The NBA’s Superfans Are Ready for the Postseason

After a year away from their beloved arenas, Brooklyn’s Mr. Whammy, Los Angeles’s Clipper Darrell, and other in-arena staples talk about what they've been doing during crowd-less games, and the anticipation building for a somewhat-normal playoffs.
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Throughout the 2020–21 NBA season, there’s been an eerie silence behind the basket stanchion closest to the visiting team’s bench at Barclays Center. The cause of the quiet: the rare, but prolonged, absence of arguably the Nets’ most famous fan, Bruce Reznick, otherwise known as Mr. Whammy. The 85-year-old Reznick has been a regular at Nets games for more than two decades, most recently patrolling around section 16, row C. Despite his age, his voice is piercing. His whammy—the mystical juju that he puts on opposing players—is profound. However, out of caution amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Whammy hasn’t been to a game in person this season. “But now I see every game,” he says. “I’m up until 1 a.m. if I need to be.”

Before we go on, Mr. Whammy would like another thing made clear about his sabbatical: He may not be traveling to Barclays Center for games, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t impacting them. As he watches the Nets from his bedroom in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, he is still using his magic.

“The fingers don’t stop moving,” Reznick says. “Every moment during the game, I’m whammying the other team. And they miss a lot of shots. But I don’t take credit for that. I only take credit for the free throws.”

The impact that fans have, or have not, had in arenas around the league is just one of the countless components of NBA life that have been different this year. By season’s end, all but one team was hosting paid spectators (the Thunder announced in March that they would not host fans for the remainder of the season), yet attendance capacities still varied greatly (though no team was over 50% in capacity).

While Mr. Whammy has been stuck at home throughout Brooklyn’s 72-game campaign, other notables from the peanut gallery of fanatics have relished in their returns to games. “There’s two places in my life where I can forget about all the problems I’m going through,” says Darrell Bailey, known more commonly as Clipper Darrell. “There’s church and there’s Clipper games. Not having one of them was crazy.” Over the last year, Bailey has longed for the in-person community that games provide. When not riling up the Staples Center crowd, he charms groups of people as an emcee, hosting charity events and other gatherings. But because of the pandemic, he went more than a year without working a single gig.

“When I got [to Staples Center], it felt good to be back,” he says. “Like this is my home.”

And after a season of reintegration, superfans hope their cheers make the most impact in the playoffs, now that the stakes are highest.

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James Goldstein struggles to remember a time when he watched as much basketball from his home as he did this season. The 81-year-old NBA superfan says he regularly attends more than 100 games a season. This year, however, he can count his in-person appearances on two hands. “What I have really missed out on is the personal relationships I have with so many players and so many coaches,” Goldstein says. “The NBA is like my family. So I’ve really missed that part a lot.”

There are countless fans around the NBA that worship their favorite teams as if they were groups of actual deities. But unlike partisans like Clipper Darrell or Mr. Whammy, Goldstein, considers himself first and foremost an “NBA fan.” Instead of praying to Larry Legend or Air Jordan, Goldstein would be more likely to worship Dr. James Naismith. His devotion to the sport can be seen in many ways, among them at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, where a gallery showcasing memorable fan experiences was recently unveiled, and named, in Goldstein’s honor.

Goldstein fell in love with basketball in his teens while working as a statistician for the Milwaukee Hawks’ radio and TV broadcasts. The Hawks left for St. Louis after the ’55 season, a year when they drew around 3,500 fans per game. This season, arena averages are not much different. In either case, his love for the sport has persisted.

In recent decades, Goldstein has made a habit of spending large chunks of his spring on airplanes. While he lives in Los Angeles, he routinely darts from city to city in an effort to watch as much in-person playoff basketball as he can. He normally catches around 35 contests per playoffs. Before last year, he had missed just one Finals game—Game 5 of the 2016 Cavaliers-Warriors series—in 25 years. (Southwest Airlines canceled his flight to the Bay Area at the last minute.)

Had the Lakers and Clippers met in last year’s postseason, Goldstein says he would have “broken in” to watch them in the Disney World bubble. But instead, the Clippers blew a second-round, 3–1 series lead to the Nuggets, so Goldstein remained in L.A.

Almost daily this season, Goldstein will turn on his television at 4 p.m. PT to begin watching that day’s NBA slate. While he’s taken advantage of the added convenience, the additional time at home has led to another frustration, one often shared by more casual observers.

“Some of the announcers drive me a little crazy when they forget what’s going on on the court and start talking about who the MVP is going to be and all this other stuff while the game is being played,” Goldstein says.

That’s one reason he’s looking forward to resuming his usual routines this postseason.

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Brian Przystup, who is affectionately known as Biscayne Birdman, was among the first superfans who returned to their home NBA stadiums this season. On Jan. 28, he put on his vibrant “laser fuchsia” mohawk wig and left his apartment, which is just a 10 minute walk from the arena. As he strolled down Biscayne Blvd., he noticed fewer cars than in past seasons and heard just a few car horns calling out to him. Still, as he neared AmericanAirlines Arena, his heart started pounding and his smile grew.

“It felt like a great relief to be in the house, to be with them,” he says. “I really felt like a kid going to Disney World. They were opening the doors to my passion. It’s my passion.”

The Clippers welcomed fans back to Staples Center on April 18, but Clipper Darrell initially elected not to attend. Instead, he wanted to ensure the environment was COVID-19-safe.

After missing the first few games, Bailey felt comfortable with the arena’s protocols and made his long-awaited return to Staples on May 1. To mark the occasion, he debuted a new outfit, donning a custom half-red, half-blue sweatsuit instead of his trademark multicolored three-piece suit. “I was trying to be like everybody else,” Bailey says. “Like the coaches have been dressing casually, so I went in there with the new, more casual outfit too. But a lot of people initially thought I was an imitation Darrell.”

It didn’t help that he was also in a new location. Amid the pandemic, fan seating has been altered, with many sections blocked off entirely. In a normal season, Bailey sits in section 107, row nine, seat 21, which is right behind the visitors’ basket. This year, he has sat on the home side.

Biscayne Birdman has also been displaced from his usual spot in section 101. Mr. Whammy adds that had he been at games this season, he likely would have been seated at mid-court instead of in his standard locale. “And I don’t know if my voice is as strong as it used to be when I was younger,” he says.

At the few games Goldstein has attended, he has been among the select fans seated courtside. “In some ways, it’s been a better experience than the normal courtside experience because I had basically no one next to me on either side,” he says. “But I wish they wouldn’t put the fake sound effects in.”

Goldstein, who has been vaccinated for COVID-19, plans on partaking in his usual travel routine for the playoffs “if teams make the access reasonable.” Reznick, who has also received the vaccine, says his children have been protective of him this season, but that he’s hoping to convince them to let him and his wife return to Barclays Center for this playoff run.

“I’m so desperate to be there,” he says.

The sense of pride superfans feel for their teams is often heightened during the playoffs. While Przystup, not surprisingly, donned his Birdman wig while watching the Heat from his home during last year’s Finals, he also wore it to his nearby Publix supermarket and while walking his Chinese shar-pei, Monty. Strangers, he says, waved and called out to him in support.

That in-person, human connection is why Biscayne Birdman and other superfans around the league are especially thrilled to rile up their home crowds this spring. But for all the fanfare that’s created, Goldstein provides a thought regarding this year’s playoffs that might unsettle some of the league’s biggest fanatics.

"The home court advantage," he says, “doesn’t mean much now anyway.”

Or does it? Perhaps the Nets will benefit from a missed free throw this postseason and we’ll have to wonder if the non-stop whammying has been working all along.