Friday, February 10, 2006

Not Just Your Average Tornado

I've never been described as a "hectic tornado of energy" before. Until now.

I've been told that the link doesn't connect all the time, so attached below is the ESPN article in full. But, if you're a typical 'needs-instant-gratification' surfer, go ahead and scroll to the glorious bottom.

What? You didn't think I was newsworthy?

Penn's Red and Blue Crew Keeps With Tradition


PHILADELPHIA -- Captain Brian Walsh, in his dapper scarlet suit coat, keenly surveyed the red-clad army behind him. Morale was dangerously low, and something had to be done to rouse the troops.

"Let's go, Quakers!" he yelled, punctuating the cheer with a clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. The thousand-strong regiment took up the cry. "Let's go, Quakers!"

Penn fans
Drew Hallowell/Icon SMI
Penn fans at The Palestra do all they can in support of the home team.

Walsh is the leader of the Red and Blue Crew, a group of rabid supporters in matching T-shirts who cheer on the University of Pennsylvania men's basketball team and take residence in the lower west-side stands of the historic Palestra. But on this Saturday night, home cooking wasn't doing much for the home squad, as the visiting Yale Bulldogs had jumped out to an early 16-1 lead over the 23-time Ivy League champions.

"C'mon guys, get into this game," Walsh said, muttering through his teeth. "We don't lose to Yale."

Although Walsh, a Penn senior, can't suit up and play for his beloved team, he can stand just outside the game's boundary. Without broaching the invisible barrier that separates fans and players, he and his Crew did everything they could to affect the game's outcome -- hurling insults, jumping up and down, yelling in unison during shot attempts -- anything to strengthen Penn's home court advantage.

"Oh yeah, the other guys hear what we're saying," said Walsh. "I know, 'cause they're always looking back at us when they run back down the court."

Walsh's regular perch, just 3-feet behind the far sideline, is directly across from the Penn bench. While head coach Fran Dunphy had personnel problems to deal with (like players not managing a single field-goal attempt for the first seven minutes), Walsh had his own issues, like a late-arriving crowd.

"You see it's just getting packed now," said Walsh. "But there's no reason why people can't show up at 7:00, instead of at 7:15. We're trying to get full crowds by 6:30, so we can heckle the other team's warm ups."

To combat Dodger fan syndrome, the RBC is hoping to tie into one of the grandest Philadelphia basketball traditions: The cascade of colored streamers that were once thrown onto the court after a team's first basket of the contest. Streamers disappeared from The Palestra more than two decades ago, but they were allowed back on a one-game-only basis for a Penn-St. Joe's Big 5 contest, primarily in deference to the city series' 50th anniversary.

"We're not allowed to throw them on the court," said Walsh. "That was banned by the NCAA a long time ago. But one of our local sportswriters made the point that if we threw them up into the stands instead of on the court, that wouldn't delay the game. Maybe people would come early so they wouldn't miss the streamers. We're looking into that."

Things on the court were still far messier than a streamer cleanup, though Penn had begun to keep pace and cut the lead to 31-19. In response to several close calls that didn't go Penn's way, one young gent charged down the aisle, leaned out onto the court and gave the referee a double-barreled middle-finger salute.

"[Expletive] you, you [expletiving] [expletive]," he screamed, his breath heavy with drink. "You've [expletive, past tense] us, you [expletive]!"

"Sorry about that, man," Walsh said to the referee, not wanting to cost his team a technical foul or borderline calls when they really mattered, during the game's stretch run. "That guy's not with us."

Walsh's style is decidedly more low-key and calculating than that of his predecessor. J*nathan Lubin was a tornado of hectic energy known around the Penn campus as "The General," who often showed up at games wearing a business suit, California-cop aviator sunglasses and a red, white and blue headband around his closely-shorn red hair. Lubin gained some national notoriety when he won $250,000 on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," then nearly tackled Regis Philbin, screaming "Show me the money!" into the camera. You might say that Walsh is decaf to Lubin's espresso.

"My first year here we played Penn State," said Walsh. "I made a sign that said, 'You can't spell Nittany Lions without NIT.' Then I started going to organizational meetings and I helped Lubin with his duties for the past few years. It was generally understood that I'd be The General's successor. But I wasn't really picked or hand-selected. … I was involved; I stepped up, so I was next."

