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Nothin' but Net--and a Shirt for Luck : Sports: Rabid O.C. fans cling to 'March Madness' rituals, even though stunts don't make much sense.


COSTA MESA — The Orangemen of Syracuse never had a chance, figures Stacy Nixon of Santa Ana. For the past four years, ever since she torpedoed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, Nixon has been sure that she could jinx a team merely by cheering for it.

"Syracuse lost because I was rooting for them," said Nixon, who actually wanted Missouri to win and even borrowed a Syracuse T-shirt for Thursday's NCAA basketball tournament game to strengthen the hex. "It's kind of a reverse psychology."

With the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament and its "March Madness" at fever pitch, there's no better time to see superstitious fans like Nixon in action. Though they do nothing more than watch on television, rabid fans are donning special hats and shirts, occupying lucky spots on the couch and refusing to shave--all in the earnest belief that their behavior can affect the outcome of games.

Such superstitions are quite common, especially among sports spectators, experts say. The irrational beliefs are born of a need to control the uncontrollable, they say, making the sports fan particularly vulnerable to confusing cause and effect.

"During sporting events, people are often highly charged and highly excited," said Dr. Steve Chandler, a professor of psychology at Chapman University. "And they can easily develop inaccurate or invalid connections to explain what are actually coincidental events. Generally, it's benign and funny to watch."

While fans nationwide may believe that it was Duke forward Grant Hill's 22 points that keyed his team's victory over Marquette on Thursday, Marc Caress of Fountain Valley knows better.

"I got here and they were down a point, " said the 21-year-old UC Irvine student, showing off his lucky Duke basketball jersey. "Then I got here with The Shirt and they won by 10."

But magic apparel doesn't always bring good fortune. Chris Doherty's Louisville Cardinals fell to Arizona on Thursday night despite his following The Ritual to the letter.

The Fountain Valley man wore his Louisville baseball cap and T-shirt and refused to shave since the team's last loss March 6. And at the precise moment the game started, as always, he slipped a Louisville basketball jersey inscribed with the number 1 over his T-shirt.

"It just didn't help this time," he said. "I may have to change the pattern next year."

Like most superstitious fans, Doherty realizes his stunts don't make much sense. But he clings to them nevertheless.

"When you are watching a game, you are obviously out of control," said the scruffy-looking Doherty, who said he would soon be clean-shaven. "So, whatever it takes to push them along, I'll do it. I feel like I'm contributing in some way."

Another basketball fan whose faith in dressing for success took a hit this week is Kelly Carter, 26, a sports agent from Huntington Beach. For five years, Carter has been sporting a Kansas Jayhawks baseball cap during televised games. In that time, the Jayhawks have made it to two Final Fours.

But the Jayhawks' ouster from the tournament at the hands of Purdue Thursday night left him puzzled and frustrated.

"They just couldn't pull it out of the hat, no pun intended," said Carter, who wears a Jayhawks tie at work on game days. "There's not much you can do when you are playing against the likes of Glenn Robinson. That kind of talent just outweighs the superstition factor, I guess."

Respecting the power of ritual, however, is nothing new for Carter. A former high school and college basketball player, Carter blames three losses by teams he played on to his failure to put on two socks and lace up the shoe on his left foot before dressing his right one.

"After we lost that third time, I said 'never again,' " Carter said.

For others, it's not the clothes that make or break a team so much as what you do with your body during the telecast. During NCAA tournament time, stockbroker Chris Steer finds himself and his buddies performing the "back-slap" or "I-5."

A variation of the high-five, the move, which consists of hitting the back of one's hand against the palm of someone else's hand is a momentum builder, Steer claims. The 27-year-old Long Beach resident credits the maneuver with helping the Duke Blue Devils capture the national title in 1992.

"I feel that's why Duke won," Steer said.

Susan Kiyotoki isn't so theatrical about her team blessing. As a little girl attending USC football games with her father, Kiyotoki began crossing her fingers with two minutes left in each game to pass on good luck to her team. Today, she finds the maneuver especially effective for hoopsters at the free-throw line.

"I always feel it will somehow give my team that extra oomph and that they will somehow know I'm doing it," said the 30-year-old corporate auditor from Irvine.

Sometimes, however, superstitious fans aren't even aware they harbor fantastic beliefs. When asked if he had any, Syracuse fan Brian Belsito said no.

"If they are losing, I'll move to a different area on the couch," said the 20-year-old Belsito, who found himself at a sports bar Thursday night, far from his lucky sofa.

Without his lucky seat nearby, the Orange Coast College student from Tustin had no idea how to summon good luck for his team. It just wasn't practical to give up his seat in a crowded bar, so after his team fell way behind Missouri, Belsito decided to watch another large television screen.

After Belsito's switch, the Orangemen staged a comeback that sent the game into overtime.

"I usually watch them at home," Belsito said. "But if they win tonight, I could end up here every time they play."

Syracuse lost, 98-88. Cancel that reservation.

Can superstitious behavior possibly work? No, answer the experts. Yes, say the faithful.

Perhaps the litmus test may be the NCAA tournament fortunes of the Arkansas Razorbacks, who beat Tulsa 103-84 Friday night. Nixon is rooting for them to win it all.

"They'll lose for sure," she said.

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