At Wizards games, Terrance Briscoe shoots for team spirit

March 28, 2011

In early March, Wizards broadcaster Steve Buckhantz stood in a dimly lit bathroom in the Verizon Center patting himself with matte powder. When a gentleman appeared behind, the broadcaster remarked with some glee, “About five more weeks of this makeup.”

Buckhantz wasn’t the only one whose mind was racing ahead to the end of another dreadful Wizards season. Despite the arrival of heralded John Wall from Kentucky, the Wizards were no closer to making the playoffs than they were to piloting the last space shuttle flight. When head coach Flip Saunders emerged from the tunnel before tipoff against the Milwaukee Bucks, he had the pained expression of a teacher who had just been assigned to teach summer school.

Now Terrance Briscoe, 6 feet 2 inches tall, was stepping onto the court to stretch, gripping the toe of his size-15 sneaker. The shrill whine of Guns N’ Roses’ ubiquitous “Welcome to the Jungle” blasted over a crowd still finding their seats. As if hit with an electric bolt, Briscoe’s knees collapsed, and his arms began to flail to the chainsawlike grind of the guitars. As his hips swung from side to side, he had the look of a scarecrow trying to get out of the path of a hurricane. And then just as quickly, his body snapped back into place, and he sprinted up the closest aisle and waved his hands, which are as big as cutting boards, to see if he could get a few fist pumps in the air. And he did: a few.

The Wizards reject the term male cheerleader, and they don’t like male dancer, either. They describe Briscoe as a Hype Guy. But he does dance, and he does cheer, and his smile, which he flashes all night long, is as wide as the backboard he frequently dances behind. And as a man doing these things for thousands of fans every home game, he occupies an exceptionally rare position in all of professional sports.

Can we all be okay with that?

The yell captain

“It’s like staring into the unknown,” Briscoe says of when he’s in front of the often agonized fans at the Verizon Center. “I’m out here running around, having a good time. What I’m trying to do is defeat the apathy that encompasses this whole city.” As it turns out, Briscoe has filled a void no one else in the Wizards camp was aware of. No team official ever thought to ask him whether he’d go out there and dance and cheer for the crowd. They already had the Wizard Girls cheerleaders, and for comic effect there was the furry blue mascot G-Wiz, who morphs into the muscular and high-bounding G-Man in the fourth quarter. Then there’s DJ Big Tigger and Autria Godfrey, a kind of roving reporter whose adrenalized interviews with fans (So what do you think of these upgraded seats?!) get splashed on the Jumbotron.

Officially, Briscoe is one of about a dozen members of what’s called the Capital Crew; they help out with promotion activities during the game and are no more visible than when they run out on the court to offer up free Chipotle burritos to a suddenly burrito-ravenous crowd. This is Briscoe’s first year, and in the first game of the season, back in October, in the first quarter, he didn’t like the mood that was already settling over the crowd as the Orlando Magic were already crushing the Wizards. “It just felt like years in the past, where people are just sitting in the crowd, just waiting for the team to lose, and I was like, ‘Un-uh,’ ” he says. “I just ran out here and said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to do something different.’ ” Briscoe didn’t just offer the clap, clap, clap-clap-clap style of boosting. When the music pulsed, Briscoe got down. He did the robot thing — like an automaton in a museum exhibit on funk. His body quaked, then flowed like waves. Immediately, he realized that he had gotten the fans’ attention. But attention on himself wasn’t the point. He wanted the fans to get revved up, to cheer on the home team. “I wanted to do whatever it took for us to win the game,” he says. “Sometimes it’s dancing, sometimes it’s just walking around and just making sure everyone’s having a good time.”

Briscoe is outfitted as if he could be working a concession stand: black pants, black shirt. He wears a bright headband over his loose dreads and has no props. But, as a man, does he wield any advantage over the Wizard Girls?

“I can project my voice very loudly,” he points out. And that’s true. When an opposing team member steps to the free throw line, he boos with the deep, shuddering velocity of a foghorn. But, he acknowledges, he “can’t make a lot of men go ‘Ooooh’ and ‘Aaaah,’ ” like the Wizard Girls do. “There ain’t too many men coming up to me and taking pictures with me, asking for my autographs.” Or women, either, much to his lament.

“It’s kind of awkward,” said Tristan Wood, of Chevy Chase, Md., as she took notice of Briscoe while the Bucks were pummeling the Wizards. “I mean, it’s a little bit awkward that he’s out here running around by himself.” She considered this a moment more, then said, “In his defense, he is working harder than all of the girls combined.”

Stewart Small, of Alexandria, has been following Briscoe’s efforts all season. “I think it’s cool,” he offered. On this night he had been taking pictures of the Wizard Girls, with a mega-zoom lens, despite the fact that he also happened to be seated right next to a contingent of them. “I don’t think it’s awkward. . . . The kids like him, and people react to him really well.” He paused and trained his camera on the Jumbotron as it announced his 44th birthday. “I think it just adds to the game-day experience.”

Steve Larocque, who was visiting Washington for a couple of days with his family from Ottawa, agreed. He said he had never seen a man in a professional sports game doing what Briscoe was, but added, “It’s not weird. I prefer looking at the cheerleaders, but it’s not weird to me.”

In the beginning, “cheerleaders were all men,” Briscoe points out.

The first known cheer came from some Princeton spectators during a Princeton-Rutgers football game — the first collegiate football game ever — in 1869. (It reportedly started like this: Rah, rah, rah! Tiger, tiger, tiger! and only gets worse from there.) In the late 1890s, colleges were organizing what they referred to as “yell leaders,” a group of men who urged the football team on. In 1898, Jack Campbell, a Princeton graduate and a medical student at the University of Minnesota, was a member of Minnesota’s yell captains. Minnesota happened to be on a losing streak, and one November afternoon Campbell was seized by the same spirit that gripped Briscoe in his first Wizards game; he suddenly split from his group and jumped in front of the crowd, leading them in a chant and thereby immortalizing himself as the Thomas Edison of cheerleading.

Cheerleading, as it became known, grew in popularity, but it remained just for men until the 1920s. Women didn’t join the ranks in large numbers until World War II, when many young men traded in their megaphones for rifles.

Reason to cheer

“I was the only child growing up, so I felt like I always had to put on a show for people,” Briscoe says. That social impulse served him particularly well through childhood, since his parents were both in the Air Force and the family moved around from base to base. He arrived in the world at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in 1983, then had stops in Germany, Florida and Missouri before settling in Washington in 1992. Young Terrance had to find a way to keep starting over, to keep making new friends, and this was a gift he had. But when he got to Washington, he says, it was “a culture shock on many levels.” His classmates at Smothers Elementary School in Northeast went out of their way to point out something he had never even thought about before: his skin color.

“Before then, I had no idea what black was,” he says. “I didn’t know light skin was a bad thing. . . . So for the first time, I’m getting called all these names, you know: Light Bright. Yellow. . . . I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’ ”

His parents helped him stay strong and kept encouraging him to be proud of who he was, to “just move past it. And never stop.” And distinguishing himself as an athlete didn’t hurt. He played basketball and football and ran track at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. And he went on to play tight end on the Bowie State football team, landing a starting spot his senior year. (With his football days behind him, Briscoe stands 45 pounds lighter these days.) He knows what it’s like to be cheered — by both female and male cheerleaders.

Briscoe majored in history, and before graduating he interned with the Maryland State General Assembly, working for delegates Victor Ramirez, Justin Ross and Obie Patterson. He was, for a time, on a direct political path and dreamed of being the first African American U.S. senator from Maryland. After college he got a job as an administrative assistant for a division of the Department of Homeland Security — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — but he didn’t feel like he was contributing to the cause, “just pushing paper.”

He quit that job within a year and next found himself working for a laser tag company, then the sneaker boutique Major in Georgetown. He did marketing for the video game company Electronic Arts and then joined the Nat Pack at Nationals Park, which was a precursor to his work on the Capital Crew.

