- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

Like the NASDAQ and Regis Philbin-inspired monochromatic shirt-and-tie ensembles, sports heckling has seen better days.

Just ask the Maryland men's basketball team. Or former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone. Or Toronto Maple Leafs winger Tie Domi.

The Terrapins, an eventual Final Four team, were jeered mercilessly by their own fans during a midseason slump, enduring profanities and shouts of "see you in the NIT!" after losing at home to Florida State.

Malone, once an up-and-coming executive with the Baltimore Orioles, was forced to resign last week following an incident in which he challenged a loudmouthed San Diego Padres fan to a fight in the stands at Qualcomm Stadium.

And Domi? In late March, he pummeled a Philadelphia heckler who had fallen into the penalty box while taking a swing at the longtime enforcer.

"[Heckling] has become more vicious, more profanity-laced," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "Things are said that you wouldn't say on the street without getting in big trouble. You'll have people sitting up in the stands calling you a no-good [expletive], you [expletive]. And there are young kids sitting right there. It's just gotten worse."

Yet although the nation's sports fans increasingly seem to be taking their heckling cues from professional wrestling angry shouts, X-rated murmurs, flying Zip-loc bags of urine (favored at the University of Florida's Florida Field (a k a the Swamp) it doesn't have to be this way. Done properly, heckling can be creative. Funny. Even inspired.

"There are some hecklers that are bad, but [when] heckling is done in a good nature, it definitely adds something," said Georgetown men's basketball coach Craig Esherick. "It makes it fun."

For the conscientious heckler, hurling insults at the field of play is as much a responsibility as a right, the same as owning a handgun or driving a car. Yet in an era where Thursday night "Smackdown!" reigns supreme and "eat my [expletive]!" passes for enlightened discourse, what's a right-minded razzer to do? Or say?

In the interest of elevating player-fan interaction and keeping Domi's fists on the ice, where they belong it's time to take a closer look at the good, the bad and the ugly of sports heckling:

The good

For sheer heckling genius, it's hard to top college basketball, where student fans have transformed taunting into a combination of performance art and stand-up comedy. How funny can it get? Consider this: The players under verbal attack often end up laughing along.

Take former UCLA standouts Jelani McCoy and Kris Johnson, who arrived at Stanford's Maples Pavilion a few years back following a pair of failed drug tests. The Cardinal student section, a 1,500-person group called the Sixth Man Club, greeted the duo with 3-foot-long marijuana cigarettes and signs reading, "How high is Jelani?"

"We kept asking [Johnson and McCoy] if they wanted to go out and smoke," said Eric Liaw, a Stanford graduate student and a five-year member of the Sixth Man Club. "And Johnson kind of got into it he put out his hand and wiggled his thumb like he had a lighter. He took it better than some people would."

The keys to humorous heckling? Keep it fair and do your homework. Liaw and others in the Sixth Man Club study up on opposing players before Stanford home games, scouring newspapers and the Web for mockable tidbits.

Athletic department Web sites are a particularly good source of player trivia, Liaw said, because they often contain extra information like academic majors, favorite activities and favorite books.

"One of the Arizona State players said his favorite book was, 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' " Liaw said. "That's fodder. [Arizona's] Loren Woods was another good guy. He was criticizing his game in the papers, saying he was lucky every time he scored. So every time he had a basket against us, we chanted, 'lucky shot, lucky shot.' "

Informed sarcasm is the order of the day at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, birthplace of the "Airball" chant and college basketball's mother ship of whip-smart heckling. Among the Cameron Crazies' greatest hits:

• Wearing skullcaps with a gas gauge pointing to empty in honor of balding Maryland coach Lefty Driesell (an alumnus, by the way).

• To Virginia's Olden Polynice, after he was accused of plagiarism: "Where's Olden? At the copy machine."

• Showering N.C. State's Lorenzo Charles with pizza boxes after Charles was arrested for stealing pizzas.

• To North Carolina's Steve Hale, after he suffered a punctured lung: "In-Hale, Ex-Hale."

