"Cubs, woo! Cubs, woo! Cubs, woo!" This is the asthmatic cuckoo clock of a cheer that Ronnie Wickers wheezes every 17 seconds or so at every Chicago Cub home game, and it loosely translates, according to Wickers, as "Cubs, win!" His longest continuous woo-mentary lasted four hours, at which point he collapsed from heat prostration and had to be carried out of Wrigley Field on a stretcher. Wickers, an enigmatic street person who lives in a Cub uniform with RONNIE WOO WOO on the back, explains: "When you're a Cub fan, you're halfway to heaven. You see the blue skies and the white clouds, and there's nothing but Cubs. You don't worry about the strains of life. Wintertime here just ain't the same. It gets lonely. That's why the minute the season ends, I figure out how many hours I need to get to Opening Day. Every morning, I refigure. Just the thought that the Cubs are a day closer helps me get by."
There are a lot of crazy fans out there: the guys at PGA tournaments who scream "You the man!" just after Fred Couples strikes his tee shot; the anonymous New Orleans Saint partisans who used to bag their heads in shame; the stat freaks who can and always do tell you how many times Alfredo Griffin has flied to left center against Toledo-born middle relievers throwing 92 to 94 miles per hour.
It's hard to say what transforms a "normal" fan into an obsessive one. After all, a fan—short for fanatic—is not a rational thing to be. Particularly today. Sports have become so desentimentalized that it's hard to believe anyone can even root for the same team from one year to the next. Neither players nor owners seem to acknowledge the fans' loyalty, much less repay it. And yet every time you walk into a ballpark or flip on ESPN, there seem to be more and more superfans, megafans, überfans: fans who yell louder, dress louder, spend more, suffer more, exult more and even seem to care more. It's as if they are trying to make themselves essential to the sports they follow.
What follows here is a sort of peanut gallery of frenzied, fixated fanatics: an attorney who verbally prosecutes opponents of his basketball team; a couch potato who mashes her nose against the TV screen to speak with her football team; a tennis groupie who tosses out Porsches like party favors, on the theory that his largesse will ensure his immortality.
November 30, 1992
Why do they do it? A Freudian might say they're gaining a false sense of identity. Teams can give fans an illusion of prestige or belonging and make them feel that they're participating in something heroic. But maybe the fanatical attorney has the best answer. "When I'm in that basketball arena, sounding off, I see the body contact and the passion and feel like I'm one of the guys on the floor," he says. "That's me making those through-the-legs passes and gravity-defying leaps. How can I stand mute? I'm in the game."
The deep creases shooting up Robin Ficker's forehead make it look as if the sides of his head are being squeezed together by giant pliers. For the last hour he has ranted and writhed in his seat directly behind the visitors' bench at Madison Square Garden. And now, with Michael Jordan rallying the Chicago Bulls against the New York Knicks in the fourth game of the 1992 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, Ficker reaches into a duffel bag, pulls out an artichoke and screams, "Art thou going to choke, Hare Jordan?"
Jordan ignores him. Undaunted, Ficker brandishes a copy of The Jordan Rules, the 1991 book about the Bulls by Sam Smith, and bellows an unflattering passage about forward Horace Grant.
Grant ignores him. Undaunted, Ficker waves a rubber chicken. In an emotional, stentorian voice, he yells, "Scottie Pippen, this is your dinner!"
Pippen ignores him. Undaunted, Ficker lays into Bull coach Phil Jackson: "Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Stonewall Jackson know more about basketball than you!"
Jackson doesn't ignore him. Glaring at Ficker with disgust, he barks, "If you don't shut up, I'll have you thrown out!"
A minute later Jackson himself is thrown out, for berating a referee. The Bulls lose the game, and Ficker laughs a self-satisfied little laugh. Knick fans swap high fives with him. "You're the reason we won," one says. "You're a psychopath, but a great psychopath."
Ficker, who flew in from Washington, D.C., just to pester the Bulls, clearly loves to harangue. Loudly and continuously. He's a plain pain in the butt, extraordinarily irritating and thoroughly embarrassing. "Don't forget persistent," says the 49-year-old Potomac, Md., attorney. "I'm an Aries. That's the ram. Get it?" If you're standing beside him, you get a jab in the ribs with that gel it.