These days, he is well off the political path, but he hasn’t given up on his original ambition. “If anything, it’s only added fuel to the fire,” he says. “Meaning, when I garner attention from here, I’m thinking if I could just turn that [fan] into a vote, I could turn that [fan] into a vote. And that into a vote. And I’m like, forget Maryland. Start talking about the D.C. Council. Mayor?”

Why? Why not?

This season it took the Wizards 26 games to win on the road; they’ve had a litany of injuries, and center JaVale McGee got into a shouting match with assistant coach Randy Wittman so heated that Andray Blatche had to step between them WHILE THE GAME WAS STILL GOING ON. So for the Wizards, the question might not be, “Why a male Hype Guy?” but rather, “Why not?”

Mustafa Gardizi, the director of the Capital Crew, has been particularly pleased with the way it’s worked out for Briscoe.

“I get people coming up to me all the time during the games, and they’re like, ‘Who is that guy? We love him,’ ” he says. Gardizi knew Briscoe from their days of working at Nationals Park together, and when he urged Briscoe to join his Capital Crew, he was convinced Briscoe’s energy would be a positive. “It’s surprising at first for somebody who comes to the game and they don’t know what Terrance is about,” he says, but adds that fans quickly adapt. “If you want to call it an experiment, sure, but I think the experiment went really well.”

While this is new territory for the Wizards, and mostly uncharted for professional teams throughout the sports world, the idea has been tested before. NFL teams have employed male cheerleaders in the past, though the Baltimore Ravens are currently the only team with a male group. In 1999, the New York Knicks decided to add men to their group of female dancers, called the Knicks City Dancers. (Go Jason! Go Louie! Go Joe! Go Eric! Go Michael!) The first coed group of dancers to entertain Knicks fans got a typically harsh New York reception. Fans booed every time the men stepped out on the court, and before long, the men were gone.

“Guys?” Lou Olivera of Long Island said to the Daily News, summing up the issue succinctly for legions of bewildered male fans. “Why’d they do that?”

Ever the optimist

It can be hard to get into the groove when your team is so bad, when fans are conditioned to expect the worst — and get it. But Briscoe the optimist is not giving up. “I’m just trying to change the whole dynamic of D.C. one game at a time, so if you see me one day and I’ve passed out and they have to take me out on a stretcher, so be it. I tried to help.”

Unlike DJ Big Tigger or the cheerleaders, Briscoe doesn’t show up on the big screen, and there is no mention of him on the Wizards Web site. (Even in-house organist Bruce Anderson has his own Web page!) Several Wizards employees interviewed for this story didn’t know Briscoe’s name. Still, no one seems to resent the showy role he has carved out for himself.

“He assists us,” GeNienne Samuels, captain of the Wizard Girls, says. “I think he’s basically able to do his own thing. A lot of what we do on the sidelines — especially on the court — is pretty much scripted. We have guidelines that we have to stay within. He’s just running all over the place, up and down the stands, and really being able to interact a little more with the fans than we can actually do.”

But is he actually making a difference?

“I haven’t seen the fruits of my labor just yet,” Briscoe says. “At the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about these fans, helping the Wizards become a better franchise than in previous years.”

For now, that sentiment sounds as sweet and dreamy as a letter to Santa Claus. After the Bucks humiliated the Wizards — who tied their season low at 76 points — Washington went on to lose to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Chicago Bulls and the Toronto Raptors. Throughout March they found new ways to miss shots, new ways to not make defensive stops. LeBron James and the Miami Heat are coming to the Verizon Center on Wednesday, a match-up that seems to have the same uneasy premise as the TV movie “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.”

At the sound of the final buzzer, the Wizards slunk off the court, and fans filed glumly out, shaking their heads. Briscoe was done dancing, done with fist bumps and booing the Bucks’ John Salmons every time he stepped to the free throw line. Briscoe headed into the tunnel, sorry for his beloved Wizards but not dejected. Before he was engulfed in the shadows, you could still read the logo emblazed on the back of his shirt: “Live the Game.”

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