Too Close For Comfort

by Daniel Friedman / @DFried615

When your team is a perpetual underdog and they finally get the opportunity to finish off a top-ranked opponent, wouldn’t you want to celebrate mid-court with your friends and favorite players?

The question of whether college basketball fans should rush the court after a big win is as old as the tradition itself. While it’s always been part of college basketball and undoubtedly adds to the drama of the event, it can put the teams in potential danger with rowdy fans.

The question, to storm or not to storm, has been brought to the fore by the impending madness that falls upon the nation in the month of March each year. And a recent near altercation involving one of the nation’s most prominent coaches and an opposing fan after an upset has reignited the debate.

As the Virginia Cavaliers pulled out the win over then No. 1 Duke  in Charlotesville, the fans went on the floor and got too close for comfort for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. As per the News & Observer:

“Look, celebrate, have fun, obviously you won, that’s cool. Just get our team off the court before students come on… The potential is there all the time for a fan to just go up to you and say, ‘Coach you’re a,’ or push you or hit you,” said Coach K. “And what do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story. We deserve that type of protection.”

Coach K has his own opinion, and some analysts have developed a detailed storming-the-court etiquette, but what do the players think about one of the most unique traditions in sports?

From No. 6-ranked Michigan, 6-6 guard Tim Hardaway Jr has been involved in many occasions where the Wolverines fell to lower-ranked teams or to rivals and the fans have swarmed the court. He echoes analysts’ call for some kind of decorum, “My thing is, if you’re a top-5 team and the opponent you’re playing against isn’t ranked, no need to rush the court.”

Though Hardaway insists there needs to be limits, he’s not willing to give the tradition up completely.

“There’s no stopping it. That’s what college basketball is all about. A lot of people that play in college sports dream about beating the top ranked team, and having their fans rush the court,” said Hardaway. “It gets the fans involved.”

From South Bend, Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley has also had the chance to partake in the craziness that comes with fans running around the very floor many players consider to be their sanctuary. Cooley, who stands at 6-9 while weighing in at 249 pounds, has never felt in danger during a melee, as he towers over most fans: “I’m a pretty big dude. I don’t think they’re going to knock me around.”

Cooley’s in line with what seems to be popular opinion and believes that fans should have the right to storm the court. He explained that since they’re often loyal supporters of their team throughout the season, they deserve the chance to enjoy the moment with the players who create it for them.

“These fans come out supporting the team every game, they’re cheering for you,” said Cooley. “If they want to storm the court, let them. No one’s really getting hurt.”

Coach K’s near altercation at Virginia brought on discussion about how unsafe it actually is for hundreds, if not thousands, of fans to run onto a basketball court. Without enough security officials to mediate the charge, fans can speak their mind to opposing coaches and players, everyone can be in potential danger, and accidents can lead to injuries.

One man who knows the dangers of the tradition all too well is former Bowling Green forward Germain Fitch. On January 22, 2005, the Falcons played Toledo at home, and after being down by 23 at the halfway point, they came back to win.

“I knew they were going to storm the court,” said Fitch. “So I’m running, not to celebrate, but toward our exit tunnel. And a guy just ran from the side and just clipped me and tackled me. I knew right away what it was.”

What Fitch knew was that he had torn his ACL for the third time, ultimately leading to the end of his basketball career. Fitch’s coach at the time, Dan Dakich, believed Fitch was without a doubt a pro prospect before he went down for the final time in the commotion of celebration.

While getting examined by trainers in the locker room, Fitch just hoped it wasn’t the same ligament that’d been repaired twice already. When he got the news that he had indeed torn his ACL and would have to undergo his fourth knee surgery, he simply asked when it was going to end.

Even after enduring that trying experience, Fitch is all for fans getting involved in the experience with their team. But he agrees that safety needs to be a priority.

“I enjoy watching it. When I was in high school, you see it happening and you’re like, Man, that’s going to be me, I’m going to be in the middle jumping around, you know,” explained Fitch. “My freshman year, we beat Michigan at home when they were really good, and of course our fans rushed the court. And nothing happened to me then. It was just a freak accident.”

But I would say they have to look out for the players’ and coaches’ safety because people will do what they want to do. No incident should need to happen for them to make a change.”

Whether the NCAA can enforce regulations to create controlled chaos remains to be seen. With March Madness officially beginning next Tuesday, it’s likely we won’t be seeing any regulatory measures put into place until at least next season.

For now, when the final buzzer sounds after an upset win, fans, coaches and players all just need to take a deep breath, hope for the best and embrace the rush.