Why Home Games Win Out

Article excerpt

Avisitor to another's home expects courtesy, respect, and hospitality. Rightfully so. These expectations don't necessarily apply to the same degree in sports, particularly at the professional and collegiate levels. Instead, visiting teams often endure crowd taunts, questionable officiating, and, in some cases, substandard amenities. Yes, home-court advantage might exist for the local team, for surely there are benefits to sleeping in one's own bed, avoiding the grind of long travel, having friends and family around, enjoying home cooking, etc, But the opposition suffers what can be called the visiting team's disadvantage.

Take basketball. I first became aware of this in 1984 as a 13-year-old from Redondo Beach, Calif, rooting for my beloved Los Angeles Lakers against their archrivals, the Boston Celtics, in the NBA Finals. I heard rumors that Celtic fans pulled the fire alarm of the Boston hotel the Lakers were staying at, that the lights at the Boston Garden shut off without explanation during Lakers practices, and that the visiting locker room smelled of fresh paint hours before the decisive game seven in Boston. No one associated with the Lakers commented on such underhanded tactics but if they were being used, I hoped they wouldn't work and knew they were wrong. As Bill Saporito remarks in his December 2004 Time magazine article on the spread of unsportsmanlike and rough play in athletics from contestants to observers, wi low did fan behavior become so vile? Practice. In cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, fans are notorious for their raucous behavior"

Saporito cites examples across sports, from the relatively mild to the shockingly egregious. "Some fans who were once happy to cheer for the home team have now turned every contest into a hatefest," he makes clear. "Opposing players must be verbally eviscerated, their personal problems made fodder for derision." Along these lines, my most vivid memory of the 1984 NBA Finals was how the Boston Garden crowd affected the Lakers in game seven. The hometown faithful not only were louder than I had ever heard on TV or in person but also knew when and how to get under the skin of the "guests." For instance, Boston supporters jeered Lakers all-star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about the destruction of valuable possessions after his house had burned down in January 1983. Thus, the Lakers made uncharacteristic mistakes, seemed frazzled at times, and lost, 111-102. Magic Johnson, the legendary Lakers point guard, is quoted in Mark Heisler's biography of Lakers head coach Pat Riley, The Lives of Riley (Macmillan, 1994), as saying that the team "learned a valuable lesson. Only the strong survive, and that's something we didn't know until then.... We realized it's not all about talent. ..."

No wonder that small forward great Charles Barkley, when starring with the Phoenix Suns, paid the expenses for heckler extraordinaire and Washington Bullets (now Wizards) diehard Robin Ficker to sit behind the Chicago Bulls bench during the 1993 NBA Finals in Phoenix. An attorney, politician, and activist, Ficker was "always berating opposing players from his perch in the front row," Washington Post staff writer Thomas Heath recounted in an August 1997 article, "trying to psyche out and distract the opposing team by reading aloud passages from books about their lives, holding up rubber chickens or shouting at players through a megaphone as they huddled with their coaches. …