- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
IT IS JUST before 8 p.m. on June 12, and for the past 30 minutes, the Chesapeake Energy Arena has been a rollicking sea of black and blue. The blue you understand: That's from the Thunder T-shirts worn by the 18,203 fans standing and clapping in unison as they excitedly await the opening tip of the team's first Finals game, against the Heat.
The black might take you a little longer to figure out ... ah, the Beard. Or, rather, a whole lot of beards. Hundreds of diehard fans have strapped on shaggy black beards in honor of shooting guard James Edward Harden Jr., the firstborn son of Oklahoma's only major pro franchise. Remember, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were sons of the former Seattle SuperSonics. It was Harden who was the Thunder's first draft pick in 2009. Since then, the team has become the tightest of blended families. "There's definitely something special, different than anything I've been a part of in my life," Harden says. "The loyalty here is second to none."
All told, it's a moment to cherish. The frightfully young Thunder are already one of the league's best teams. They seem secure with a core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and shot blocker Serge Ibaka for years to come. Harden is becoming an international cult figure, the only player in the NBA adored by hipsters and statheads alike (not to mention this crowd of Oklahomans). But do the bearded diehards know just how much they should cherish this? Only minutes earlier in the same arena, NBA commissioner David Stern used his last pre-Finals news conference to explain the new luxury tax that will go into effect in 2013, and his message is unmistakable. "The reality," Stern says, "is that all teams are going to be faced with player sharing as well as revenue sharing. Because of the tax, there are going to be decisions that have to get made." Decisions, everyone in the OKC organization already understood, that could easily force Oklahoma to "share" its 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year with the rest of the league.
Four months after the Finals, as a new season approaches, the threat to OKC's dreamy future is now concrete to Thunder fans. The deadline to get a contract extension for Harden is Oct. 31. After that, he will become eligible for restricted free agency following the season, available to the highest bidder.
Happy Halloween, OKC!
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss
23hEthan Sherwood Strauss
1hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
2hVince Masi, ESPN Stats & Information
6hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar