The Kennel and the Myth of Home Court Advantage
“Los que no saltan son hijos de puta!” (“Those who don’t jump are bastards!”)–DC United fan chant
I will now present two recent examples of fired up home crowds and the home court/field advantages they hoped to provide. First, last Saturday’s Auburn-Alabama football game. In case you missed it, the Alabama home crowd was beyond fired up (naturally, of course, what with a chance to bury the title hopes of their hated archrival and its possibly cheating quarterback and all), and as Bama jumped out to an early (and easy) 24-0 lead, it had the look of a team inspired while Auburn was downright freaked. It was a classically textbook example of a home field advantage. Or at least it was until Auburn came back to win. Second, last night’s Cleveland Cavaliers-Miami Heat basketball game. In case you missed this one (and have been living in a cave for the past six months), the Cleveland home crowd was beyond fired up (naturally, of course, what with their unholy hate for all things LeBron James and the way he “spurned” them and their industrial wasteland of a snow factory and all), leading the pregame crew to liken the atmosphere to a game seven of the NBA Finals. The crowd booed LeBron James every time he moved a muscle, and the big question was how he would respond. No athlete has ever been as hated as LeBron is in Cleveland. Could he handle the hate? He’s recently been accused (mostly by revisionists) of buckling under pressure. Could he handle this pressure? After scoring 38 points to pace his team’s 28-point win, I think it’s safe to say that he could and he did.
The thing is, we as sports fans want to feel like we’re part of the team. Those players down there are way stronger and faster and taller than us, but if we cheer loud enough, we can inspire them or freak out their opponents. Thinking that we have some effect on the game’s outcome is really the only thing that keeps us from being casual observers sitting by helplessly as world-class athletes be world class. Like a lot of other Zag fans, I’ve been anything but a casual observer. I’ve gotten “all hoped up on beer and violence” before sardining myself into a rickety bleacher seat, then bounced and yelled like a maniac before going home with a sore throat too many times to count. And in my entire time at Gonzaga, the Zags lost exactly two home games, so like my classmates, I figured that may efforts made a difference. Thanks to us, the Martin Centre became The Kennel, and The Kennel became THE KENNEL. All our yelling and red or blue or white Kennel Club shirts and jumping around to a song that scared old people added a level of gravitas to THE KENNEL that no basketball team could on its own. Through it all, nobody really told us any different. Not only did our Kennel Club shirt sleeves read “The 6th Man,” but Gonzaga itself used the Kennel Club in a national commercial (with actual Kennel Clubbers playing themselves) that announced “we’re all part of the same team here.” The message was, you come to Gonzaga, you join the Kennel Club, you cheer at basketball games. (Then, of course, the basketball team wins and we have enough money to make another commercial.) Or, more simply, you cheer, you’re part of the team.
Since I graduated, I’ve been to one game in The Kennel. The crowd was less than inspired (actually, it was terrible), but the sample size is too small for me to make a real concrete judgment. Any number of other people will tell you that the atmosphere in the new building is either worse or terribly worse than in the old one, but why that’s so is another story for another day. After tomorrow’s Battle in Seattle (which will undoubtedly be played in front of a great pro-Zag crowd), though, The Great Zag Discussion will spend some time bouncing between those who hate what they think The Kennel has become and those who offer excuses. The latter will say they are too old to cheer all game long or that the students are gone on Winter Break or this game or that one started too early or the opponent was too sucky to be exciting. To anyone who’s ever been to a game above the little league level, those excuses are absurd (Seriously, have any of you who make those excuses ever been to another sporting event? Even another college sporting event? At no place other than Gonzaga do the non-students completely pass the cheering buck on to the students. You’re allowed to stand and clap every once in a while, even if you’re old. I promise.) yet oddly understandable. For the better part of a decade, everyone’s told Joe Zag Fan that he helps create the greatest home court advantage in the country. When he’s off his game (which seems to be the case more often than not), I suppose he feels like he let down the team, and needs to excuse away his guilt. He’s like a kid who feels he disappointed his imaginary parents and their similarly imaginary expectations. Maybe Joe ought to get his imaginary parents off his back by telling them the truth: There is no such thing as home court advantage, even in The Kennel.
As I said above, the Zags lost two games in The Kennel while I was in college. That’s impressive, and it works really well for people who like to look at such numbers and decide that Gonzaga’s got the greatest home court advantage in the country. Of course, during that same stretch, not a single ranked opponent came to The Kennel, and over those four seasons, the best team GU played at home was Pepperdine and the second best was either Santa Clara or a pre-Brandon Roy/Nate Robinson Washington. Not exactly murder’s row, but it was against these teams (and some Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s teams that combined for under ten wins a season) that Gonzaga built its impressive home record, a record which is the foundation for Gonzaga’s home court advantage myth. If GU hadn’t been better (and in many cases, far better) than its opponents, it would not have won those games, and if it didn’t win those games, nobody would have come to watch and cheer. It’s a process that only ends with people watching and cheering. Everything else has to do with the actual teams playing the actual game.
To put things into further contrast, the Zags have played at least one ranked opponent at home every season since 2005-2006 and they’ve lost at least one home game every season since then as well. This season, GU has already played, and lost to, a ranked San Diego State in The Kennel, a result that was no more the fault of the home crowd than of the lights in the McCarthey Center. San Diego State was better coached than Gonzaga, it played harder, and it was tougher. It would have won the game had it been played in The Kennel or on Mars. Saying the home crowd (or lack there of) had anything to do with it takes all the credit off the players and injects us into a place we don’t belong: on the court with actual athletes. They’re playing the game and we aren’t. They’re the ones practicing and being coached and responding to situations while we’re the ones getting drunk and yelling obscenities. Looked at in those terms, how is “home court advantage” still something we talk about, let alone blindly assume exists? These athletes are among the best in the world at what they do, and we think we can inspire them or throw them off their game by yelling at them? Come on. If you want to cheer, do it as loudly as you can, but do it because it’s what sports fans do and it’s fun, not because you think you’ll make a difference in the game’s outcome. You won’t make a difference, just like Alabama fans didn’t make a difference against Cam Newton and Auburn and Cavs fans didn’t against LeBron and the Heat. In the end, those guys and all their teammates are just way better at football and basketball than the gomers in the crowd. If us Zag fans think we and our cheering/yelling/jumping/cursing/etc. will make a difference against anyone, from San Diego to San Diego State, we’ve got to get over ourselves because we won’t.