Kevin Love knew it would be bad. But not this bad. Sure, he'd chosen UCLA over Oregon after being the consensus national player of the year as a senior at Lake Oswego (Ore.) High -- but what happened to his home state's rep for peace, love and understanding? On Jan. 23, the day before the Bruins-Ducks showdown in Eugene, Love found more than 30 voice-mail messages on his cellphone when UCLA stopped for a layover in San Francisco. He listened to the first one: If you guys win, we'll come to your house and kill your family. He played another: We'll find your hotel room and blow your f------ head off with a shotgun. He didn't bother to check the rest. "I mean, these were death threats," Love says. Shaken, he called his mother, Karen, and had her cancel his cellphone service.
Robert Husseman knew it would be bad. But not this bad. A sophomore math and business major, Husseman is a member of the Pit Crew, Oregon's rabid, 1,500-strong student fan club. He had attended the weekly Pit Crew meeting that Monday, heard that Love's cell number was circulating among members, but did not dial it himself. While nobody has ever called the Pit Crew PC -- its members once printed a thousand copies of an embarrassing picture posted on Facebook of Stanford's Fred Washington at a party -- Husseman couldn't believe the chorus of homophobic chants directed at Love from the McArthur Court student section after UCLA took the floor. "I didn't even bother with [saying] the chants," Husseman says. "I hoped they would die quickly, but they didn't."
Stan Love knew it would be bad. But not this bad. Stan, who is Kevin's father and the sixth-leading scorer in Oregon's history, arrived at his alma mater that night in a party of seven including Karen, Kevin's 13-year-old sister, his grandmother and his uncle Mike, a cofounder of the Beach Boys. But good vibrations were in short supply. Stan says his family was pelted with popcorn cartons and empty cups, as well as a barrage of profane insults ("every filthy word you can think of"), including screams of "whores" that made Kevin's grandmother cry. "There were six-year-old kids with signs saying KEVIN LOVE SUCKS," says Stan, who endured a hail of one-finger salutes to snap photographs of the worst signs. "It was the grossest display of humanity I've ever been involved with. To think I'm sitting at the school where I played ball, and just because my kid didn't pick Oregon he gets abused like that? I'll never go back there."
Kevin responded in the most cold-blooded way possible, keying UCLA's 80-75 victory with a 26-point, 18-rebound tour de force, but the fans' behavior was the story of the game in Eugene -- just as it has been in several other places around the country this season. Fan abuse and taunting are nothing new in college basketball, but 2007-08 has been the ugliest season in years. When Illinois hosted Indiana on Feb. 7, the home fans took out their frustration on Hoosiers freshman guard Eric Gordon (who'd reneged on a verbal commitment to the Illini) by chanting "F--- you, Gordon," throwing a drink at his mother and cheering when Illini guard Chester Frazier knocked Gordon back five feet with a chest bump during player introductions. And after then No. 1 Memphis pulled out a last-gasp win at Alabama-Birmingham on Feb. 16, Blazers fans nearly incited a Malice at The Palace-like riot with Tigers players; forward Joey Dorsey had to be physically restrained by team personnel from going into the stands.
As family members of targeted players feel the need to bring security guards to road games, and with schools such as Oregon and Illinois issuing apologies for the behavior of their fans, it's worth asking: How much is too much? "The abuse that fans are bringing day to day, whether it's on talk radio or in the stands, is going to ruin the game eventually," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "I hate to say this because freedom of speech is at issue, but this isn't what freedom of speech is intended for."
Some of the same conditions that make college basketball so popular-an intimate atmosphere, passionate crowds, heated rivalries -- can also create a volatile situation when fans cross the line. But what is that line? When Duke's Cameron Crazies donned caps and gowns on Feb. 13 and held up signs reading MARYLAND BASKETBALL: FEAR THE CLASSROOM, was it a creative dig at their rival's ACC-lowest graduation rate or a boorish put-down? When Virginia Tech fans chanted "Teabag Paulus" at Duke junior guard Greg Paulus last month, was it a humorous allusion to a year-old YouTube highlight (in which the Hokies' Deron Washington straddled Paulus on a layup), or was it, as Joe Buck might say, "vile and disgusting"?
"When fans are yelling things, that's part of the game. It's just something you have to deal with," says Paulus, who has followed former teammate J.J. Redick and Florida's Joakim Noah as perhaps the nation's most reviled (and often envied) college hoops player. "But when family members come to a game and can't support their child or are having things thrown and said at them, then that can be a dangerous situation."
There may not be nearly as many incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in college arenas as there were in the 1960s, but in the year 2008 many fans are waving anti-gay signs, which often appear on national TV broadcasts. Last month a Pittsburgh fan held up a BROKEBACK MOUNTAINEERS sign when the Panthers met rival West Virginia. And when Kansas State hosted Kansas, one prominent sign (partly written in rainbow-colored script) read TIM HARDAWAY STILL HATES KU, a reference to Hardaway's widely criticized homophobic comments last year. A sign at the UCLA-Oregon game proclaimed KEVIN LOVES JOHN AMAECHI, suggesting a link between Love and the openly gay former NBA player.
For his part, North Carolina junior forward Tyler Hansbrough says he saw another Hardaway-themed sign directed at him in a game at Miami. Like a lot of players, he sees the irony of such actions contradicting the stated missions of universities to serve as beacons of enlightenment and open-mindedness. "A lot of [people on] campuses talk about equal rights," Hansbrough says, "but it seems like, when students get together at a big event, [their behavior] goes against what colleges are saying."
Why is homophobia so prevalent today? While Jack Aiello, a psychology professor at Rutgers, cautions that racism still hasn't disappeared-after all, he had a ground-zero view last year of the fallout from
Don Imus's derogatory remarks about the mostly black Rutgers women's basketball team-he says that today's college sports venues can be flash points for homophobic behavior. "I've seen in the last 10 to 15 years a continuing elevation in the visibility of gays and lesbians on campuses, and greater visibility brings the potential for reactions by majority groups," Aiello says. "People who have strong feelings of opposition are more likely to demonstrate them, and where's a venue to do that? In a macho sports-arena environment."
And once an adrenaline-filled crowd gets going, it can be extremely hard to control. Even though Hoop Scoop -- the pamphlet circulated within Illinois's student section-encouraged members "to keep your composure and to refrain from vulgarity" when Indiana's Gordon took the floor, the students followed that directive for, oh, about 1.3 seconds before the anti-Gordon chants started. (It didn't help that the pamphlet devoted eight times as much space to rehashing every detail of Gordon's recruitment.) Ever since he changed his commitment from Illinois to Indiana in October 2006, sparking a firestorm of threatening e-mails and Facebook messages from jilted Illini fans, Gordon says he worried that he and his family might be in physical danger during the game in Champaign.
"One fan said, 'I wish you would die.' Another said, 'I hope you break your leg. Don't come to Illinois territory,' " Gordon says. "I thought it was crazy, but there was nothing I could do about it. Thousands of people were writing stuff like that. I knew they were going to get on my parents and throw stuff, which they did."
Gordon's father, Eric Sr., says the family brought its own security detail, but that didn't prevent one fan from tossing a cup of ice water, which hit his wife, Denise, on the back of her head. "If we didn't have as much security, there's no telling what could have happened," Eric Sr. says. "When people make threats on somebody's well-being, it becomes a societal issue. This is what's interesting: At all the Big Ten away games [before Illinois] there were no negative chants, but when we played at Ohio State [after Illinois] it was as if the student section said, 'We can say anything we want about Gordon [now].' I'm wondering: How does [Gordon's choosing Indiana over Illinois] translate to Ohio State?"
Strong responses from college officials and coaches are necessary to help control unruly crowds, Stan Love and Eric Gordon Sr. argue, pointing out that neither Oregon coach Ernie Kent nor Illinois coach Bruce Weber stepped in to address their vulgar fans on the P.A. systems. According to Love and Gordon, none of the offending fans were ejected in either game. "They need a code of conduct," says Love. "If you're out of line and acting up in the stands, you need to be ejected from the arena." When Denise was hit by the cup of ice water, Eric Sr. says, the culprit stood and challenged the Gordons to come get him. Eric Sr. pointed him out to Assembly Hall security officers, he says, "but nothing was ever done. Matter of fact, they turned the tables and acted like we were the aggressors."
Ten years ago Gordon and Love probably would not have been subjected to such ugly scenes at Illinois and Oregon, not least because they might not have attended college at all. But the NBA's age-minimum rule began requiring players to spend at least one season in college ball starting in 2006-07, a change that has coincided with the skyrocketing increase in media coverage of recruiting. In basketball, much more than in football, the decision of one 18-year-old can change the fortunes of a team almost immediately. (Would Illinois be 11-17, for example, if Gordon had gone to Champaign? Not likely.) What's more, the popularity of social-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace has made college athletes and their personal information far more accessible to the public, especially if the athletes are naive when it comes to, say, posting compromising photos of themselves or accepting friend requests from strangers.
Perhaps it's no surprise that some players (including Hansbrough and Paulus) say they have stopped using Facebook altogether. Then again, fans may need to read only a newspaper or a website to find ammunition for taunts. Consider the photograph at left, taken in the chaotic moments after Memphis's 79-78 last-second win at UAB. Tigers forward Robert Dozier is standing only a few feet from a female member of the Gang Green student section who's wearing an I DATED DOZIER T-shirt and an ersatz black eye-a reference to a complaint filed against Dozier for allegedly striking his girlfriend outside a nightclub. (No charges have been filed.) Nearby a male student holds up a sign reading WE BEAT MEMPIS NOT OUR GIRLS.
Aside from the misspelling, it's hard to find humor in any part of the tableau, from the fusillade of middle fingers to the enraged facial expressions. Just out of the frame Tigers reserve Pierre Niles could have been seen slapping an unruly fan (for which Niles was disciplined internally).
From his home in Oregon, Stan Love, Kevin's father, took one look at the scene in Birmingham and shook his head. "The NCAA and league commissioners and athletic directors need to put a stop to it," Love says. "I'm all for creative, loud and funny fans. But don't target one guy, don't threaten him on the phone, don't tell him you're going to break his legs or get him after the game. And don't force the parents to get security guards. Think about it: You're at a university, and you have to get security to go in and watch a kid play?"
If there was one saving grace for the Loves, the Gordons and Memphis, it was this: Their teams overcame those unruly crowds and left victorious. Eric Gordon Sr. is convinced that was no coincidence. "They were so nasty, so hateful, such poor sports, that it all turned back around and we won the game," he says. "I think it's karma."