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Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Why do we scream at foul shooters?

By Kevin Arnovitz

Joni Mitchell recorded a live album in 1974 at the Hollywood Bowl called "Miles of Aisles." It was at the moment in her career when she was evolving from the moony, young girl from Saskatchewan who sang romantic stuff you'd hear around campfires for decades, to a hard-boiled, somewhat cynical performer who'd been through the meat-grinder of life and had come out the other side more jaded.

The best moment of the album comes during an interlude, when fans start shouting out the titles of songs from her oeuvre they want to hear, as Mitchell strums her guitar. This goes on for a bit, then finally a dude shouts, "Play whatever you want!" to which Mitchell replies, "Alriiiiiight!"

She then tells the audience:
That's one thing that's always been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know? A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that's it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, "Paint 'A Starry Night' again, man!" you know? He painted it and that was it.

Conventions are funny things because we don't consider their absurdity until we really think about them. People yell out requests at musicians but not painters, just as sports fans hound a foul shooter, but not a golfer. Mitchell would never rip her fans, but it's clear from her wry response during the performance that she'd like to roll through her set list without constant chirping from the audience on how they might do things differently. [Mitchell is also a painter, which might inform her thinking.]

Devin Kharpertian of Nets Are Scorching recently took a friend of his who's a classical musician and not much of a basketball fan to a Nets game. As much fun as it is going to games with friends who follow sports, sitting alongside someone who wants to understand all the rituals we take for granted can be fun because requires us to explain these traditions -- things like the players chalking up their hands before the tip, or why a center won't let a shot after the whistle go through the net even though it won't count either way and, as Kharpertian explains, why we scream like crazy and wave our arms when an opposing player steps to the foul line:
Without taking a stance, I rapped off some platitudes -- it’s about getting in the guy’s head, scaring him, making him think about his decision. My friend, a performance artist by design, contended that white noise doesn’t beget performance anxiety -- pure silence does, especially for the solo artist. When a performer’s on stage alone, the raucous cheers and applause soothe the nerves. I couldn’t disagree -- I know the feeling.

Barea nailed both free throws. After a quick Nets dunk, they were forced to foul again. This time they sent Luke Ridnour to the line, who received identical treatment as Barea: screams, yells, taunts, distractions galore. Like Barea, Ridnour hit both free throws. Ten seconds later, the Timberwolves won the game.

At this point, watching a crowd desperately attempt to make a difference, the only words that came to me were the same eight that can kill sports, the eight Bill Simmons often cites: because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We always scream at the opponent when they (and the game) are on the line. We blast voices, wave arms, smash together plastic blow-up toys, exploit our emotions in any effort to throw off the performer. It’s our way of feeling involved in what’s going on, our little droplet in an ocean of distraction.

But considering the circumstances, does it really work? Noise creates a cushion, one that a player can fall back into. The anxiety of performance loses meaning when all you hear is a sea of nothing in particular. It’s a soft background noise. It’s easy to presume that, as one individual in the crowd, your voice is heard and jarring. It certainly feels that way. But when faced with a crowd, 20,000 disjointed voices all sound alike -- and together, they sound like one overlapping breeze.

Golfers and tennis players, who play individual sports, are exempt from this treatment. Does the quiet that washes over a tee or a court enhance that athlete's drive or serve? In a similar vein, would an empty arena raise the collective free throw percentage of foul shooters?

We just don't know, but Kharpertian would love to find out:
My challenge, to whatever base can mobilize and feels like listening to me: at the apex of a contest, with the game hanging in the balance at the free throw line, just stare at the shooter. Don’t say a word. Not a whisper in the arena. Just 40,000 eyes piercing the soul of one man, now wildly aware that everyone is staring at him -- and no one is speaking. Throw him off by throwing off expectation altogether. I understand that it’s hard to put together, but with the pull of an understanding arena, it’s not that hard.