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Mix those strutting pros and hardened fans in today's hoop arenas, and the chemistry is ripe for agitation. Games aren't mere athletic contests; they are in-your-face productions. Laser-light-show introductions, clatter-making Thunder Stix and scoreboard exhortations for more noise contribute to an atmosphere of confrontation. Players shooting free throws used to be accorded an almost respectful silence. Now fans attempt to distract them by jeering and waving towels. It doesn't work, but that doesn't stop the fans' behavior.
Alcohol, of course, plays a part too. In the NFL, serious tailgaters fuel up before they even enter the stadium. Many teams are sponsored in part by a brewer, and beer sales make up a significant percentage of a stadium's concession revenues--a spigot that teams are not eager to cut off. Still, to head off trouble, most basketball and football venues stop selling beer by the end of the third quarter (as does the Palace in Auburn Hills).
The obnoxiousness isn't limited to pro sports either. Many college venues take great pride in their lack of hospitality for visiting teams. At Duke University the denizens of the Cameron Indoor Stadium, known as the Cameron Crazies, specialize in personal taunts that often cross the line. They once showered condoms on a Maryland player who had been accused of sexual assault. Last season they dangled chicken nuggets on a fishing pole near chunky Tar Heels center Sean May. The Crazies are "an integral part of our success," says Duke assistant athletic director of communication Jon Jackson. "The Crazies have had fun without being abusive." Some fun.
Many commentators see the general decline in sports behavior as consistent with falling standards in society as a whole. What do we expect of sports fans in a nation where episodes of humiliation, greed and win-at-all-costs behavior (from Survivor to My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss) pass for family entertainment? "Incivility, boorishness and crassness are everywhere in the idiot culture that we live in," says veteran NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "And yet we celebrate all this as edginess. This behavior is encouraged."
Meanwhile, back on the court, the Pacers, even with three of their best players suspended, went on to win three of their next four games, while Detroit, the defending NBA champion, is struggling to regain its championship form. The two teams will meet again this season--in Indianapolis on Christmas Day. They are not likely to be exchanging gifts. --With reporting by Peter Bailey and Sean Gregory/New York, Joseph R. Szczesny/ Detroit and David Thigpen/Chicago