• Dangling a box of Chicken McNuggets in front of 360-pound Florida State center Nigel Dixon, then reeling it in with a cord.

• To Maryland's Adrian Branch, after an off-court brush with the law: "Freeze! Police!" by fans behind the basket every time Branch shot a free throw.

"It's important to really read up on the opposing team and follow the game very closely so that you're conversant with the psychological weaknesses of the other team," said Bethesda-based attorney and superfan Robin Ficker. "That's the essence of good heckling."

Ficker should know. As the preeminent NBA heckler of his time, the former Washington Bullets and Wizards season ticket-holder brought a collegiate sensibility to the oft-coarse world of pro heckling, tormenting opposing teams in loud, incessant and highly creative fashion.

Stationed behind the visiting bench at Capital Centre, Ficker took particular delight in tweaking the league's reigning dynasty, the Chicago Bulls. On one occasion, he handed Dennis Rodman a magazine article about himself, which Rodman promptly read; on another, Ficker irked coach Phil Jackson by reading out loud from Jackson's basketball memoir, "Maverick."

"Jackson said he was going to have the referees come over if I kept reading," Ficker said. "What got him so upset, I don't know. If he didn't want to hear passages from the book, he shouldn't have written it."

At the request of Charles Barkley, Ficker even traveled to the 1993 NBA Finals in Phoenix, where he razzed Michael Jordan about a series of gambling allegations.

"Barkley got me a seat behind the Bulls' bench, so I brought these huge playing cards, dice and bunch of dollar bills," Ficker said. "During the game, I'm dealing [Jordan] a hand and asking him what he wants to bet. And he's turning around and holding up three fingers. It was fun."

The bad

When heckling goes bad, fun goes by the wayside. In its place? A droning, banal stream of profanity, often accompanied by beery breath and glassy eyes.

Think references to bull manure. Unfriendly suggestions that players and referees should engage in anatomically impossible relations with themselves. And the opposite of blow.

"There's no place for the profane and the ignorant," Hargrove said. "I try not to listen. All it does is make you mad. I honestly don't know how in the world some of our players take some of the stuff they do without responding."

Sometimes, players can't help but react. During an 8-2 Baltimore loss at Boston on April 12, Orioles pitcher Jose Mercedes was taunted severely by many of the 30,083 in attendance.

As he left the game in the bottom of the fifth inning to a chorus of boos and obscenities, the visibly frustrated Mercedes made a vulgar gesture to the crowd, then flung a pair of dugout water coolers against a wall.

"They really went too far," Mercedes said. "All kinds of nasty stuff, personal, talking about your family. I was warming up in the bullpen before the game, and they were already yelling at me."

Bad as it was, Mercedes at least could take solace in the fact that he was razzed on the road. Maryland wasn't so lucky this season, as a supposedly partisan crowd at Cole Field House ended up booing and heckling the Terrapins following that Feb. 14 loss to Florida State.

The outpouring of Valentine's Day disaffection was more than enough for coach Gary Williams, who sarcastically thanked the fans for booing and for their "support" during a postgame radio interview.

"Gary heard it bad during the Florida State game," said Maryland broadcaster Johnny Holliday. "That's the first time I've ever seen a coach stop, then look back into the stands as if to say, 'What are you guys, nuts?' "

Some subpar hecklers aren't as much obnoxious as uninspired. At the University of Memphis, fans are known to lean over the railing behind the visiting team's bench and do nothing but scream sometimes through bullhorns in an effort to drown out opposing coaches.

Esherick experienced a similar phenomenon in the opening minutes of Georgetown's overtime victory at Virginia in the 2000 postseason NIT.

"There were three kids standing right behind our bench, all with orange shirts on," he said. "Their sole job was to get me upset. They weren't yelling at any of the players. They were just yelling at me, 'Sit down, sit down.' "

Cliched heckles also fall flat. Think it's clever to chant "O-VER-RA-TED?" To suggest that a referee hold onto his day job at Foot Locker? To make fun of Colin Montgomerie's ample girth?

Guess what: It's already been said. Repeatedly.

