When No. 13, Alex Estill of the Crofton Cardinals, stole the ball from the opposing team and dribbled down the court for the basket, all fan Bob Smith could do was raise his arm and leg in silent salute.
Yesterday was "Silent Saturday" for the more than 400 teams in the youth basketball league of the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, a day when parents and fans and coaches were not allowed to cheer, yell, clap or otherwise bother the earnest little sweaty people on the court.
It was a day to let kids be kids and "raise awareness" among Anne Arundel's more competitive parents, organizers proclaimed. After all, basketball is only a game, and "hey, this is supposed to be fun," said Georgette Shalhoup, supervisor of recreation and parks sports.
So with their enthusiasm muzzled but not quelled, parents who normally shouted encouragement sat on their hands, taped their mouths shut or crammed lollipops and candy canes into them, and waved hand-printed signs that said "defense" or "rebound." Anything to keep quiet.
Players could talk, but that was it. Even the coaches had to shut up, so they frantically pantomimed signals from the sidelines.
"I've never been to a game where you couldn't say anything," grumbled Joe Hicks, 40, of Arnold, a parent and coach of a 10-and-under boys team. "It's a real strange experience."
Even the referees--who normally get the most grief from angry parents--were a tad discomfitted. "I think it's a great idea to help people be cognizant of what they are about to say," said Patrick Clowney, 29, an Air Force captain. "At the same time, fan noise is an integral part of the game. The noise creates energy."
Indeed, the churchyard quiet in the gym at Annapolis Middle School was broken only by the occasional high-pitched shouts of the young players, the hollow sound of the ball against the court and the whistles of the referees.
"Help out with the press," whispered one coach helplessly, as his players ran about chaotically. "The press, c'mon."
Recreation and Parks Department staff members were inspired to schedule a trial run of Silent Saturday into the four months of weekend games after hearing media reports about a soccer team in Ohio that had held silent games, Shalhoup said.
The Northern Ohio Girls Soccer League's "Silent Sunday" in October and yesterday's event in Anne Arundel County are part of a fledgling, but growing, sports civility movement. Sports organizations across the country are experimenting with different measures to promote sportsmanship and quell rude behavior. Some have even resorted to "spectator-free games."
Sportsmanship, Shalhoup said, is at an all-time low in Anne Arundel. The league has trouble keeping referees because many aren't willing to put up with the abuse, she said. This season alone, 15 basketball referees have quit.
Tempers can run high. Last year, one coach threw a chair after his team lost a game, and told one player to find his own way home. A parent tried to choke a referee after a bad call. Both were banished from the league, Shalhoup said.
"It's sad that it has come to this," she said. "It's crazy what this screaming and yelling is doing to these kids. . . . Sportsmanship is a big problem in our society and it is filtering down to the 'rec' leagues. . . . What we're really trying to do is give back the games to kids. [Silent Saturday] has created awareness, and that's what we wanted to do."
Parents were informed of the ban through notes tucked into their children's basketball schedule and fliers distributed at recent games. Most fans complied, Shalhoup said. Any who broke the ban more than once would have been asked to leave the gym, but that didn't happen, she said.
Still, not every parent was happy about Silent Saturday. "I think it's a big joke," groused Lauren Breland, 35, of Annapolis, an Anne Arundel school employee with two sons in the league. "These are children who are just learning their skills, and we need to support them and nurture them and encourage them."
Some parents feared that the county might make silent game-watching permanent, though Shalhoup said that this Silent Saturday was a one-time event.
Players said they would be relieved to have things return to normal for the next round of games. "I like noise better," said Eric Davis Jr., 12, of Annapolis. "It's too quiet in here."