Polite applause washed over the fresh-faced pack of Cub Scouts as they were introduced at Convention Hall in Miami Beach. The little tykes accepted the appreciation with gracious blushes. Then suddenly the tranquil scene was splintered by a fierce, insistent bellowing. "Boooooo!" roared Bob Pearce as the halftime crowd at the Floridians-Kentucky Colonels basketball game fell hushed. "Boooooo!" he yelled. "Boooooo!"
Bewildered and confused by the abrupt change in their reception, the Cubs plopped back into their chairs. And, satisfied, Pearce ended his display of derision. Besides, an even better target, Dan Issel of Kentucky, was nearby. Pro basketball fans know about Issel and his two front teeth. "Hey, Dan," Pearce screamed, "give us a nice smile."
Every sport has its wild fans but few activities attract them like pro basketball, a game that brings out the hidden loony in a lot of folks. Years ago participants and onlookers were separated by wire screening, through which unwary opponents who dared dribble the sidelines were often stuck with hatpins. Even this modest protection is gone now, but the fans, still using the needle, remain. And while other sports invite the spectators to breathe the same air as the performers, golf and tennis most notably, their settings seem to resemble cathedrals more than coliseums.
Not pro basketball. Every game today plays to the blast of battery-operated bullhorns. Every arena echoes to the screams of DEE-fense, DEE-fense! (even when the home team has control of the ball). Phoenix and Seattle glory in reputations for the most uproarious fans. Encouraged by their raucous salutes, each team has experienced only one losing season at home. Around the pro cities, dancers entertain during timeouts, cheerleaders organize the orchestra and even front-office executives and jaded sportswriters forget their decorum. Carl Scheer, president and general manager of the Carolina Cougars, kicks over waste cans when his team suffers misfortune. The Buffalo Braves have lost a publicity man and two newspaper reporters to banishment from the press table. And Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle team, often follows referees to their dressing room, raging imprecations.
Whatever his act, the sideline hero is zealous in his performance. Bob Pearce lost his job as a route supervisor for a soft-drink distributor because he booed too often. He was banned from attending jai alai games in Miami because officials feared he would incite a riot with his jeering of suspect plays. Pearce promptly filed a $500,000 damage suit and wound up unemployed because, he maintains, his company said he did not have sufficient interest in his job.
Now working for another soda-water firm, Pearce still spends evenings creating gas pains in Floridian opponents. Equipped with a voice like a train crash, Pearce leads a band of friends called "the Boo-Birds." Mark Binstein, general manager and coach of the Pittsburgh Condors, waded into the stands one night and punched Boo-Bird Dan Webb after the Condors had lost by 27 points. Binstein's mood was not helped by the fact that the group also waved signs ridiculing his preseason promotional campaign. He had ordered a large shipment of Condor jackets and T shirts, but apathetic Pittsburgh fans had spurned them. Now the Boo-Birds plan to greet the Condors on their next flight to Miami. While a sheriff's deputy serves an assault-and-battery warrant on Binstein, the club plans to boo.
The hecklers who infest the basketball arenas have one common trait: they are bigmouths. But none is louder than Dale Kussard, a 31-year-old elevator installer from Milwaukee. He brings a bullhorn to every game—and he claims his only fear is that someday he will forget to stand and the fan in front of him will be rendered deaf.
In Louisville, brothers Ellis and Bill Thomas form a double attack on the opposition, although it always seems as if surely there must be more than just two of them. The brothers position themselves in separate but adjacent sections for good stereophonic cross-shout effect and then ridicule, holler, wave their arms, point their fingers, jump up and down or grab the basketball when it goes out of bounds and break into a dribbling act. They haven't missed a home game in four years.
"They're like another weapon in our arsenal," says the Colonels' president, Mike Storen. Last year Charlie Scott of the Virginia Squires wearied of the attack and charged into the stands after Bill, determined to cut the enemy's forces by half. Scott was restrained, and after the game the foes shook hands. "I'm a fan, not a fighter," Bill told Scott.