Walsh's duties include grooming the Red & Blue Crew's next generation of leadership. Charlie Weinberg and Jason Ginsberg are two Penn juniors who wear cheap cow suits to every game, Halloween costumes complete with ears and udders that they picked up at WalMart early in the season.

"Every time someone asks me about it, I try to make up a new story," said Ginsberg, when asked about the cow concept. "I tell people I'm really into Western bovine studies or that I'm a big proponent of the beef industry. It's real food for real people."

"These guys stepped up, just like I did," said Walsh, clasping the black-and-white shoulders of Weinberg and Ginsberg. "They're the chosen ones."

The cows' responsibility for the evening was to coordinate the rollouts, another of Philadelphia basketball's timeless practices. The feeling of being in the front row for a rollout can't be adequately described -- the 30-foot strip of paper, bearing a targeted message for the opposing team, comes surfing down atop the back rows and over your head. You hold it up for display for about 30 seconds, then shred the paper into confetti.

"You'll need a New Haven after the thrashing we give you," read one rollout, with the name of Yale's Connecticut home underlined for emphasis.

"In the past, rollouts have been painted or printed professionally," said Ginsberg. "We do ours in the fraternity basement with spray cans. I have to admit that sometimes the fumes get to us a little."

Just after halftime, once Penn had finally tied the game at 33, the university president came by to celebrate the comeback. An energetic and smiling Dr. Amy Guttman charged into the Crew's midst, slapping high-fives and trying on a paper Benjamin Franklin mask.

"How many colleges have a president who hangs out with the student section?" Walsh asked rhetorically.

"A-my Gutt-man!" the RBC fawned appreciatively, en masse. "A-my Gutt-man!"

Chants and shouts are a key element of any organized fan force, and most are used as weapons. Yale's Eric Flato went 3-of-5 from the floor in this game, but one of those two missed shots was a first-half attempt that went well clear of the rim, earning Flato a traditional "Airrrball" chant that followed him around for the rest of the game, whenever the rock came around to him.

And the Red and Blue Crew broke out the pop-culture reference dictionary to point out resemblances of a couple of diminutive Yale bench players. They were more than ready for 5-foot-8 senior captain Josh Greenberg, whose serenade was based on an early Sean Astin movie role ("Ru-dy! Ru-dy!"). Chris Andrews -- a 5-9, 160-pound specimen -- received TV-star treatment, however derisive.

"Web-ster!" was heard whenever Andrews got a touch. "Web-ster!"

But the instant democracy of a student section ensures that the constitution is always open to revision. "Ga-ry Cole-man," came the chant from fans underneath the basket. For the bulk of the second half, as Penn built a double-digit lead, the Crew effortlessly transitioned between "Ga-ry!", "Airrrball!" and "Ru-dy!" as Yale passed the ball around the perimeter on possession after failed possession.

Once the game was safely out of reach at 70-48, Dunphy reached deep into his own bench to activate Tommy McMahon, a gangly kid who'd played some in the nonconference schedule, but whose recent minutes have been reduced. The Crew immediately launched into a round of "Happy Birthday to You," eliciting a nervous smile from the freshman.

"Hey, make sure No. 34 gets some foul shots," said Walsh to the referee's back. "It's his 19th birthday today."

McMahon never did get to hit a shot or get to the line, but he was able to share in the celebration of a 74-52 Quaker win, highlighted by a monstrous 51-13 run. The young freshman will certainly get his share of future chances to step up and shine over the next three-plus years, because that's the way college goes: Seniors leave; underclassmen rise to shoulder the load.

And it works like that off the court as well.

"This has been a lot of fun," said Walsh. "But the most important part of what I do is to make sure the traditions continue, that the Crew stays strong. The cows will do a great job of running things next year when I'm gone; I'm sure of it. Then when they're finished, they'll pass it along to someone else."

The current leader pointed to an awkward redhead seven rows back, a strangely familiar young man -- one who might be predestined to lead the Red and Blue Crew into the future.

"Lubin's little brother is here," said Walsh. "He's a freshman. He's still got plenty of time to decide if he doesn't want to do this, but it's there for him if he wants it.

"All he has to do is step up."

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Dad must be welling with pride over his two sons; a hectic tornado and an awkward redhead.

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