Swim caps peek out from behind a door a short jog away from the basketball court. It’s nearly showtime, and three synchronized swimmers, young men wearing only trunks and fake beards, await their cue.
When called, they are to scramble to a spot behind the closest basket. Thousands of fans will be counting on them. One person — the player preparing to shoot important free throws — will be trying to ignore them.
Backstage, in a tunnel connecting the court to the bowels of the arena, there is one final rehearsal. The swimmers drop to the ground, kick their legs not quite in unison, then rise slowly until they are standing, bare shoulders touching, arms not so gracefully draped above their heads.
They exchange looks: not bad. But can they help Arizona State win the game?
Student sections throughout college basketball try to unnerve opposing shooters with bursts of noise or by waving their arms or props. What Sun Devils students, the 942 Crew, offer is more creative — and wacky — than that:
The Curtain of Distraction.
It rises during the second half of home games when the opposing team is shooting free throws toward the Arizona State student section.
Just before the first shot, the curtain flashes open and an act appears. The skit, lasting about five seconds, might involve a celebrity impersonator, Shakespeare or a kitten. Most likely, it will include some type of shirtless gyrating, a recurring theme.
The goal is to spook the shooter, to divert his attention just enough so that his shot clanks off the rim. And it works, the numbers suggest. Statistics show an extra miss or two per game — enough to swing some outcomes.
Surprise is key, and on this night the swimmers are the headliners. The theme is meant as a jab at the UCLA Bruins, whose home arena was flooded after a water main burst in July.
As the performers wait for a foul to be called, there are all the jitters of opening night on Broadway.
“It’s a damn good thing we’re not self-conscious,” one of the swimmers says.
A whistle blows. A UCLA player will be heading toward the free-throw line.
From the tunnel, there is a mad dash toward the court.
A few years ago, student attendance at Arizona State basketball games had fallen to what school officials called a “horrifically bad” level.
The university responded with a marketing push designed to encourage students to be more invested in the team. They created the 942 Crew. The number was roughly the capacity of the home arena’s student section, rounded down to rhyme with “crew.”
By the time last season came around, student attendance had nearly tripled from 2010 and there was a different goal. Somebody noticed that opposing teams were actually making more free throws when down at the student section end of the court. Embarrassing. Something had to be done.
Students leaders adopted a patron saint in Speedo Guy, a Duke fan whose antics famously helped the Blue Devils defeat rival North Carolina in 2003. Speedo Guy got Duke’s typically raucous student section to fall silent, then stripped down to his swimming trunks. During a free throw, he crouched on his seat, then rose slowly — he compared it to a flower blooming — and started gyrating.
North Carolina missed both shots and a legend was born.
There were several brainstorming sessions as Arizona State plotted an adaptation. One idea called for a Brick Wall of Distraction, but no one could figure out how to quickly move it into place. A jack-in-the-box concept was scrapped because space in the box was too cramped and hot.
Finally, the group reached a breakthrough: the curtain.
At the time, no one really knew how the idea would develop.
The students bought plastic piping, attached fabric and went about creating their acts. They made things up as they went, figuring they would push forward, senior Ryan Dytrt recalls, “until we got in trouble, or until it exploded.”
The core group of students who work on the performances has swelled to about three dozen. During last year’s NCAA tournament, the curtain was shown briefly during a commercial. This season, the group has been profiled by media outlets from as far away as Italy.
With the added attention, the skits have become more topical and intricate.
For a recent game against USC, there was a re-creation of the Sun Devils’ stunning, Hail Mary victory over the Trojans in football. It included a quarterback, a wide receiver, several USC defenders, a (human) football and roles for the two USC fraternity brothers who were shown after the game-winning pass, mouths agape, on the television broadcast of the game.
All that action fit seamlessly into just a few seconds.
Better still, for Arizona State, the shot missed.
A professor’s view
Zombies, ballerina dancers and creepy clowns have emerged from behind the curtain. At a planning meeting before the UCLA game, a student was sought to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy to Yorick’s skull.
The best indicator of a successful act is whether it draws the shooter’s attention.
Joan Vickers, a professor at Canada’s University of Calgary, says the curtain works because it disrupts the crucial period before a shot, called the “quiet eye,” when the brain calibrates for distance, direction, height and other factors.
When the curtain opens, it can disturb the shooter’s brain calibration.
“It’s a brilliant idea in terms of disrupting the neural networks underlying control of your whole shooting system for that particular shot,” said Vickers, who pioneered research in the field. “Very rational.”
This season, opposing teams have missed 5% more free throws in the second half than the first. Separate analyses by the New York Times and students at Harvard suggest that the curtain is worth between one and two points per game. And Arizona State has played plenty of nail-biter home games.
The Sun Devils are 15-12 overall but 13-3 at home, and have defeated Oregon by one in overtime, No. 7 Arizona by three and USC by five.
During the UCLA game, the lead changes 17 times and the crew senses another opportunity to make a difference.
Urgency is in the voice of Bill Kennedy, an associate athletic director who doubles as stage manager.
“OK, unicorns,” he barks to cast members who will appear in one of the scenes, pointing the blade of a plastic saber for a little extra effect. “You guys just go out and be over-the-top, making out.”
The first skit is a spoof directed at the game’s television announcers, Bill Walton and Dave Pasch. Two students have dressed as the pets the broadcasters frequently mention on the air.
The problem is, UCLA’s Tony Parker shoots his free throws before the dog and cat are ready. He makes both shots, and the animals scamper away dejectedly.
As the swimmers prepare for their chance, the dog offers a warning: “They shoot very quickly,” he says. There is a solemn nod from each of the swimmers.
When the whistle blows again, the swimmers rush to their marks.
UCLA’s Kevon Looney toes the foul line. The curtain flashes open. The swimmers cavort.
Looney misses one and the crowd cheers. He misses another and there is a roar.
The actors whoop and high-five as they run back up the tunnel. The Curtain of Distraction has been drawn on two UCLA points.
The game goes on, as does the show. Cows, fake bands and a Miley Cyrus (not-so) look-alike burst into view, then disappear.
The game is in doubt until the final possession. Arizona State wins. The margin?
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand