Like a supersonic mantra it comes, filling the First Union Center with a harmonious rush.
“Boooooooooooo!” go 20,000 voices in unison at an announcer’s mere mention of a 76er’s opponent’s name. In the City of Brotherly Love, the Lakers had better have their ears and psyche prepared when the middle games of the NBA championship series begin here Sunday. Los Angeles fans need to get ready for the boisterous approach of Philly fans, who are famous for their raucous booing.
“You don’t learn to boo in Philadelphia. It is ingrained,” said Pat Croce, the 76ers’ president and unchallenged top fan of Philadelphia sports. “It’s the lunch pail mentality. We are tough and work hard so the players better also. Or we’ll boo you.”
There are clearly other places where booing is practiced, but Philadelphia is its mecca. In the land of boo, the taunt is not just a sign of displeasure but one of caring or resignation. If booing were Van Gogh’s art, he would have eschewed Paris and come to Philly. Were Pavarotti a native, he may well have warmed up for “Aida” with a hearty, sporting boo. Santa Claus has been booed here, so how could Shaq and Kobe expect to be immune?
Especially Kobe, who played high school basketball in the suburbs here. In other cities, boos are reserved for hated rivals. Here, hometown athletes hear the boos even more virulently. Lance Parrish was thought of as a fan favorite when he was a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. His poor start as a Phillie caused a rain of boos so severe that his wife became afraid of sitting in the family section of Veterans Stadium. Mike Schmidt, Eric Lindros, Randall Cunningham, Wilt Chamberlain--all had stellar careers in Philadelphia in their different sports. All were showered with hometown boos.
Perhaps no one suffered from this more than pitcher Mitch Williams who, after leading the Phillies to the 1993 National League pennant on the strength of 43 saves, gave up a home run to Toronto’s Joe Carter to lose the World Series.
“Boos? Never heard them, unless you count the 10 truckloads of fans who came to my house,” joshed Williams. The vilification over that series’ losing pitch drove the Phillies to trade him to Houston the next year. But Williams is back in town, an hour’s drive away as the pitching coach for the minor-league Atlantic City Surf. “But really, they only boo when you don’t give an effort. I actually rarely got boos. They must have felt differently on that last pitch.”
Sometimes the boos freak out players. Injured 76ers reserve Matt Geiger said a couple of months ago that he might request a trade because he was tired of the local fan abuse. Baseball Hall of Famer Schmidt once ripped the fans in the press and then felt compelled to apologize by wearing a long-haired wig in a mock disguise at batting practice the next day. Some players, on the other hand, take it in stride. Ron Jaworski played for placid fans as the Los Angeles Rams quarterback and then was traded to Philadelphia, where he led the Eagles to a Super Bowl. Yet he was still booed.
Jaworski often tells the story of how he came into the huddle while being booed by 70,000 home fans. He looked at his team and said, “This is great, man. They still love me.” Jaworski has ended up making Philadelphia his home, running hotels and golf courses and doing football commentary for ESPN.
“It is rooted in caring,” said Dr. Joel Fish, who works with athletes and coaches as director of the Center for Sports Psychology here. “You don’t boo someone on your team unless you care. It’s like the relationship between a husband and a wife. You get angry because you are invested in the outcome. Philadelphia fans just seem to care more about their teams.”
The habit of booing in Philadelphia can have deep psychological roots.
“When you are not there to boo physically, you think about it all the time,” said Gary Popowcer, who has lived and booed here for his entire 49 years. “It’s the mental boo that makes us different. Sometimes it builds up. You get to the workplace and you just blurt out, ‘Can you believe he did that? Boooooooo!’ ”
Transplants can get quite amused by the folks in the Land of the Boo.
Leslie Gudel grew up a Southern California girl in San Marino. Her dad had season tickets to the Lakers games in the Magic Johnson era. She was at Prime Sports before coming to Philadelphia four years ago to anchor and report on Comcast SportsNet, another cable sports network. Though, she said, the Laker fans of that era were enthusiastic, they were not the expressive types she finds in her new home.
“They can be pretty boisterous and belligerent in Philly, it’s true,” said Gudel. “There is a false perception about the fans being loud and obnoxious and not having any knowledge. But these are smart fans. They know about the game.
