As you know, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan who had said something unkind to him Saturday night. As you also know, Smart was later suspended three games for this incident, while the fan — Jeff Orr — promised not to attend any more Texas Tech games this season. And as you also know, one of the most famous basketball hecklers in world history is a local fan who earned his fame at Bullets games.
Thus, a conversation with Robin Ficker, who has very much been following media coverage of this incident.
“You know, they have a choice,” Ficker said, when discussing fan-player confrontations in basketball. “They could do what hockey does, they could put up a big thick plastic glass barrier that’s transparent all around the court so that the fans and players couldn’t interact. They could hand out catchers masks to the fans, so that if they got hit in the face it wouldn’t hurt. But I think probably the best idea is to spend a little bit of time [on training]. I know they spend an extraordinary amount of time after each practice, during each practice, before each practice shooting free throws. They should spend a little bit of time with these guys role-playing. … Call these guys every name in the book and see if they react.”
To support his argument, Ficker pointed to David Robinson. The Spurs star, unlike many NBA players, didn’t change his facial expression no matter what Ficker would yell; Ficker always figured it was because of Robinson’s Naval Academy training. And if plebes can be taught not to react, he thinks basketball players could as well. He also pointed out that football coaches commonly play recordings of crowd noise to prepare their players during road games; basketball coaches could similarly employ practice hecklers.
“I’d be willing to bet you that Oklahoma State never had a session with their players this year where the players did role-playing in dealing with fans,” Ficker said. “In the United States we sort of encourage people to express their mind, to engage in robust discussion, to let it all out after a hard work week, to come and get a vicarious thrill, and even to taunt a little bit. We sort of encourage that. So that’s part of the game in the United States now.”
Which doesn’t mean Ficker is backing Orr’s behavior, either. As obnoxious as he was in his prime, Ficker never used racial or sexual imagery, nor profanity. He wouldn’t have called anyone a “piece of crap,” which is what Orr says he said. He also never drank at games, to help make sure he never crossed his own lines.
And there were well-known tales of on-court anger directed at Ficker, though no actual physical contact. Utah Coach Frank Layden once attempted to go after Ficker; Karl Malone held him back. Charles Barkley would throw things at him. Bobby Hansen mentioned that he’d like to heckle Ficker in a coffin. Other players threw towels, cups, gum.
“I would always respond is it raining in here? I must be the only thing you’ve hit all night,” recalled Ficker, who said he wished Smart had acted similarly. “Smart would have been smarter if he just turned around and started laughing uncontrollably at the guy. Then he wouldn’t be in trouble and he’d be able to play the next three games.”
Anyhow, Ficker said the three-game suspension seemed appropriate, if only to make it clear to other players that there would be consequences for physically confronting fans. The famous heckler still thinks there’s a place for his brand of fandom, but he worries what could happen if players respond with violence.
“You can’t have, under any circumstances, physical interactions between the fans and players,” he said. “First of all, the players are generally very large, larger than the average man on the street. They’re in very good condition. And even though they’re not trained to fight, they still are very big and very tough and very quick. And in the stands, you have women, you have got pregnant women, you’ve got old men, you’ve got people that may have [weapons] in their pants. It could lead to something where someone gets seriously hurt as a result of somebody being called a name. …
“You can cross a line when you get into obscenities and racial and sexual stuff, and then maybe the fans should be thrown out,” Ficker said. “But the players shouldn’t be the one to do it.”