Thunder Girls Become Leaders Of The Pack
By Tim Farley
LaTeshia began her fifth season as an Oklahoma City Thunder cheerleader in October and she’s still a bundle of nerves before every game.
Fans might expect veteran Thunder Girls to be more relaxed, but LaTeshia says her jitters are created by the pressure of putting on a good show, and entertaining the 18,000-plus people who pack the Chesapeake Arena 41 times a season.
Last names of cheerleaders interviewed for this story have not been used due to privacy concerns.
“It’s more stressful having been part of the team before because you have more to lose if you don’t make it,” LaTeshia said.
Unlike the Thunder basketball team, there are no returning starters for the cheerleading squad. Veterans must participate in tryouts just like those who have never been part of the team.
And yes, LaTeshia was selected as one of the 21 cheerleaders for the 2012-2013 season. But some things never change, even for a veteran like LaTeshia.
“Even though I’ve done it for four seasons, I still get nervous before every performance and every game. I’m just a nervous person and I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said.
Since making the initial Thunder Girl squad, LaTeshia has been a mainstay of the cheerleading team. In fact, she serves as one of the captains, which places her in a leadership role.
“It’s a big responsibility being one of the captains. I have to set a good example for my teammates. I try to keep our spirits up, stay focused, encouraging and spirited,” she said.
It’s no wonder LaTeshia is one of the team captains. Fans can pick her out rather easily because of her explosive moves on the court, her perpetual smile and that intangible leadership quality that screams, “Follow me.”
No pain, no gain
Still, being an NBA cheerleader isn’t all glitz, glamour and glory. Sure, the fans at games and special events see the finished product of long, difficult practices, new dance routines, off-season training and weekend mini camps. It’s hard work, sacrifice and in some cases, it can be downright painful.
“Injuries do happen,” LaTeshia said. “It’s not uncommon to have pulled muscles, knee injuries and back problems. Last season, I made a few trips to the chiropractor to have some adjustments made.”
The Thunder cheerleaders practice three days a week during the season for about three hours each time.
“It could be longer depending what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Now 24, LaTeshia is by no means over the hill, but she is looking toward some future goals.
“I’m in my fifth season and my body is aching and hurting a little more than it did my first season,” she said, with a laugh. “I really want to get into doing more coaching and choreography. I would like to be a professional dance team coach, even for a D-League team and then work my way to this level (NBA) again.”
But for now, LaTeshia and her Thunder girl teammates still are excited to get that pre-game adrenalin rush that’s fueled by the wild and crazy player introductions.
“The fans are on their feet and things are exploding,” LaTeshia said. “It gets us hyped and it gets the fans hyped.”
Beyond that, the planned dance routines demonstrate to the crowd the level of work Thunder Girls put in each season.
“Performing before all of those fans is indescribable,” she said. “You get such a rush of energy. It’s an awesome feeling. A lot of people don’t get to experience things like that. I cry at the beginning of every game when I see all of those Thunder shirts. I’m so proud and grateful for what I’m able to do.”
As one of the Thunder Girl veterans, LaTeshia will be able to play a mentoring role to eight new cheerleaders this season, including Jenni.
The fact she made the team hasn’t truly sunk in for the rookie from Tulsa.
“We’ve been making a few appearances, but it’s nothing like performing at a real NBA game. That’s when it will definitely feel real to me,” she said.
But Jenni isn’t totally oblivious to the Thunder organization. Last year, she was a cheerleader for the Tulsa 66ers, the Thunder’s D-league affiliate.
“I got to see a lot of what the Thunder does through them,” she said.
Still, Jenni said she wasn’t sure she would make the team.
“I was absolutely nervous. There were a lot of good girls there (at the tryouts). I would not have been shocked if I didn’t make it,” she said.
Last season, Jenni participated in Thunder Girl tryouts but was not selected, which might have been an advantage this time around.
“I knew what to expect and how things would be run,” she said.
Her preparations included a summer filled with training, attendance at dance workshops hosted by the Thunder dance team manager and finally a move to Edmond.
“I wanted to make sure things were ready for tryouts,” she said, of the move from Tulsa.
Jenni said she’s excited about her new role as a Thunder Girl.
“I really like how involved they (Thunder organization) are with the city and the entire state. It’s something that connects people all over the place,” she said. “It hasn’t totally sunk in what’s going to happen, but I look forward to seeing the progression of the girls and the Thunder basketball team. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on the team.”
Whether veteran or rookie, Thunder cheerleaders also work full-time or work part-time and attend college. Time is not a luxury these ladies enjoy. As a result, time management becomes an important factor for all of them.
“It’s a juggling act,” LaTeshia said. “You have to have the attitude that ‘I can do it today’ and get it done. When I’m tired I think of another girl who was on the team and attending law school at the same time. You can get exhausted after a long day (at work) followed by a big win at home. You’re just worn out, but when that happens you usually don’t have a hard time getting to sleep.”
Although their main job is to cheer and excite the crowd, Thunder cheerleaders now are considered role models, especially for the young girls.
“One of my favorite parts about this is meeting a lot of great people and interacting with the fans, especially the little girls. I love it when they come up to me and want their pictures taken. I still remember myself when I was that young and had certain people I looked up to,” LaTeshia said.
“We do so much in the community and we want to be good examples and we work hard at it,” she said.
With thousands of fans watching them every game, this season’s Thunder Girls look forward to showing off their new uniforms and some new dance routines.
For Jenni, those new uniforms and dance routines will fit in with the rest of her life.
“The last few months have been full of new things for me,” she said.
There’s a new city, new job, new friends and a new residence, which she shares with two other Thunder cheerleaders.
“I feel like I have a home now,” she said. “It’s a good place to be.”
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