For nine seasons Ficker has been a fixture at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where he holds forth at the same elevated decibel level at least 41 times a year. His thunderous disapproval of all opponents of the Washington Bullets is legendary: Ficker is so disruptive that during timeouts, some teams move their huddles into the paint. The Philadelphia 76ers once raised a banner behind their bench to muffle Ficker's taunts and epithets.
Bricked into Ficker's brain is the belief that he can break a visiting team's concentration. "The best way to distract players is to keep repeating their names with little variations: Hare Jordan, Airball Jordan, Airhead Jordan," he chortles. Hee hee. Jab. "Get it? And it's important to do your research on their private lives."
It works. "I've seen Robin totally mess with a guy's mind," says former Bullet guard A.J. English. "It's like having a sixth man on the floor."
Which is how Ficker sees himself. "The Bullets need me as a sixth man, because the five they have on the floor aren't good enough to make the playoffs," he says.
All this Fickering has earned him the title Heckler From Hell. "If there was an open season on fans, he'd be the one I'd bag," wrote Larry Bird in Drive, his autobiography. "He's mouthy the whole game.... He doesn't even watch what's really going on; he just hollers all the time." Jordan once heaved a basketball at Ficker. Former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden spit at Ficker. Indiana Pacer forward LaSalle Thompson spit at him, then spit again and again. The Golden State Warriors doused Ficker with Gatorade, prompting forward Chris Mullin to say, "He was the only thing I hit all night."
Layden admits that his own aim was not as good. "I spit and missed," Layden says. "And I tried to throw water on him. I was hollering at him and I was going over the seats after him, but he was a coward and kept yelling 'I'm a lawyer!' But let me tell you, I wish that we had a Robin Ficker in every visiting arena we go to. Because he gets your team up, he gets you up. He would do more than I ever could to motivate my team. If I were with the Bullets, I'd get him out of there."
Some opposing players claim they actually get a kick out of Ficker. "He's talking jive, and what's wrong with that?" asks 76er guard Hersey Hawkins. "Besides, a lot of things he says are true." Charles Barkley, of all people, calls Ficker "the best fan in the NBA." Ficker returns the compliment by branding Barkley "the biggest baloney sandwich in the NBA." After Barkley, then with the 76ers, fouled out of a close game with the Bullets, Ficker presented him with a T-shirt that proclaimed I'M HAVING A MAALOX MOMENT. The following season Barkley offered Ficker 76er playoff tickets. "Behind the visitors' bench," Barkley says.
Nothing can silence Ficker: not opposing coaches, not opposing players, not the NBA, which last season implemented a fan-conduct code that has become known as the Ficker Rule. Any fan now faces ejection from the arena if he acts up during a game. A second forced exit in the same season would mean revocation of his season ticket. "The rule is tougher than the NBA drug policy!" complains Ficker, who was ejected once last season during a timeout tirade against the New Jersey Nets. This leads Ficker to surmise that he's being singled out, persecuted. "Compared to Leon the Barber, I'm Disney-rated," he says. The late, lamented Leon, a denizen of Detroit's Cobo Arena, often expressed his feelings in terms of anatomical parts unmentionable in this chaste publication.
Ficker's first ejection came as a plebe at West Point, where he says he racked up 90 demerits for browbeating hospital aides while he was laid up with a broken leg. "I want more food," Ficker had demanded.
"This is all you get," he was told.
"What is this, Oliver Twist?"
Kicked out of West Point for "being argumentative about being argumentative," he says, Ficker attended the Case Institute of Technology and eventually went into law. In 1982 he opened a practice that specializes in divorce and drunken-driving cases. But he can no more stay out of mischief in divorce court than he can on a basketball court. In 1988 he was charged with violating state ethics rules by soliciting clients with a newspaper ad that began: PALIMONY SUITS AGAINST WEALTHY MEN. (He was cleared of the charge in April 1990.)
