The basketball Wildcats will play Auburn down on the plains Wednesday night and the odds are, it will be the biggest crowd of the season for the Tigers – and you know the reason why.
Kentucky is the Yankees when it comes to attendance figures throughout the league. Every athletics director in the Southeastern Conference wants a home date with the winningest program in the history of college basketball. Sure, they’d treasure an upset victory. But the REAL treasure is in the turnstiles. The Cats make them spin.
Along with the road trips come the opposing fans, some of the likes of which made Dominique Hawkins marvel last week, prior to Kentucky’s visit to Starkville and a date with Mississippi State. Some opposing fans, the freshman point guard said, have yelled things at him that he’s never heard before.
The guess here is that whatever it was Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart heard when he flew into the seats in Lubbock over the weekend, he’d heard before. Only, he hadn’t heard it like that – up close and extremely personal. And he reacted.
When it comes time to form an opinion on right and wrong following a polarizing event, it’s usually best to remove emotion and come to some sort of clinical conclusion. This time, if you’re a Kentucky fan, I say ADD emotion.
What if this happened to a Wildcat?
What if, Wednesday night in Auburn, Alabama, with the game unexpectedly heated, a UK player ends up deep in the stands after trying to save a loose ball. What if he physically reacts to an Auburn fan and makes contact? What would be your reaction?
Would you immediately judge him to be wrong? Or would you try to get more information on what prompted his action before making up your mind?
Like most, I watched the video of the Smart incident after the fact, not as it happened live. I knew that the fan, Jeff Orr, a man who looked to be nearly three times Smart’s age, had said something to the player. Orr later apologized for calling Smart a “piece of crap.”
Smart whirled his head, as though he’d heard much stronger words, and almost instantly shoved Orr, popping him in the chest with open hands. For this, Smart will pay a stiff price – a three-game suspension. Some thought it too harsh a penalty; others thought it should be worse.
What if Smart was your guy? Imagine if he was the best player on your favorite team and you were home watching them struggle in a difficult place to play. You see him fly into the stands and the next thing you know, he’s mixing it up with some guy in a black polo shirt. Huh?
Smart was wrong in what he did. There might be a reason some time, somewhere, to put your hands on someone in the stands, but this wasn’t one of them – no matter WHAT the guy called him.
The ways Smart reacted made me believe he heard something far worse than the insult Orr admits to hurling. It also made me wonder what vocal garbage had been raining down from that part of the stands during other portions of the game. But you know what? Doesn’t matter.
Smart is part of a fraternity of men and women who play spectator sports at the highest level. They know what it’s like to have people screaming things at them you’d only repeat in the locker room. Is it fair? No. Part of the game? Yes – an ugly part. But it’s there and it’s not going away.
In fact, it’s getting worse and it says here, social media is a huge culprit. Opinion plus keyboard, multiplied by “send” key often equals cyber mayhem and now, it seems, it’s spilling over into real life. Buoyed by the courage of anonymity, fans appear to becoming bolder – and meaner.
Cameras in Fayetteville captured an Arkansas fan, flush with victory after the Razorbacks’ thrilling overtime win over the Wildcats, jawing with UK guard Aaron Harrison. The player was heading to the locker room when he heard something he apparently couldn’t let go. You wonder what might have happened had assistant coach Orlando Antigua not interceded.
I’ve heard people say Orr deserved it. Maybe if the two were standing face-to-face on a street, he might have, but we all know sports competition doesn’t work like that.
See your nearest hockey game for legalized assault that’s not only accepted but hailed as a necessary part of the game. Football players deliver extracurricular punishment that could be jail-worthy on Main Street, but worth only 15 yards on the field. Baseball players extract vengeance by firing an object at an opponent’s head at speeds beyond 90 miles per hour. Attempted felony assault? Nope. Again, part of the game.
If Smart had been wearing the jersey of your favorite team, you might have a different opinion – especially if you could hear some of the things other fans yell on the road. Heck, maybe YOU yell them at opposing players when they come to Rupp Arena. If you do, would you shrug it off if one came into the stands and laid hands on you?
Smart will be back. He’ll return from his exile and re-join his team, coached by former Wildcat Travis Ford, and he’ll play well. Perhaps he’ll lead the Cowboys on a deep run through the NCAA tournament. If he does, you can bet there will be fans waiting for him, looking to verbally push the same buttons that were mashed in Lubbock.
Orr says he’s not going to attend any more Texas Tech fans this season. Good. The game doesn’t need his kind, no matter who was right or wrong.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)