“It’s just that this is a city that loves to boo people. They laugh when they do it because they enjoy it,” she said. ‘Everyone is smiling from booing. It is hysterical. They love the reputation because it is their identity.”
The booing isn’t reserved for players, though. And it can be mercurial there as well. During a timeout at last Wednesday’s 76ers-Bucks game, the giant scoreboard Disco-Cam caught a large man in a bright orange shirt dancing feverishly. The fans cheered lustily. Every time the camera cut to someone else, the fans booed until a young woman in a tight T-shirt came on the screen for a moment. The camera switched back to the orange shirt. “Booooooo!” shouted the turncoat crowd until the camera went back to their new favorite.
Steve Kauffman grew up here, but the sports agent lives in Malibu now. One of his clients is 76ers co-captain Eric Snow, who has been playing on an ankle injured by a stress fracture and a sprain. His game has suffered and the boos have started coming. But then he came off the bench to score 18 points and lead the 76ers to victory on Wednesday, and the cheers came back mightily. “I laugh. Let them get out there and play on those ankles. Boo. Ugh,” said an elated Kaufmann, waiting for Snow after that game. “But I’ll say this for Philadelphia fans: When they are wrong, they are at least wrong passionately. They do care.”
This caring manifests itself in other Philadelphia fan traits. You will never catch a Philadelphia fan leaving a close game early to beat the traffic, which happens all the time with fans at Dodger Stadium.
“You look on the tape of Kirk Gibson hitting his famous home run,” said broadcaster Gudel about the dramatic homer the injured Dodger hit to beat the Oakland A’s in the first game of the 1988 World Series. “As he is running around the bases, you see cars in the parking lot with their brake lights on. They left the park. That wouldn’t happen in Philadelphia.”
Kenneth L. Shropshire, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Los Angeles native, said that was his childhood experience.
“My dad would take us to sporting events and it better have been tied or really close or he’d grab our hands and we’d be out of there to beat the traffic,” said Shropshire, who edited with USC professor Todd Boyd, “Basketball Jones,” a series of essays about the business and cultural aspects of the game. “I took my kids, ages 7 and 8, to a meaningless Bulls-76ers game and they demanded to stay to the end. Guess they are Philadelphia fans now.”
Vanguard Mutual Fund executive Craig Stock is one of those ultra-caring Philadelphia fans. He splits a season-ticket plan to Phillies games with friends and has a definite habit of staying to the end of every game, win or lose, August burning sunshine or April freezing evening. This for a team that had only one winning season in the 1990s.
“‘I have to admit, I left a game a few weeks ago when it started pouring rain,” Stock said sheepishly, then added proudly: “But my son, Aaron, stayed to the end.”
That kind of family focus is part of what makes the Philadelphia sports fan the way he or she is. ‘There is a legacy in Philadelphia--as opposed to the West Coast--of rooting for teams for two, three, four generations or more,” said sports psychologist Fish. “A grandfather, say, rooted for Wilt Chamberlain. The dad was a fan of Julius Erving. Now the daughter is a fan of Allen Iverson. You have a depth of history here that ties Philadelphians to their teams.
“And then there is the idea that in places like Philadelphia, 100% of the fans root for the local teams,” he said. “In Los Angeles, the 50% of the fans who root for the Lakers, say, may be as rabid. But then the other 50% who come from somewhere else are looking in the box scores for Seattle or Milwaukee or wherever they were from.”
Then there is the disdain for the stuff outside of the game. There is a 76ers mascot, called Hip-Hop, but his antics are largely ignored by fans during the game. There is a Sixers Dance Team, but it, too, elicits virtually no response when it performs between periods. And then there is the attitude about celebrity fans.
“A big difference between Philadelphia and L.A. and New York is that the Sixers don’t bump their fans in the front row and put in celebrities,” said Anthony Gargano, a former New York and Philadelphia sportswriter and South Philadelphia native who is a sports-talk host in Philadelphia. “The loyal fans are kings to Croce. He sticks the celebrities upstairs in the boxes. Now you go to L.A. and see the woman from ‘The Weakest Link.’ What kind of long-term fan can she be? That’s just not right.”
“The Weakest Link?” Good-bye and boooooooo! to you.