He has made one-man stands as often as Clint Eastwood. A perennial candidate for Congress, Ficker actually served a term in Maryland's House of Delegates, from 1978 to '82. He was, he says, an anomaly of stubborn principle in an arena of scratch-my-back-and-we'11-get-along compromise. Yet when he ran for the Montgomery County school board in 1988, a Washington Post editorial entitled ANYONE BUT ROBIN FICKER branded him a demagogue and a "one-time hands down winner of all awards for worst member of the Maryland General Assembly in either party (and he's been in both)."
Ficker is such a well-organized cottage industry that when a reporter meets him at his law office in Bethesda, Ficker is ready with a press kit and his own heckling highlights film. "Dad always likes to be on TV," says his 15-year-old daughter, Desiree. "He loves the attention."
What's it like to watch him?
"Are you kidding?" she says. "Like, how cheesy can you get? Choke, artichoke. I mean, really!"
Ficker even heckles his family. If he's not pestering his three kids on the three-lane, 150-yard oval track in his backyard ("You've got to do your speed work! You've got to eat right! You've got to practice!"), he's lecturing them at the dinner table ("Eat your vegetables! Eat your calcium! No cakes! No ice cream!").
"I guess Dad thinks that stuff motivates us," says Desiree. "But I think he does it because he lacks self-control."
In July, Ficker and his wife, Annette, a former nun, showed up in Ambler, Pa., to watch their kids compete in the AAU junior track and field regionals. (Two weeks later he would be in Barcelona to harass the Dream Team.) As 10-year-old Flynn Ficker ran his heat in the 800, our man in the Bullet cap prowled the infield. "Flyynnnn!" Robin yelled. "You're falling asleep! Go! Go! Go!"
Desiree heckled back: "He doesn't need you standing around yelling at him!"
Ficker ignored her: "Flyynnnn! Have you got a temperature? You waiting for a bus? Kick it in, Flynn!"
"He's already going as fast as he can!" Desiree yelled.
Ficker ignored her: "Flyynnnn! Flyynnnn!"
"Dad, will you shut up?" she screamed.
"But it helps," he said meekly. Flynn finished dead last. Desiree would now run her heat in the 800. "You guys need encouragement," Ficker said.
"No, we don't!" Desiree corrected him.
"Dad, please. Leave me alone!"
Robin slouched off, head down, running shoes scraping the gravel. Desiree got set for her heat. Another runner asked, "How can you live with that guy?"
Desiree sighed, "I do my best."
The starter pistol went off. Desiree rounded the first turn in the lead. The crowd was hushed. At the start of the straightaway, she dropped to second. The silence was ominous. As she neared the final turn, a familiar voice rang out: "Come on Desiree, let's go! Dez! Dezz! Dezzz!"
THE COUCH POTATO
On Jan. 15, 1992, The Maury Povich Show tackled a topic more explosive than "Battered Menopausal Valet Parking Attendants" and far more provocative than "Chirpy, Criminally Dim Chat-Show Hosts." Maury dared to examine a once-unmentionable phenomenon: "Sports Fanatic Wives." The segment centered on Marianne Krebs of Columbus, Ohio.
A short, peppy Cleveland Brown diehard, Marianne, who's 29, was identified to viewers by the caption ONLY WANTS TO MAKE LOVE DURING HALFTIME. That description was disputed by her husband, Jeff, otherwise known as EMBARRASSED BY HIS SPORTS FANATIC WIFE.
Maury: What happens at halftime? Do you give him a break and go in the bedroom?
Marianne: Well, it depends if they're winning or losing.
Maury: You're kidding!
Jeff: No, there's no break. I don't get anything.
And they say conversation is a lost art!
On weekdays at her classified-ad sales job, Marianne comports herself with a calm dignity that seems to radiate from a lamp in her spine. But Sunday afternoon in her basement shrine to the Browns, with her boys on the tube, she gets the hard-set, half-crazed look of someone who does not merely memorize the media guide but eats it. "It's like she's sealed off in a little cubicle of her own," marvels Jeff, a watercooler assembler who played tight end at Wichita State in the early '80s. "It's like she's inside the TV and can't find her way back out."
Marianne's coworkers call her the Dawg Lady, after the Browns' infamous woofing section. She's still in Jeff's doghouse for costing his basketball team a rec-league championship in February 1990. With Jeff's team ahead by a point in the closing seconds of the final, and Marianne cheering raucously from the team bench, the ref called a technical.
"On who?" growled Marianne.
"On you, Coach," said the ref.
"I'm not the coach, you idiot!"
The ref called a second technical, the other team sank both free throws, and Jeff's team lost by a point. "Talk about hung faces!" says Marianne.
When you grow up with four older brothers, as Marianne did, you tend to become a sports fan. Whenever the boys played football, Marianne tagged along. "Mom said we had to let her play," says her brother Don Storts, "so my brother Rick and I made her the goalpost." Don recalls one field goal attempt that came up short and bloodied Marianne's lip. "She was hurt so bad that she cried all the way home," says Don.
"I wasn't hurt," protests Marianne. "I was mad that the ball didn't go through."
She and Jeff started watching the Browns together in her family's basement when they were ninth-graders. They now rent the house from her parents and keep up the game-viewing tradition. The basement color scheme is Cleveland Brown orange and brown. The shelves are lined with Brown artifacts: clocks, glasses, jugs, banks, troll dolls, gum and candy bars. Brown posters and pennants hang from the walls, which are strung with Christmas-tree lights. When the game starts, Marianne flicks the lights on.
Next to the TV is a mannequin decked out in a Dawg Pound mask and Brown cap onto which two ticket stubs have been stapled. "One game was The Fumble," Marianne says. "The other was The Drive." The Fumble refers to the 1988 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, which ended when Brown fullback Earnest Byner coughed up the ball on the Denver goal line. The Drive refers to the 1987 AFC Championship Game, in which John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards to tie the Browns in the final minute. (Denver won on a field goal in overtime.) On the post-Drive drive, Marianne wept all the way home. "I can see shedding a tear or two after the game," says Jeff. "But she cried for 2½ straight hours!"
A recent Monday Night Football telecast—the Browns against the Miami Dolphins—begins with Marianne watching from an ottoman midway between the TV and the couch, where Jeff, Don and Rick are sprawled. She's wearing a Brown jersey, Brown socks, Brown sneakers, dog-bone earrings and a general air of hope.
The Dolphins score a touchdown on their first possession. Marianne hurls a Koosh ball at the TV. The Dolphins score on their second possession. Marianne hurls her lucky troll against the TV. She presses her face to the glass. "Come on, guys!" she wails. "Where's the defense?"
Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar drops back to pass but doesn't see wide receiver Michael Jackson. "He's open, Bernie!" Marianne yelps. Kosar throws to somebody else. Incomplete.
"Bernie can't hear you screaming," snorts Jeff. "It doesn't do a bit of good."
"Yes it does," she replies. "He knows I'm here. Just because I'm not at the game doesn't mean he can't feel my presence."
The Browns remain uninspired. Don says, "Marianne, know where Bernie is?"
"In a phone booth, sobbing. He can't find the receiver."
A minute later Kosar takes a snap. "Bernie!" Marianne cries. "Throw a little dink over the middle!" Kosar throws a little dink over the middle for a first down. "See, he listens to me," Marianne mutters. "I mean it—I should coach this team. I've got the mouth."
Marianne is not just a great talker but also a great explainer. She delivers more facts about the Browns than a 512-kilobyte computer chip. By the end of the first quarter, she has told you everything you never wanted to know about Kosar.
She agonizes every time Miami gets the ball. Marianne looks on with sly amusement when Dolphin receiver Mark Duper is upended by a Brown. "Super Duper gets put on his pooper," she says. Brittany, her oldest daughter, laughs. The six-year-old wanders in front of the set, obstructing Marianne's view. "I'm hungry," Brittany says. Marianne, who's conferring with the Brown secondary, points a thumb toward the couch. "Tell your dad," she says. The Browns trail 14-0.
