OKLAHOMA CITY – Even after losing in the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder returned home to a heroes' welcome.
Thousands of fans gathered in an impromptu celebration in a grass field near Will Rogers World Airport on Friday, cheering as players took turns at the microphone thanking them for their support.
"I don't think any other NBA team has the support that we have, and it means a lot to us," NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden said. "I know my teammates are definitely appreciative of you guys. Again, thank you.
"Next year, we'll be back in that situation and we're going to bring a championship here."
After winning Game 1 of the finals, Oklahoma City lost four in a row to the Miami Heat, falling 121-106 in Game 5 on Thursday night.
There was no formal celebration planned — like the Heat's parade that will be held Monday in Miami — but fans backed up traffic on Airport Road and on the street that leads to the terminal for what ended up being about a 15-minute appearance by the players.
Cars filled a field that usually sits empty, and a stage was set up. Three-time league scoring champion Kevin Durant, wearing his backpack, and fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook each exchanged a "Wow!" while they thought their microphones were not working.
"We might as well get ready for Game 6," Westbrook said.
Unfortunately for the crowd estimated at more than 4,000 people by the Thunder, Oklahoma City wasn't able to bring the series back home for a potential Game 6 or 7. Many of the players apologized that they didn't get the job done, only four years after the franchise relocated from Seattle.
"We wish we had more to celebrate but hopefully next year," starting guard Thabo Sefolosha said. "We're all still working hard and we do it for you. You guys are family."
Durant added: "Hopefully we can have a big parade next year."
The Thunder took another step in their pursuit of a title. They were a 23-win team their first season in Oklahoma City, made the playoffs and exited in the first round in 2010 and then reached the Western Conference finals last season.
Making the finals was the next step — and the last one left besides actually winning it all.
"I had a great time," said Derek Fisher, who didn't join the team until late March and isn't under contract for next season.
"I'm sorry we couldn't finish it out but hopefully next year we'll all get this opportunity again to go back and finish the job."
There will be some difficult decisions ahead for the franchise as Harden and NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka enter their final year before becoming restricted free agents, but most of the rotation is in place to return for next season.
That was also the cast last year, when Oklahoma City's roster was practically unchanged heading into a season with a limited training camp because of the lockout. Many of the players gathered for workouts during the offseason, when coaches weren't allowed to interact with them.
"This season, it was special to us because, first off there was the lockout. But we came together as a group, even when we couldn't see our coaches, we came together as a group and that built us closer, that built that bond closer every single day," Durant said. "I love these guys, man. We're all like brothers.
"Last night was one of the toughest times we've ever had as a group. But coming back home we knew we'd see you guys ... and we really appreciate it."
Fans had taken to gathering at the airport even well into the night — one time when a rain storm kept the plane from landing for over an hour — to greet the players when they returned from games. This time, it was a mid-afternoon arrival after the Thunder remained in Miami overnight.
"One thing I can tell you," Durant said, "is that we're going to come back to work for you guys every single day as hard as we can to try to get back and try to bring it to OKC."