In Phoenix one group of clappers would like to have another group barred from the games. "It's bad for the city," explains a member of the dove faction, a banker. "What good does it do to have the visiting sportswriters, broadcasters and players uptight all night?" asks Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix general manager. "That's not the type of hospitality you'd like to extend to visitors. Still," he adds, "I like the reputation we have of being the loudest fans in the league." The executive cites as an example of the fervor an incident when fans charged out of the stands because they thought a Phoenix ballplayer was involved in a fight with an opposition player off court. "Two people fell out of the balcony, a person was hit with a bottle and a little girl got trampled," says Colangelo with a touch of pride. "It shows how rabid our fans are."
Maurice Yates, a 62-year-old industrialist in Salt Lake City, carries his support for the Utah Stars past the vocal level. He buys 350 season tickets, the entire court-side row on one side of the floor—and then sells them as a booster.
Bad matchups never stop the true basketball zealot. Joey Snyder once charged onto the floor in Baltimore and hit Referee Jake O'Donnell in the belly button—with his head. Joey is 4'10" and has a shrill voice. Richie Guerin, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, once silenced Snyder by noting, "My God, I thought it was a woman."
And age hasn't slowed Harry Hershberger at Indiana Pacer games. In his mid-70s, Hershberger still can make the big play. He walks with a cane which he once used to threaten Referee Norm Drucker after Drucker assessed Pacer Billy Keller with three quick technical fouls. Hershberger traveled the length of the court, brandishing his walking stick, but before he could inflict any damage on the official police stepped in.
Fans always rebel loudest against striped-shirt authority. In one 76er playoff game against Boston, Philadelphia electrician Jasper Verna delayed the game 10 minutes while he argued with Referees Mendy Rudolph and Earl Strom. "Mendy put his face right close to mine and told me to keep my big mouth shut," remembers Verna, who has sat in the same seat at 76er games for the last 18 years. "I shouted back. Then there was a foul shot and Strom was right in front of me. I moved my body to see the shooter and Strom tripped over my leg. And then he kicked me."
In Dallas, Mark Fleischer, who is 6'5", and Sam Katz, who is 4'10", are The Giant and The Jockey to Chaparral officials accustomed to the pair's haunting the team's offices at odd hours. At games, Katz' feet dangle short of the floor when he is in his seat, which is rarely. The Chaps also have a few other flaky fans. One bearded fellow maintains a cross-legged yoga position for the entire game. Another, usually placid, always burst into a screaming, jumping rage whenever Bill Sharman came to town. Now that Sharman has switched leagues, the man, a male nurse, is momentarily serene.
The most spectacular fans are the dancers or the cheerleaders. In Baltimore—especially when the games are on national television—Dancing Harry appears. He does an impromptu step he claims hexes the opposition. With the Bullets suffering through a poor season, Dancing Harry has not been around much lately.
Gus Sinaris works in an automobile plant in Detroit and also as a vendor at Tiger Stadium but he is best known for his dance routine at Piston basketball games. A bulging-stomached character who inhabits the upper balcony of Cobo Arena, Gus lolls in the aisle during timeouts, then breaks into a dance resembling an elephant balancing on a skate board. At the end of his number, Sinaris strolls to the railing, leans precariously over its edge and utters a strange hooting sound, apparently inspired by the sound track of an old jungle movie.
Some of the new arenas have managed to tone down the eccentric fans the same way ornate chandeliers, a plush carpet and soft violin music can quiet a noisy dining room. The Forum, palatial home of the Los Angeles Lakers, is such a place. The fat man who used to rage up and down the aisles of the Sports Arena, wearing his Lakers derby, is now 80 pounds lighter and never ventures from his seat.
If it is true that such growing sophistication in basketball will eliminate bizarre fan behavior, the game stands to forfeit a degree of its appeal. After all, folks like Bob Pearce remind one that it all is but a moment of entertainment. "Why do you keep calling me a dummy?" an exasperated visiting coach demanded of Pearce recently. "Why," shrugged the Boo-Bird, "do you keep looking around when I say it?"