Back to school: Undercover in the student section
ATHENS, Ohio - Fifteen years, two chins and four jeans sizes ago, I was an Ohio University student who went to a few basketball games.
The O-Zone, the organized and dedicated student section that's now a university-recognized student organization, was just beginning then. As far as I know or knew, anyway, there was at the time no formal effort to mobilize, plan or do anything but show up and cheer a bit, probably after happy hour.
As I remember it, I went to the games alone. I had friends and acquaintances (i.e., guys who stole the ball from me in various high school games and summer tournaments) playing at other Mid-American Conference programs I wanted to see, and my friends on campus were busy playing video games. An unabashed basketball junkie, I didn't mind flying solo and often didn't even care who won. Whether I sat alone in some obscure section or made it down to the bleachers reserved for students, I don't remember finding a seat to ever be an issue. I just wanted to see the games.
With the help of a couple Ohio University employees, two O-Zone leaders and $20.79 worth of face paint, plastic sunglasses and wig, I went "undercover" into the student section Wednesday night when Ohio played Buffalo not just to see the game, but to see it from a different perspective.
Times have changed. It's serious business in there.
Almost two hours before each game begins, O-Zone president Tim McVey and friends cover every student section seat with a newspaper -- the O-Zone sells ads and eventually uses the paper for confetti -- and a dirt sheet, a single piece of paper with information on that night's planned cheers and chants and information on the opposing team's players and head coach.
On both sides of the dirt sheet is a disclaimer, added per university request for this season: "This dirt sheet is not affiliated in any way with Ohio University or the Athletic Department."
The university wants its students to be good sports. The dirt sheet includes personal information on opposing players. This is the social media age, where such info is readily available. This, again, is serious business.
This creates a sensitive area. The disclaimer on the dirt sheet is new for this school year, said Dan Hauser, a senior associate athletic director for external operations at Ohio. Hauser oversees the O-Zone, fan relations and promotions. He meets with the O-Zone student representatives regularly about ideas, ways to get more students involved and create more of an advantage for the home team.
He's also the one that calls the O-Zone leaders to the principal's office if the personal stuff gets too personal.
"We try to push creative over mean and cruel," Hauser said. "We want the energy. We want the students to be into the games, to be heard, to help the Bobcats. We need that creativity to be classy, too.
"We have had requests on multiple occasions from other MAC schools to not do a certain chant, refrain from putting something on a sign, things of that nature. The kids haven't always liked it, but they oblige. I applaud them for having the maturity to stay on the right side of the line almost all of the time. We take that seriously. We want to represent Ohio University in a positive way."
The primary focus of the O-Zone's attention on this night was Buffalo forward Javon McCrea, quite possibly the best player in the MAC. Based on what McVey and others had gathered from social media and talking to other students around campus, McCrea had been calling a female Ohio student since the previous night when Buffalo arrived in town. The dirt sheet said he'd called from three different numbers to no avail.
From the moment McCrea took the floor for pregame warmups, the students around me called him "creepy" and "thirsty," which is apparently the term college kids are using these days for someone who is, um, forward with his or her advances toward another student. When I was in college, we just called that "being in college."
The other Buffalo players were subjected to pregame heckling, too. We O-Zoners used the newspapers to cover our faces and seem uninterested during Buffalo's introductions, and the lights went out when the home team was announced. The energy level picked up. There were pre-planned cheers I pretended to know, random strangers to high-five and a bunch of yelling "ooohhhhhhh" and bouncing up and down when the lights came back on and the game actually began.
I was into it, but I was also thirsty.
I really should have had more than one pregame beer.
On a couple of occasions, the student section chanted "O-U" and the rest of the Convo chanted back, "Oh-Yeah."
Even I knew that one.
There were chants I didn't know. There was lots of screaming at the officials. There were a handful of insults lobbed at Buffalo players, most of which weren't funny at all. There was one really funny one I wish I could share.
For an old guy all dressed and painted up in the front row pretending to root for the home team but really rooting for his story, the game got off to a horrible start. Buffalo was sharp and aggressive, jumping into passing lanes and dictating the tempo. The visitors stretched the lead into double digits by halftime. As predicted by R.P. Kirtland, the O-Zone's treasurer who had saved me a spot in the front row, an older fan (way older than me, even) in a Bobcats sweatsuit got out of his seat and came into the student section imploring the O-Zoners to be louder.
It neither happened nor helped until the second half when Ohio got more aggressive and got some shots to drop. A backup named Treg Setty made a bunch of energy plays and Jon Smith had two dunks that helped Ohio get back in the game with a 12-0 run and brought the crowd to life.
"Setty, Setty, Setty, Setty," the students chanted wildly.
"Story, story, story," I chanted in the back of my head.