After a halftime snack—sloppy joes enlivened with bottled ranch dressing—Marianne dons the Dawg Pound mask. When Cleveland running back Tommy Vardell gets stuffed at the line on two straight plays late in the third quarter, she heaves the mask Over her shoulder.
Suddenly the Browns come back. They score on a pass to Jackson. "Yessss!" Marianne cheers. The Browns score on a fumble return. "Yessss! Yessss!" When Mark Bavaro's TD with 1:18 left gives Cleveland a 23-20 lead, Marianne, Jeff and Don rise in one mass with their arms upraised. "You know why we're winning?" she asks. "It's because I threw that dog mask." Don and Jeff groan.
The celebration is short-lived. Like El-way in '87, Dan Marino drives the Dolphins 84 yards for the winning TD. Marianne whips her head away from the TV in disgust. Once again Cleveland has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory Marianne holds her head in her hands.
"Marianne...," says Jeff, consolingly.
"They lost," she says with great finality. "Don't mess with me."
She flicks off the TV. She flicks off the Christmas lights.
"The party's over," she says.
The cadaverous figure lurking around the women's tennis tour is a middle-aged millionaire who loves to throw money at other millionaires. His name is Jim Levee, and he buys the affections of players with gifts of cash, jewelry, cars and attention—all for the chance to sit in the players' box and be seen. Tennis is the sport of sycophants, and Levee sets the pace.
Levee made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. A scion of the Annenberg publishing family, he hovers around top-ranked Monica Seles and "sponsors" at least six other women players, including stars Arantxa Sànchez Vicario, Conchita Martínez and Mary Joe Fernandez. He calls them "my girls."
Levee adopted the women's game as a grand and expensive obsession in the mid-1980s. A former teaching pro at a Florida country club says Levee offered him $50,000 to recruit a half dozen prospects. Levee would cover the players' coaching, travel and living expenses; in return, he would receive 40% of their tournament and endorsement earnings. The pro, who wishes to remain anonymous, put together a list of candidates. Levee eliminated one because she was too heavy. "I asked Levee if he wanted models or tennis players," the pro says. When Levee said he would bankroll travel only in the U.S., the pro walked out on him. "He changed the rules and made me look like an idiot," the pro says. Levee paid him only $2,000 and did not sponsor any of his recruits.
Levee angrily denies the pro's allegations and says he found his first protègèe, Steffi Graf, on his own in 1986. He courted her the way he courted his latest beneficiary, Karina Habsudova, a 19-year-old Czech ranked 67th in the world. Habsudova noticed earlier this year that Levee kept popping up at her matches. "I didn't know if I should be afraid of him," she says, "so I asked another player." The player told her, "He supports Arantxa. He's definitely worth knowing."
He finally pounced last August at a tournament in Montreal. Levee took Habsudova on a shopping spree and offered to spring for her coaching. "It's very hard to make friendships with other players," she says. "But I can count on Jim as a friend. He roots for me and cares for me. I'd like him even if he didn't give me money. I get lots of love from him."
What does Levee want in return?
"I don't expect sex from my girls," he says. "I do expect a birthday card, a Christmas card, a phone call or two, a guest pass and a win." Though Levee insists he has no hidden agenda, others aren't so sure. "He wants to be very close to players, which is impossible," says Juan Nú‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez, coach of former Levee-ite Natalia Zvereva. "He demands their time. And when they don't go along with him, he becomes their worst enemy."
Which is precisely what happened between Levee and Graf. In '86 he began showing up at her matches all over the world. He bought her a Porsche before she could even drive. Though Steffi's father, Peter, politely refused that gift, Levee soon became an accepted accessory at her matches. He bombarded her with fur coats, jewelry, clothes, sports cars and $200,000 in cash. "I would die for Steffi Graf," he said then. "She is the only person in my life who has lived up to all my expectations, and that includes relatives, close friends, even my former wife." He called Graf "God's child" and yelled "I love you!" to her during changeovers.
By 1989, Levee's ardor had cooled. He switched his allegiance and cash to the Seles camp. But he didn't go quietly. When Seles beat Graf in the final of the 1990 French Open, Levee taunted Steffi and Peter by screaming "Number One!" and pointing toward Monica.
