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“STORMING THE COURT” – AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

“Eleven conferences — the Atlantic 10, Big East, Big South, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mid-Eastern Athletic, Pac-12, WAC, Southeastern and West Coast — recently told ESPN that a home school with a post-game celebratory court storm could be subject to a fine under certain circumstances. Some have precise penalties, while others have general language regarding disciplinary measures and their applicability.” – ESPN.com

I love watching fans storm a court or swarm a field after a big win. The primal, elemental, and spontaneous outpouring of joyous humanity celebrating a special sport triumph always moves me.

So do the proposed restrictions infringe on 1st Amendment provisions or the right to assemble? WWBKD? (What would Bobby Knight do?)

Watch the end of the movie hoop classic “Hoosiers” when the Hickory High fans storm the court to embrace their heroes. Or YouTube the old Boston Garden after “Havlicek stole the ball!” Or Fenway Park on that magical October 1, 1967, after Rico Petrocelli caught a popup setting up the BoSox for their first World Series in decades. Six-foot-6 pitcher Jim Lonborg was swept away to centerfield and a mad mosh-pit of delirium.

Primal. Elemental. Joyous.

There are, of course, dangers when waves of humanity are unleashed, overpowering 70-year-old ushers and the lone security cop. Mob mentalities take effect. Havlicek was battered and bruised by fans after he stole the ball. He called them “ruffians.” Lonborg’s uniform was ripped to shreds. I’m sure that today in various New England locales, grandfathers share pieces of cloth with their progeny, explaining “This is what Jim Lonborg wore when he pitched the Sox to the pennant in 1967.”

Seriously.

And when those gridiron goalposts come down, they can injure even the most hard-headed football fan.

Hence the proposals for court storm policies.

“This is why we can’t have nice things, people!”

These outpourings, these court storms, aren’t entirely spontaneous. When the Celtics beat the Lakers at the Garden in 1984 for the NBA title, fans surrounded the court for a while before the final buzzer, waiting to pounce.

On the college level, one can be sure that ne’er-do-wells have court storm strategies that involve not hoisting a hoopster but hugging a cheerleader. Truth.

But for the most part the joyous storms and swarms are unscripted. Who knew Havlicek was going to steal the ball?

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run mark. Film/video of that milestone moment in Atlanta will be shown everywhere. And accompanying Aaron on his historic round trip you’ll see Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtenay. The two Brave fans were only 17 when they ran onto the field from the first-base stands and caught up with Aaron. Now Britt and Cliff are immortal. They even made this column five decades later.

Court storms and field swarms are de rigueur everywhere at countless high school championship events. Players, parents, and peers no doubt dream of that ultimate title moment marked by Gatorade showers and heroes hoisted in celebration.

Like so many others, I also dreamed of such a moment. But most of us never taste that sweet championship nectar.

My high school senior year saw me and my Groveton High School Purple Eagle basketball teammates in a state tournament semifinal game at Plymouth State, trying for a spot in the title tilt. Half the gym was purple, as busloads of fans came down from the North Country. Sadly, we fell way behind, 27-12.

Still, in the second half we chipped away at the lead and the purple clad folks took heart. Closer and closer we came and louder and louder were the GHS fans. I remember scoring in the last minute to cut the lead to 47-46 as the gym exploded. A dam was about to break to release a purple flood onto the floor.

But we ran out of time. The white-clad players enjoyed a court storm as the purple rain fell not.

I stood watching the other team get swarmed while a lone figure hurried to me from the purple side—tears streaming down her face. Her back to the celebration, my girlfriend offered a very public embrace. I’ll always remember that.

So, most athletes never experience a court storm. But sometimes kids offer opportunities for parents to vicariously experience “swarm joy” when offspring win titles denied to their dads and moms. When my daughter’s Concord High School softball team won a state championship, I (thankfully) did not run out and leap onto the growing pile of players celebrating a title. But that was also, in a way, my storm/swarm moment as well.

And, upon further review, perhaps the lonely gesture of that teary hug offered to a losing basketball player is perhaps of equal—if not more—value than a leap into that fleeting mosh pit of sports joy experienced by that happy few band of brothers (or sisters) fortunate enough to grab sports’ ever-so-elusive brass rings.

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