kansas. The Jayhawks are a Final Four contender and possess Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top freshman and the likely No. 1 draft pick by an NBA team. Wichita State fans are dreaming of a return to the Final Four and Kansas State is the defending Big 12 co-champion.
Talan Shinn loves college basketball, and he sees plenty of room to add the NBA to his schedule. He thinks the Thunder’s success is responsible for a local rise in NBA attention. When he assigns jerseys to players on his local youth team, he knows what to expect.
“The most popular numbers are 0 (Westbrook) and 35 (Durant),” he said. “They’re fighting over who gets to wear No. 35. That really hooks kids that age to be associated with a winner. This generation is growing up with the Thunder.”
Perhaps life won’t be so lonely as an NBA fan for that generation.