The next year, while Steffi was suffering the worst defeat of her career in the French Open semifinals against Sànchez Vicario, Levee and Peter scuffled in the stands. As Peter was leaving the players' box during the final game of the first set, Levee, who had cheered every point lost by Steffi, said, "Monica is Number One, and this is why she's Number One." Furious, Peter bopped Levee on the head. One wag called it "the most accurate Graf backhand of the day."
As Peter walked away, Levee rose from his seat and shouted at Steffi's coach, Pavel Slozil, "Wail until Wimbledon! I'll have a bodyguard, and he'll break Peter's legs." Three weeks later Levee showed up at Wimbledon with two bodyguards. It was there, he says, that Steffi's brother, Michael, "smiled at me in a threatening manner. I feared for my life." From then until the end of 1991, whenever Levee attended a tournament in the U.S. in which Steffi was entered, he obtained a restraining order to keep Peter's fist and Michael's grin away from him.
In conversation Levee sometimes sounds like a lawyer. And he did graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1969. He often seems very smart. But there's a skittish, trampled quality to him: During the women's final at this year's U.S. Open, which pitted two of his protègèes, Seles and Sànchez Vicario, against each other, Levee shifted in his seat with the jerky head motion of a parakeet sidling on its perch. Around his fingers was a tortured daisy chain of rubber bands; at his side, Sànchez Vicario's mother, Marisa. Across the court Levee's fiancèe, Jill Genson, a designer of awnings and canopies whom he met through a dating service, sat with Seles's mom and dad, Esther and Karolj.
Of all of Levee's current girls, he moons most over Monica. When he speaks of her, he sounds like a smitten schoolboy: "I call her Miss Monica because she is so young, so clever, so cultured, so classy, so kind. We have a fun time together." Seles describes Levee as "just a friend. He is very good at cheering for me. I always hear his voice."
Levee doesn't seem threatened by the prospect of Monica's having a boyfriend. "I love it because it's normal, and I love anything normal," says the man who travels to events with both his fiancèe and his ex-wife, Deborah Levee, in tow. "The class goes on, and I sometimes feel like Mr. Chips. I try not to look at myself as just a cashbox. I'm a psychologist, a morale booster, a surrogate father."
"Jim has a heart as big as the world," says Patty Fendick, who drew an allowance from Levee for three years. "He even saved my life." When she developed a blood clot four years ago at a Florida tournament, Levee leased a Learjet to fly her to a specialist in California.
He can be a demanding dad. "I pay for performance," he says. "The better you do, the more money you get." Perform poorly, and you risk being disinherited. When Fendick's ranking dropped precipitously last year, Levee dropped her. "Patty hasn't spoken to me since," Levee says. "She probably thinks I'm a bastard. I still love her, but I'm sure she resents me."
"Resent him?" says Fendick. "If someone gave you a gold Rolex, diamonds, a Mercedes and 30 grand a year for three years, would you resent him?"
The Women's Tennis Association does. Levee had pledged $125,000 to the Special Olympics and other WTA-sponsored charities, but he withdrew the offer over what he calls a "WTA conspiracy" against Seles. "Monica thinks a lot of the players are envious of her, and she's right," Levee says, his voice raw with anger. "They smile at her face, but when her back is turned, they stick their knives in."
Which pretty much sums up the consensus on Levee. "His girls are just using him," says one Top 10 veteran. "They take the cars and the money and laugh behind his back. It's very sad and dishonest."
That doesn't faze Levee. "If some girls think I'm a fool, it's their loss," he says. "Fifty percent of the players think I'm the best thing that's happened to women's tennis. The rest think I'm the worst. They're jealous because I'm the game's white knight." Levee argues that he's no more of a parasite than anyone else on the tour. "Who doesn't take something from these girls?" he asks. "I'm the only one who doesn't ask anything from them, but I get everything from them."
And what exactly does he get? "A frozen moment in time," he says. "This is not like a normal love affair with a woman that can be up, down, over and done. This romance will stay with me forever. All I desire is to be associated with winning, to be part of a victory."