By Derek Belt
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
March 5, 2004

SEATTLE — If players play and coaches coach, what is the fans’ responsibility?

Some say their purpose is to show support for their team. Others argue they’re responsible for creating a lively atmosphere. Whatever the case, there’s no denying the importance of fans at the high school level.

But what about the few who take it to extremes: fans who holler obscenities from the security of the stands and complain to coaches about who took the last shot, or even worse, parents who try to proclaim their child’s successes as their own.

Is there any place for behavior like that in high school basketball?

“Absolutely not,” Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea said.

“Fans should be supportive of the team, the coach and the game itself. Being respectful of the game means heckling, but not crossing the line so that it becomes personal.”

Hecklers, however, love to make it personal. Their intentions are clear and their objective is simple: harass to distract. Verbally harassing players and coaches is the name of the game, especially if it can elicit a response from said target or instigate an altercation during the game.

A heckler’s job is to draw attention away from what’s happening on the court and direct it toward the stands. If a player is more concerned with what a heckler in the second row is saying than with the upcoming foul shots, the chances of the free throws dropping could be lower. Likewise, if a coach can’t disregard a heckler in the fourth row, there’s no telling what he’s missing on the floor.

“They can make it real difficult sometimes,” Renton coach Rick Comer said, “but that’s what they’re there for. They want to get you distracted, they want to get into your head. And even if it’s just one play, one glance towards the fans, then they’ve been successful.”

Hecklers often target star players in an attempt to level the playing field. While many players might be susceptible, most are not. Even at the high-school level, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with showing up a heckler with a standout performance.

Coaches have learned to ignore such acts by understanding the insignificance of heckling and concentrating solely on the task at hand. Several of them have even built up a tolerance over the years.

“You know what fan is short for, right?” asked Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple. “Fan is short for fanatic, and that’s exactly what they are. If I listened to the fans, I’d have been out of coaching years ago. … I can’t do my job if I’m distracted by what’s going on in the stands.”

There are, however, a handful of coaches who feel that heckling is an integral part of the game, and something everybody should learn to live with. Sammamish coach Chris O’Connor, whose father coached at Seattle University for six years, is one.

“I was born into this game,” O’Connor said. “I’ve been around it my whole life, and I grew up living with a coach and going to the games. I saw what he had to deal with, and I still think that if the fans weren’t there, who knows if there’d even be sports.”

While some form of heckling—mostly that by students—is arguably a good thing, many agree it’s being taken to the extreme by obsessive fans and overzealous parents.

“Coaches coach, players play and parents support,” Pepple said. “Some of them get carried away, though, and that can be detrimental to the program. I’m not talking about a lot of incidents, but it does happen from time to time.

“I’ve had parents go down to their kids at halftime and say they weren’t shooting enough. If I had my way, they wouldn’t even criticize the kid afterwards. They’d simply leave him alone and let him enjoy playing.”

A gripe many parents have with coaches is about playing time. Parents want what’s best for their children, and that includes an equal opportunity to perform.

“I had a parent come to me right after a tough loss,” Mount Si coach Garrick Phillips said. “We were still picking up the towels off the bench, and he wanted to know why his kid wasn’t playing more because he’d sure like to be.

“I turned to him and said: ‘You know what, there’s 11 other kids that wish they were playing more.’ And I walked away. I thought I handled that pretty well, but deep inside I just wanted to strangle him.”

Others can relate.

“Sometimes parents’ emotions can take over,” Bethea said. “I know parents that feel their son is the next Jamal Crawford or the next Doug Christie, and they think I’m the only thing standing in their way. These people just don’t realize that they’re hurting their kid more than they’re helping them.”

Many coaches address parental issues head-on. Preseason parent-coach meetings allow parents the opportunity to ask questions about the program and find out firsthand what the coaching staff is all about.

“My advice to coaches is to let the parents in and not keep them at a distance,” said Comer, who recently began meeting with parents before the start of the season. “I spent 20 years keeping them at a distance, and it didn’t work. These last few years have been way better.”

Pepple has been meeting with Mercer Island parents for years, and prides himself on having one of the most involved parent groups in the area. The same can be said for Rainier Beach, where Bethea gets parents to sign a waiver before the season starts, outlining parental rules and guidelines that will allow their son to continue suiting up.

Even the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association has caught on, initiating a program called Just Play Fair! that promotes sportsmanship. Participating schools are encouraged to host guest speakers who convey the importance of sportsmanship to players, coaches, parents and fans.

“For the most part, our parents and fans are doing a great job with sportsmanship,” said WIAA assistant executive director Kevin Griffin, who doubles as a Just Play Fair! guest speaker. “Unfortunately, there’s always going to be one or two knuckleheads. If they really want to heckle somebody that bad, they can go to an NFL or NBA game.

“There’s no place for it here, though.”