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19,000 show up to celebrate Thunder's opening night

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Desmond Mason went through opening night for Oklahoma City's first NBA team, the displaced New Orleans Hornets.

Now that Oklahoma City has a team to call its own in the Thunder, he expects crowds to be even more frenzied than they were during the Hornets' two-year stay.

"It's hard to try to put in words what's going to happen tonight," said Mason, a former Oklahoma State star who joined the Thunder in an offseason trade. "The atmosphere out there is going to be unbelievable."

A sellout crowd of about 19,000 -- many wearing blue Thunder T-shirts given away to commemorate the occasion -- jammed the Ford Center to watch their new, permanent hometown team take on the Milwaukee Bucks.

After getting a taste of the NBA during the Hornets' stay that ended in 2007, Oklahoma City fans are eager to have a team to call their own.

"Yes, I'm excited to be here, and yes, I think this team is going to do well here," said NBA commissioner David Stern, who recognized the fan support for the displaced Hornets by vaulting Oklahoma City to the top of the league's relocation list.

When the Seattle SuperSonics -- with an Oklahoma City-based ownership team led by Clay Bennett -- declared their intentions to relocate, Stern supported the move. He said that the NBA's history has shown that teams in other markets with only one major-league team -- such as Portland, Salt Lake City and Sacramento -- have been successful.

"You get a sense in a smaller market that the presence of a major-league franchise is a unifying element," he said.

Outside the arena in the hours before the game, the team held a block party, complete with live music, inflatable figures, sport courts and BMX stunt shows. Fans sat in chairs provided by the team, hoping to buy one of the 200 tickets the team held back for game-day sales.

Near the front of that line was 7-year-old Christian Alvarez, who wore an Oklahoma City Thunder shirt and held a sign with a simple request.

"Please give us tickets! Today is my Daddy's birthday! We have proof!" the sign read. "Go OKC Thunder!"

The Thunder sold out its 13,000 season ticket packages in five days and individual tickets for the game also sold quickly, but the franchise formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics pledged to always have tickets available on game night.

Lucinda Lopez, Christian's mother, deemed the chance to attend the Thunder's first-ever regular-season game as a good enough reason to allow Christian to skip school.

"This is history, because this is happening in Oklahoma City," she said. "I brought my son out here to realize what we've got now. This is special for Oklahoma."

Banners from each NBA team lined the street outside the arena for the first regular-season NBA game since the New Orleans Hornets ended a two-year stay in Oklahoma City in 2007. A large sign noted that it was "Opening Night" for the Thunder.

About four hours before the game was scheduled to start, Clay Bennett -- the chairman of the Thunder's ownership group -- walked out of the Ford Center, looked around and smiled, then gave the fans waiting in line for tickets a thumbs-up before going back into the arena.

Another fan, Charlie Heatly, couldn't stop smiling while looking at the scene outside the arena. Long retired from his career coaching girls basketball in Lindsay, Heatly thought back decades, to when hosting an annual holiday college tournament was considered one of the biggest things in Oklahoma City.

"This just means a lot to our state," said the 74-year-old Heatly, who bought season tickets for the Thunder, just as he had for the Hornets. "I think people will take to this team just as they took to the Hornets."

Dustin Iliff brought a group of six, including four students, from Woodward, a 139-mile one-way drive from Oklahoma City. The 32-year-old restaurant general manager -- wearing a Thunder shirt with reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant's No. 35 -- said he'd done the same thing 51 times when the Hornets were in town and that he probably would make 25 to 30 trips this season to watch the Thunder.