I participated in more than my share of awkward hugs, complicated handshakes and even one quasi-chest bump as the Bobcats cut the lead from 17 to 10, then down to five, then all the way to two. It got as wild as advertised.
"I do think those guys have affected games," Ohio senior guard Nick Kellogg told me the morning after the Buffalo game. "I think we have a great atmosphere with the Marching 110, the students, fans who come to the games and love Ohio basketball. We hear it on the court. We know it's important to people. And, yes, I have seen instances of players getting caught up in the moment or caught up trying to talk back to the students."
Said Hauser: "The O-Zone is the epitome of the energy we need in the Convo. The other fans feed off of that. Ultimately, the team feeds off the energy created by the crowd, the band, big moments in the game. It's very important to have students involved not just in creating good vibes around the program, but in creating an atmosphere for the games."
McVey and Kirtland work very hard at this stuff, and they aren't the only ones.
"We do believe we can help affect a game, definitely," McVey said. "Anytime you get opposing players to look over -- even if the guy just makes a face or laughs -- you're at least in their heads. You've thrown them off, even for a second."
Kirtland said that during a game last year he "shrieked" behind a Kent State inbounder along the sideline to the point that the player twice told him the next shriek would bring a punch in the face.
His next inbounds pass resulted in a Kellogg steal.
An hour or so before a conference game last year, a few Toledo players were out shooting around in front of the O-Zone. Kirtland said he started "just yapping...nothing bad" at a player who was shooting 3-pointers when another player under the basket grabbed a rebound and sailed a pass not back to the shooter but towards Kirtland's stomach. It knocked the wind out of Kirtland but assured him he was being heard.
Now, Kirtland wears that as a badge of honor.
"The ball he threw dropped me - it was a perfect shot," Kirtland said. "Best shot those guys had all night."
From a wild warmup and introduction period, to Buffalo taking complete control of the game early, to an Ohio comeback that ignited the crowd, to a thud of a finish and the back-and-forth with McCrea, members of the O-Zone rode an emotional roller coaster.
From laughing like crazy at myself while painting my face in a nearby hotel bathroom 75 minutes before tipoff, to feeling that cheap paint crack as I walked in the cold from the hotel to the arena, to feeling more than a little out of place over the course of the game to the four washcloths sacrificed in the postgame cleanup, I, too, rode quite the roller coaster.
When I entered the Convocation Center about an hour before the game, there were two men waiting to take my ticket. Because I held it in my left hand, I gave it to the man on the left. As I passed, the other ticket taker looked at my face and said, "You must be a true fan."
"Oh, you have no idea," I told him.
I next encountered a student who looked to be working in some capacity. He took a second and third puzzled look at me and offered this: "You have some paint on you."
Ohio University. The Harvard on the Hocking.
It's survival time in the MAC, a one-bid league in every NCAA tournament since 1999. Ohio and Buffalo entered tied for third but just a game ahead of fifth, and the fifth-place finisher would have to win five games in six days starting on Mar. 10 to win the MAC tournament.
The Bobcats got all the way back to within a point but never did get the lead from Buffalo. Down the stretch, McCrea hit two 17-foot jumpers to stop Ohio runs. The Bobcats had two chances down three points to tie the game in the final 40 seconds and missed both. Buffalo took care of the ball and made its free throws down the stretch, scoring an important victory. For Ohio, this loss hurt.
As the game ended, McCrea ran to midcourt and faced the Ohio students. He made a gesture best left to the imagination for several seconds. He said something, too, that I couldn't completely decipher but is probably also best left to the imagination.
The students who had been chanting "no means no" at McCrea all night were now chanting "Bring us 12, bring us 12" in reference to his jersey number. That chant caused Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley to stop and make sure his team got off the court in a timely and orderly fashion. Eventually, it did.
I don't remember exactly how this story idea came about, but I'm glad it was able to come to fruition. It was clear to me that, right from the first moment they took the floor for pregame warmups, Buffalo's players were very aware of the Ohio student section. Were they freaked out or even frazzled? I'd say entertained, at least early, but certainly cognizant.
The O-Zone's goal was to get to Javon McCrea. It did - just not enough, or on time. By the time security and Buffalo's coaches escorted McCrea off the floor, there was no joy in the O-Zone. For the old guy in the face paint in the first row, there was a burning -- more like itching, actually -- desire to hit the showers, walk this one off. Realizing I was the only guy in the student section who'd actually seen Bobby Hurley play was depressing enough.
I cheered up quickly - that happens at Ohio University. Even in midterms week with spring break just around the corner, the show goes on. I had people to meet to share my experiences. All in all, they were positive.
I'm never going in the student section again, but I'm glad I took this curtain call. I came, I saw, I bounced up and down, I even got the T-shirt.
I just wish it fit.