Miss it!

Loud Maryland students eagerly give it a whirl in an attempt to distract visiting team's shooters

March 03, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

North Carolina freshman Brandan Wright looked like he'd just as soon face a firing squad.

The referee had handed him the ball, and Wright had a chance to pull the Tar Heels even with two made free throws. But before him, a wall of color and sound sloped up behind the basket.

Every student at Maryland's Comcast Center seemed to be roaring. Some signs encouraged Wright to "Miss It" or "Brick!" his shot. And then there were the swirlies, those brightly hued vortexes out of some psychedelic nightmare.

The lanky freshman's first attempt with 3.5 seconds left hit the back rim and ricocheted away. He missed the second one on purpose, and Maryland players grabbed the ball to secure an emotional 89-87 win.

Reasons for Sunday evening's triumph abounded, but might the choreographed mayhem behind the visiting basket have been one?

The Maryland athletic department's marketing director, Brett Tillett, wouldn't mind thinking so. Heading into the Terrapins' Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, he hatched the idea of handing signs and swirlies to the already-vocal students who cram the steep section at one end of Comcast. That section provides the second-half backdrop for visiting shooters. Why not make life harder on those interlopers and give the students another rallying point?

"We just wanted to give the students something unique and fun to help them feel like they're a part of the games," Tillett said.

He and his co-workers brainstormed some colorful ideas with the owner of a local shop, Signs by Tomorrow. Tillett unveiled the signs and swirlies during a Maryland practice, and the players got a kick out of them. So a new tradition dawned.

"I don't think anybody had any grand expectations that free-throw percentages would be going down," Tillett said.

Actually, they haven't. Conference opponents have shot poorly (59.5 percent) in the second half of games at Comcast Center, but a little better than in the first half (55.6 percent). It's too small a sample size to lead to any real conclusions about the effects. But students have responded with increasing enthusiasm.

"Now, the kids know what's going on," Tillett said. "They get in position and ask for the signs."

Attempts to distract visiting shooters are nothing new, of course.

Some student bodies make as much noise as possible when an opponent is shooting. Others switch abruptly from loud noise to silence. Many pro and college teams hand out inflatable balloons known as thunder sticks for fans to bang together.

Then there are the visual taunts.

Texas fans sway their arms in unison. Others wave arms and objects every which way. Wake Forest students spin swirlies and pass a foam brick. The Cameron Crazies at Duke devise individualized tortures for opposing shooters. Back in the 1980s, for example, Maryland guard Adrian Branch encountered legal trouble, so the Dukies shouted "Freeze! Police!" when he was set to shoot.

In 2005, neuroscientist and Slate.com writer Daniel Engber e-mailed Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with a more thought-out approach. When confronted with a background of chaotic movement, the eye tends to block it all out, Engber said. So he suggested teaching fans to move in unison. When confronted with such unified movement, the eye tends to believe the background is still and the body it's attached to is moving. This could presumably disconcert a free-throw shooter.

Cuban tried the experiment for a few games with mixed results.

Tillett and company didn't apply nearly so much science to the notion.

"We just want teams coming in here to know that in the second half, they don't want to be shooting in that direction," he said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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