This morning’s sports column comes from our new sports writer Howie Espenshied.

unnamedI have the dubious privilege of being a high school basketball official.  We’re the ones in stripes out there, only noticed when a mistake is made.  Coming up through the ranks, some of the most pronounced heckling I have experienced have come from the parents during 12-year-old rec games.  I have waved off my share of baskets because a sixth grader took several steps on his way to the hoop, but man, does that call ever incur the wrath of mom and dad.  I don’t mind having my ancestry or the strength of my glasses prescription called into question—that comes with the job—but it’s the vitriol behind the barb that startles.  Some of them sound really angry!  It can be distracting.

For this reason, some of the professional training we’ve received over the years actually involves ways in which we can reduce the likelihood of being heckled.  The trainers know that a rowdy crowd has a way of getting to even the best referees, so they pass on some techniques.   They teach us to be emphatic, even when we’re clueless: “Sell the call like your life depends on it, even if you have no idea who touched that ball last before it went out of bounds.”   “Remember”, they’ll say, “It’s not the wrong call if you look like you believe it’s the right one.”  During one training session, the evaluator told me that if I officiated without my glasses, I’d get heckled less.  It actually works—I’ve been reffing without my glasses the past several seasons, and I’ve heard noticeably less chirping from the stands.  I can’t see a darn thing out there though.  Don’t tell anyone.

We refs have to have thick skin, but as grouchy as fans have been toward me from time to time, players (especially in college and professional ranks) often experience heckling at a level I’ll never know.  Air traffic controller and longtime Texas Tech booster, Jeff Orr, was in the news last week for calling Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart “a piece of crap.”  College players hear that (and much worse) all the time.  What made this SportsCenter-worthy was the fact that Marcus Smart had just fallen into the stands while trying to make a defensive play and landed on the seat directly in front of Orr.  Orr is seen here delivering his “message” while (literally) eye-to-eye with Smart.

Smart (the best college point guard these trained eyes have seen in college this year, by the way) has had some issues with attitude this season, and received a three-game suspension from the NCAA for shoving Orr.  Not surprisingly however, much of the sportswriter reaction to the incident has called out Orr for instigating the shove.   Mike Lupica at the New York Daily News called Orr a “loser” and a “fool” for resorting to name calling in the heat of the moment.  (I know—irony.)  Certainly, this seems justified.  I reacted much the same way when I watched the video.  Yelling “You piece of crap” into a sea of noise when the player is on the other side of the court (many would say) crosses the line; spraying it directly into a player’s face is asking for it.

While reflecting on the incident, I’ve thought a lot about my friend Gary, my favorite heckler of all time.  Gary was a co-worker of mine from 2001-2007.  He was larger than life and was always my favorite colleague to have lunch with.  Over many sandwiches at our favorite deli here in Atlanta, he’d tell me hilarious (and a bit off-colored) stories about what he yelled at a player from the stands at last night’s Atlanta Brave’s game.   My favorite story was about the time he got Barry Bonds’ attention.

Gary DMany hecklers have a few beers in them to help loosen their tongues.  However, Gary was many years sober.  His libation of choice was the “helmet sundae” – ice cream and toppings served inside a mini MLB replica helmet.  Bonds (Gary’s target this particular night) is known for having a “rather bulbous” head, which many believe to be the result of taking steroids.  When Bonds was warming up in the outfield between the 4th and 5th inning, Gary took his (now empty) mini helmet, held it with one finger on top of his head and yelled out “Hey Barry!–look!–we’re twins!”  Gary told me that Bonds looked up and saw him, then smiled and waved. “And then, when our eyes met, I flipped him the double birds!” He laughed and laughed.

Funny guy?  I thought so.  Good natured fellow? Absolutely.  Line-crosser?  Yes.  In fact, it was for this reason that I never went to a ballgame with Gary, even though he invited me repeatedly.   I was sure he’d embarrass me, that I’d spend most of the game hiding my face.  Gary died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011 at age 59, twenty four years sober.  He was well known in the Atlanta area as the lead singer of a Grateful Dead cover band, “Swami Gone Bananas”.

I’m still not sure that I’d want to attend a Texas Tech basketball game with Jeff Orr, but I regret not attending Braves games with my friend, frankly because my reason for not going had a lot more to with my own insecurity than it did with Gary.

Truth be told, we referees don’t make very good fans, much like doctors don’t make very good patients.  We’ve (we think) seen how the game is supposed to be played, so when we watch games we like to believe we’re holding players to some kind of righteous standard.  I may not be prone to public outbursts, but put me in the privacy of my family room in front of my flat screen, and I’ll heckle with the best (and worst) of them.  I’m quick to call a base runner a “lazy butt” for not running out a ground ball, or a running back a “wuss” for not hitting the hole.  It may not be “public,” unless you count my impressionable children, usually sitting right there with me.

In me, as a fan, is all of the vitriol of the most mean-spirited of hecklers, and very little of the wit my good friend possessed.  I’m quick to call out the heckle-speckle in my fellow fan’s eye, and slow to see the plasma-screen-sized piece in my own.  I’m certainly a candidate for the “Chief of All Hecklers,” but you can call me “Howie the Heckler” for short.