NCAA tournament basketball is about as competitive as sports gets—and takes a full team effort. And when you get to the Sweet Sixteen round that team effort includes the fans. Especially if it is UK vs UL.
In fact, as much as last night’s historic game was a test of collegiate basketball skills at their highest level, it was also a test of fan participation behaviors at their highest (and potentially lowest) levels.
Sure the young collegiate superstars on the floor last night for UK and UL had to be at the top of their game—and were for both teams. But what isn’t as obvious to the unsuspecting eye is the crucial role the fans play in helping their team get those small but important advantages that can make the difference in a close tournament game.
Last night my son Johnny and I were amidst a sea of “mixed” basketball fans. Some were for UL and others were for UK at about an equal ratio. It was the perfect formula for a fight to breakout at any given time and I even whispered to my son before the game, “I hope I don’t get involved in a fist fight tonight….I tend to get hurt badly in those situations.” Johnny agreed and we vowed to be on good behavior for as long as we could.
The most active UL fan in our orbit was seated, of course, directly in front of me. He was clearly a UL fan because he was middle-aged and wearing a red shirt with a cardinal logo and kept making the “L” sign with his right hand (along with his wife, or UL co-fan) for pictures he asked others —sometimes UK fans—to take. I think the hand “L” sign is clever but kept wondering if it shouldn’t be limited to just one hand so it doesn’t get confused with a “J” hand sign. But couldn’t figure out if it should be the UL fan’s left or right hand (outward looking or looking toward).
I was an obvious UK fan. Middle-aged. Not thin but no longer heavy either and wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt and a blue blazer. He had a slight advantage over me because I did not have a wildcat logo on my lapel and, let’s be honest, there is no way to smoothly make the letter “K” hand sign with a single hand. I did come up with a way to make a lower case “k” using both hands but decided against attempting since it was my first time and it was something that would need practice before going live with.
The first half went smoothly. No indications of a fisticuffs breaking out on the floor between UL and UK players or in the stands between UL and UK fans.
Things started surprisingly subdued. In the first few minutes I mumbled, “Let’s go UK” where it could be heard by my son but no one else. I essentially whispered it in his ear. Johnny quickly chastised me my pointing out facetiously, “It sure is good for UK that there’s a man in the crowd of 41,000 fans who is whispering “Let’s go cats.”
I explained I was just trying to communicate with him and not the team, but he had made his point. Meanwhile, my UL nemesis was starting to cheer not just out of normal fan pleasure but to also make a point to the UK fans around him that he not only was “for” UL but was starting to believe they were going to win. He would say things like, “Pull away, Cards!” And the worst part was that they were. It was 18-5 and I had no choice but to up my fan game –before it was too late.
I shouted “THREE” and not long after that UK made an important 3 point shot. Thank goodness. UK was turning around the momentum—and –importantly– doing so in conjunction with their fans.
The Cardinal fan in front of me countered my “THREE!” by reciting numerous player names. He obviously knew his stuff. He also would show off that he knew the hand gesture for official calls trying to do the gesture himself before the officials (whenever the call would benefit UL). This was all good showmanship but my “Go Cats” coupled with another correct “THREE” closed the point difference to 3 at half. My point being at UK we are about winning. Not showing off.
During half time, like the players themselves, I needed a break and headed out to the concession stand before returning to position myself behind and “checking” my UL counterpart as we both prepared for an intense –and potentially historic—second half of play. Both teams came out strong but my UL fan was quieter than I expected at first. I tried to watch the game but couldn’t help staring into his bald spot and starting to really resent what he represented –and what was at stake for both of us.
And then it started, “He cheered louder for UL than any single play during the first half. My son and I retorted with an even louder yell besting our best first half shout out to UK by an even more significant margin. Hoping my UL fan was chastened, I soon found out he was instead embolden. I couldn’t make out what it was he was trying to chant at first. It sounded like he was saying “ewwww” and I even thought it was perhaps a foul on UL. But I soon discovered he was chanting “Luuuuukkkkkeeeee” and it just sounded like “ewwwww.” And, again to my dismay but growing respect, it was working! Within about a 3 minute stretch, Luke Skywalker (I’m guessing his last name…the fan in front of me seemed only to know Luke’s first name) made two three pointers and four free throws.
All I could think was, “Game on, pal!” And If it needed to get a little dirty on my end, I was willing to go there. I started with some major high-fives with my son with accompanying fist bumps and ecstatic “Yes! Cats!” A new shout I improvised in desperation that was obviously—and thankfully—working.
My UL counterpart went into overdrive high-fiving any UL fan within arm reach of him. I wasn’t willing to go there. Yet. And wasn’t sure what to do next to turn up the heat. I shouted my standard bearer “THREE” several times but the UL fans around me were on to me as obviously as the UL players –and no three pointers were made.
Somehow, I have to assume it was my son’s cheering because it wasn’t mine, UK pulled within 3 points. Which is when I knew we had moved to “No holds barred” fan tactics. UK was at the free throw line. I looked on knowingly –confident the free throw by Andrew Harrison was going in and I was shocked. Horrified actually. The UL fan below me was shaking his hands to put a hex on the UK free throw shooter. I had never seen this before and it was as creepy as you are imagining. And this guy looked was obviously no piker. He had cast spells before on free throw shooters and I was trying to pull myself out of shock and into some sort of counter-spell mode. I had never cast a counter spell and was momentarily frozen. All I could do was wait until UL went to the free throw line. I wanted to shake my hands menacingly while glowering at the UL shooter—but was afraid it wouldn’t come off as polished as my competitor fan. So instead I just concentrated really hard on the UL player to miss his free throws. I reminded myself from the first half that UK was more about substance over style in fan magical thinking trying to influence games. And it worked. Phew!! And worked again!
As the clock wound down to under 3 minutes, the UL fan’s free throw hexes became more pronounced and involved —and more desperate looking. And ineffectual. I grinned to myself and with 38 seconds to go went for the coup de grace when Aaron Harrison got the ball in the corner. “T-H-R-E-E” I erupted from out of nowhere. Nothing but net, baby! As uber-fan Dick Vitale likes to say.
The game was all but over. I did one last mental hex on the UL player who missed a key free throw needed to tie. It was over. We—the UK players and their magical fans—and pulled off a staggering come-from-behind defeat.
We UK fans congratulated each other –but not to gleefully. It was a close call and could have gone the other way —if we, the fans, hadn’t been on our A-game.
Feeling both grateful and magnanimous after the big win, I looked down on the court and watched the players congratulating each other. I figured that was the least I could do. I tapped my nemesis on the shoulder and offered to shake his hand which he took. And being every bit as much the gentleman said, “Good luck on Monday” as he walked off.
I looked at my son and said, “That was pretty cool, wasn’t it? Nice gesture.” And I thought to myself how glad I was I didn’t know how to put a counter spell on him after all to stop his spell on UK’s free throw shooters. Because he might have left with my spell still in tact. And on Monday night, if he was really serious about wishing UK luck, we could use his help.