I'm filing this article very, very late--the game took place over three weeks ago--but I believe I have a legitimate excuse, and it has nothing to do with my undiagnosed case of CPS (Chronic Procrastination Syndrome).
This game caused me to undergo an existential crisis, albeit a sports-focused one.
Allow me to back up a bit. I was born in Northeast Philadelphia, and although I spent most of my childhood in its suburbs, I've always felt a deep connection to my home city. This feeling was only strengthened when I left for Fairfax and George Mason University; any of my friends from my time as an undergraduate could tell you that I took my passion for cheesesteaks and the Phillies to unhealthy--many would say abrasive--levels.
I often say that Philadelphians have "Middle Child Syndrome." Much like the second of three children, Philly, nestled between New York and DC, gets forgotten, having neither the glamor of the City nor the power of the District. The resulting inferiority complex manifests itself in the brash, blue-collar attitude of its citizens, which in the sports world is reinforced by our representation in the national media. Can you remember ever watching the talking heads on Around the Horn discuss even a minor incident involving Philadelphia sports fans without hearing, "Well, these are the same fans who threw snowballs at Santa Claus."? I doubt it. That was 44 years ago folks.
And so I've always believed that the intensity shown by Philadelphia sports fans, including myself, was a legitimate reaction to the shadow we live in. Sure, we may boo too heavily at times, and we may be too willing to forgive those who take their fandom to extremes, but it's valid because we are a persecuted fan base.
This game changed all that. Thirty seconds in, two things were undeniable: Drexel's Daskalakis Athletic Center is loud, and it is hot. The recently-renovated gym still features bleachers as its primary form of seating, and while sweating profusely three rows behind Mason's bench I felt the oppressive force of a crowd willing and able to drown out every attempt at an oppositional cheer. That much I was expecting, of course, but then something both surprising and unnerving happened. As the game went on I was overcome with an uncomfortable sensation unlike any I've ever experienced at a sporting event. Don't get me wrong, I'm no stranger to unwelcoming arenas; I've watched my favorite teams in hostile environments before, and have experienced the visceral defensiveness it inevitably produces. But this was different. No, this time I felt like a true Other, a person denied access to the breadth of the intrapersonal, emotional escapism that sports subconsciously provide us. Sporting venues are called "suffocating" so often that it's far beyond clichéd, but in this case it was literal. The highlighter-yellow-clad inhabitants of the DAC cut off the oxygen flow to both my head and my sporting sensibilities in a way that I'll never forget.
As strange as I was feeling in the stands, however, Mason's Erik Copes was feeling right at home on Drexel's court. A Philadelphia native himself, Copes is a 6'8" freshman center and four-star recruit who only ended up at GMU because his uncle Roland Houston, a celebrated Rhode Island Ram in his heyday who had since become a standout coach at George Washington, moved to Fairfax after he was forced out of his assistant coaching gig in Foggy Bottom. Erik seemed determined to make the most of his homecoming. As a first half dictated by solid defense, too many turnovers, and a molasses pace came to a close, the big man had seven blocks off the bench: only three less than George Mason's game record set back in the blog-less oblivion known to some as the year 1990. We in Mason's small section of the bleachers felt something incredible coming. The record would be broken. Those at home were tweeting that the game had been taken over by a #copesblockparty.
But early in the second half, everything changed. Copes went up for an offensive rebound, missed badly, and fell down hard on his back. After a scramble the Dragons came up with the ball and drove up the court while Copes remained on the floor. It was one of the hardest falls I've ever seen in a basketball game. The Drexel fans, however, seemed to pay no mind as they watched their team set up a play on offense, but when the officials stopped play to allow Mason's training staff onto the floor, the boos began raining down. "Ass-hole! Ass-hole!" chants filled the DAC. And even when Copes finally got up and walked off the court, the booing continued in force. He did not return to the floor.
It was that very moment, as I listened, horrified, to the inhabitants of my hometown live up to their ESPN-constructed reputation, that I knew my Philadelphia fandom had changed. Had I contributed to this culture? Had cognitive dissonance taken over the logical part of my brain? Is this really what Philly fans are like to outsiders? Did I need to reexamine everything I believed about being a sports fan in the City of Brotherly Love?
These questions have dominated my thoughts over the past few weeks. And unfortunately, I don't have any answers. While part of me still feels strongly that we are a disrespected city, or that our media perception may be self-fulfilling (how can a person best react to being disrespected except to others disrespect in return?), I now know what it is like to be Otherized by Philadelphians. It's not a good feeling. It's offensive. And it's hurtful to both opposition players and their fans.
Until I can answer these questions, I'll keep pondering. Hopefully, this introspection will make me a better fan in the end.
at DREXEL 60, GEORGE MASON 53 01/12/2012
GEORGE MASON 12-5 (4-1) -- R. Pearson 1-9 2-4 4; B. Allen 4-11 1-1 9; V. Vaughns 1-7 1-2 3; M. Morrison 5-7 0-0 10; A. Cornelius 2-5 0-1 5; E. Copes 0-3 2-2 2; S. Wright 2-2 2-2 7; V. Gray 2-3 0-0 6; C. Edwards 1-1 0-0 3; J. Arledge 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 20-50 8-12 53. DREXEL 11-5 (3-2) -- F. Massenat 4-18 2-3 12; D. Thomas 2-9 4-4 8; D. Lee 8-14 1-3 21; S. Givens 3-4 2-2 8; D. McCoy 2-6 1-2 5; D. Ruffin 0-3 0-0 0; C. Fouch 2-4 2-2 6; A. Younger 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-58 12-16 60.
Three-point goals: GMU 5-13 (A. Cornelius 1-3; R. Pearson 0-1; V. Vaughns 0-2; S. Wright 1-1; B. Allen 0-3; C. Edwards 1-1; V. Gray 2-2), DREX 6-17 (C. Fouch 0-1; D. Thomas 0-2; F. Massenat 2-5; D. Lee 4-9); Rebounds: GMU 27 (R. Pearson 11), DREX 36 (S. Givens 10); Assists: GMU 10 (R. Pearson 4), DREX 12 (D. Thomas 4); Total Fouls -- GMU 18, DREX 11; Fouled Out: GMU-None; DREX-None.