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And once an adrenaline-filled crowd gets going, it can be extremely hard to control. Even though Hoop Scoop—the pamphlet circulated within Illinois's student section—encouraged members "to keep your composure and to refrain from vulgarity" when Indiana's Gordon took the floor, the students followed that directive for, oh, about 1.3 seconds before the anti-Gordon chants started. (It didn't help that the pamphlet devoted eight times as much space to rehashing every detail of Gordon's recruitment.) Ever since he changed his commitment from Illinois to Indiana in October 2006, sparking a firestorm of threatening e-mails and Facebook messages from jilted Illini fans, Gordon says he worried that he and his family might be in physical danger during the game in Champaign.
"One fan said, 'I wish you would die.' Another said, 'I hope you break your leg. Don't come to Illinois territory,'" Gordon says. "I thought it was crazy, but there was nothing I could do about it. Thousands of people were writing stuff like that. I knew they were going to get on my parents and throw stuff, which they did."
Gordon's father, Eric Sr., says the family brought its own security detail, but that didn't prevent one fan from tossing a cup of ice water, which hit his wife, Denise, on the back of her head. "If we didn't have as much security, there's no telling what could have happened," Eric Sr. says. "When people make threats on somebody's well-being, it becomes a societal issue. This is what's interesting: At all the Big Ten away games [before Illinois] there were no negative chants, but when we played at Ohio State [after Illinois] it was as if the student section said, 'We can say anything we want about Gordon [now].' I'm wondering: How does [ Gordon's choosing Indiana over Illinois] translate to Ohio State?"
Strong responses from college officials and coaches are necessary to help control unruly crowds, Stan Love and Eric Gordon Sr. argue, pointing out that neither Oregon coach Ernie Kent nor Illinois coach Bruce Weber stepped in to address their vulgar fans on the P.A. systems. According to Love and Gordon, none of the offending fans were ejected in either game. "They need a code of conduct," says Love. "If you're out of line and acting up in the stands, you need to be ejected from the arena." When Denise was hit by the cup of ice water, Eric Sr. says, the culprit stood and challenged the Gordons to come get him. Eric Sr. pointed him out to Assembly Hall security officers, he says, "but nothing was ever done. Matter of fact, they turned the tables and acted like we were the aggressors."
TEN YEARS ago Gordon and Love probably would not have been subjected to such ugly scenes at Illinois and Oregon, not least because they might not have attended college at all. But the NBA's age-minimum rule began requiring players to spend at least one season in college ball starting in 2006--07, a change that has coincided with the skyrocketing increase in media coverage of recruiting. In basketball, much more than in football, the decision of one 18-year-old can change the fortunes of a team almost immediately. (Would Illinois be 11--17, for example, if Gordon had gone to Champaign? Not likely.) What's more, the popularity of social-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace has made college athletes and their personal information far more accessible to the public, especially if the athletes are naive when it comes to, say, posting compromising photos of themselves or accepting friend requests from strangers.
Perhaps it's no surprise that some players (including Hansbrough and Paulus) say they have stopped using Facebook altogether. Then again, fans may need to read only a newspaper or a website to find ammunition for taunts. Consider the photograph at left, taken in the chaotic moments after Memphis's 79--78 last-second win at UAB. Tigers forward Robert Dozier is standing only a few feet from a female member of the Gang Green student section who's wearing an I DATED DOZIER T-shirt and an ersatz black eye—a reference to a complaint filed against Dozier for allegedly striking his girlfriend outside a nightclub. (No charges have been filed.) Nearby a male student holds up a sign reading WE BEAT MEMPIS NOT OUR GIRLS.
Aside from the misspelling, it's hard to find humor in any part of the tableau, from the fusillade of middle fingers to the enraged facial expressions. Just out of the frame Tigers reserve Pierre Niles could have been seen slapping an unruly fan (for which Niles was disciplined internally).
From his home in Oregon, Stan Love, Kevin's father, took one look at the scene in Birmingham and shook his head. "The NCAA and league commissioners and athletic directors need to put a stop to it," Love says. "I'm all for creative, loud and funny fans. But don't target one guy, don't threaten him on the phone, don't tell him you're going to break his legs or get him after the game. And don't force the parents to get security guards. Think about it: You're at a university, and you have to get security to go in and watch a kid play?"
If there was one saving grace for the Loves, the Gordons and Memphis, it was this: Their teams overcame those unruly crowds and left victorious. Eric Gordon Sr. is convinced that was no coincidence. "They were so nasty, so hateful, such poor sports, that it all turned back around and we won the game," he says. "I think it's karma."