"That stuff just rolls off, like cursing," Liaw said. "But if you say something that someone has to think about, something where they have to wonder how you knew it or something's that's actually funny, then they're not thinking about the game."

Worst of all, Ficker said, are ignorant hecklers the ones who don't even know what they're talking about. When NBC basketball announcer Marv Albert broadcast his first NBA playoff game since a sex charge indictment, a courtside razzer was there to greet him.

The only problem? The heckler kept referring to Albert as "Brent Musburger" much to the chagrin of the real Musburger, who was broadcasting the game for ESPN radio.

"I wasn't indicted," an annoyed Musburger told reporters afterward. "I can't relate."

The ugly

This is where heckling gets personal and taste goes so far out the window that it ends up in low-Earth orbit:

• In 1995, Houston Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell punched a heckler who was making remarks about his stillborn child.

• After directing an anti-gay slur toward the crowd at Indiana this season, Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson said he was being called "monkey" and other racial epithets; Iverson was defended by 76ers coach Larry Brown and New York coach Jeff Van Gundy, who both said they had heard similar comments at Conseco Fieldhouse.

• During a road game at Arizona State in the late 1980s, Arizona guard Steve Kerr was taunted by a handful of fans who chanted "P-L-O!"; Kerr's father, the former president of the American University in Lebanon, was murdered by Middle Eastern terrorists.

"I don't care how much the tickets cost, or how much the team is on television, or how much the players may be portrayed as professionals, there is a line that nobody should be permitted to cross," Esherick said.

Some schools and teams have taken steps to keep things tasteful. When Georgetown encountered offensive signs during the Patrick Ewing era, former coach John Thompson refused to let his team play until the signs were removed. Stanford's athletic department went so far as to write letters of apology to Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin, Arizona's Mike Bibby and USC coach Henry Bibby.

El-Amin and Mike Bibby were taunted by students for fathering illegitimate children, while Henry Bibby's estrangement from son Mike led fans to chant, "Your son hates you!"

"That kind of stuff is more real life than you want it to be at a college sporting event," Liaw said. "It's supposed to be fun. There's a thin line between being clever and being offensive, and sometimes we go over it."

Maryland was forced to crack down following the Terps' epic January home collapse against Duke, which saw angry fans pepper the court with cups and coins, as well as hit the mother of Blue Devils center Carlos Boozer in the head with a bottle. School officials created a buffer zone between students and the opposing bench, banned the throwing of paper a longtime tradition and prohibited the pep band from playing "Rock 'n' Roll, Part II," a song usually accompanied by a semi-vulgar student sing-along.

Though the measures had their intended effect the Terps' next home game, against Clemson, went off without incident they also muted a crowd that was picked by Sports Illustrated as the toughest in the ACC. And according to Holliday, that's a common side effect of crowd control making the cure almost as bad as the disease.

"You can't ban a kid from going to a game, and the atmosphere at Cole is a definite advantage," he said. "I think it's up to the fans to police themselves."

The good news? With a little responsibility and humor, that's entirely possible.

In 1984, Duke officials pleaded with fans to tone down their act after they heckled Maryland's Herman Veal who was accused of sexually assaulting another student with a shower of more than 1,000 panties and a sign that read, "Hey Herm, Did You Send Her Flowers?"

Blue Devils fans responded with an outpouring of civility: For Duke's next home game, against archrival North Carolina, fans wore homemade haloes and held signs that read "A Warm and Hearty Welcome to Dean Smith" and "Welcome Fellow Scholars." After questionable calls, they chanted "we beg to differ" instead of "[expletive]." And during Carolina free throw attempts, fans under the basket didn't burst into hysterics they simply held up small signs that read, "Please Miss."

It was an outburst of pure heckling brilliance, an object lesson in how heckling, done right, can be a sport all its own.

"This is the United States," Ficker said. "We believe in free expression, and you don't leave the First Amendment at the door. Of course, you've got to be a good citizen with what you say.

"Then again, if someone is $75,000 behind on child support like Lewis Lloyd was on the Houston Rockets I don't see anything wrong about pointing that out."

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