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."