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Basketball fans have an attraction to distraction

Just making noise isn't enough to get a free-throw shooter off his game, so they will use anything from a Speedo to Justin Bieber. Even scientists have their own ideas on what works.

March 23, 2011|By David Wharton
  • San Diego State fans hold up cutout pictures in an effort to distract a New Mexico player taking a free throw during a game on Feb. 16.
San Diego State fans hold up cutout pictures in an effort to distract a New… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)

The years rolled past and Speedo Guy got on with his life. He married and started a family. He became a priest.

"It seems kind of silly trying to make a connection with what happened back then," he says.

But the game of basketball does not forget so easily.

Eight years ago, as a graduate student at Duke, Patrick King snagged a ticket to watch his team face rival North Carolina, joining a horde of classmates in a section directly behind one of the baskets at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The "Cameron Crazies" have a reputation for jumping and screaming and waving their hands when an opponent steps to the free-throw line. King tried something different.

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At one point during the 2003 game, with North Carolina guard Jackie Manuel awarded two foul shots, he arranged for his compatriots to sit quietly, which, in itself, seemed eerie. Then, King stripped down to a skimpy swimsuit, stood on his seat and began gyrating.

The first shot bounced away, which made King dance even harder. Manuel missed again.

"Mission accomplished," King says. "That was exactly what we wanted."

Video of his "Speedo Guy" antics eventually went viral on YouTube and King made his mark on the sport's folklore, the embodiment of diehard fans who will try almost anything to rattle the free-throw shooter.


Tiger Woods never deals with hecklers when he lines up a 15-foot putt at the Masters. Major league batters have dark, solid screens in center field so they can see pitches clearly and NFL kickers are looking down when they make contact with the ball.

Basketball is different from other major sports in that the crowd is rowdy, close and perched directly in the athletes' line of sight. Even the backboard, made of glass, provides no shield.

With the NCAA tournament in full swing — Duke arrives at Honda Center in Anaheim to face Arizona in the West Regional semifinals Thursday — yelling and stomping are only part of the equation. The art of distraction has grown more complex.

King's odd dance was part of an evolution that now has fans dressing in fluorescent Spandex body suits and waving long, wriggling tubes called "thunder sticks" behind the basket. They bring stuffed animals to toss into the air as the shooter takes aim.

"Crazy stuff," said USC guard Jio Fontan, whose team lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the tournament's first round last week. "Sometimes it can spook you."

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Players at the line might look up to see posters of scantily clad women, not-so-subtle messages such as "Brick" and "Miss" or circles painted with swirls, fans spinning them as if to hypnotize.

San Diego State, which also plays Thursday in Anaheim, is one of several schools where the crowd holds up giant cardboard heads, a bobbing sea of faces that include Borat, Justin Bieber and Abraham Lincoln.

If all this sounds like the stuff of college students with too much time on their hands, check out the NBA.

The Portland Trail Blazers have the bellowing "Free Throw Guy" and the New Orleans Hornets crowd once tried to distract San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker with a life-size cutout of his then-wife, Eva Longoria. Boston Celtics executive Danny Ainge was fined $25,000 last season for throwing a towel into the air as a rival player was about to shoot during a playoff game.

But no place has a reputation for tomfoolery like Duke, where students line up outside Cameron long before tipoff and spend hours devising special chants and costumes meant to annoy.

The Speedo idea started with King's buddy and King said he would try it if the crowd cooperated by sitting quietly. The unofficial leaders of the student section — two regulars known as Viking Guy and Mullet Man — helped spread the word.

"It was a whole experiment in groupthink," King said. "Everyone agreed."

The second time North Carolina went to the line, the students promptly took their seats. For a suddenly jittery King, there was no turning back.

Arms outstretched, he rose above the crowd. With each swivel of his hips, each pump of his arms, the dance grew wilder.

"I just went with it, man."


No one has studied the effects of fan behavior on free throws, but neuroscience experts have their suspicions about what works — and what does not.

In observing players at all levels, University of Calgary professor Joan Vickers found the most successful shooters fix their gaze on the rim for about a second before releasing the ball. That gives various parts of the brain time to coordinate.

"Your brain is like a GPS system," she said. "It's picking up the height of the basket and the distance … reading all that and putting it into a neural network."

Experts believe the old-style distraction — masses of arms or thunder sticks waving randomly — form a visual white noise that can be easily ignored. Fans are better off getting the shooter to glance away.

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