Monday, October 18, 2010

"It was always worth it."

Morgan may not have expected it, but the recognition that he, Phil, Jeff, and Wes receive stems from their personal dedication to supporting their team. Even with Davidson's successful run over the past few seasons, the game atmosphere is hard to compare to that of Duke or UNC. How can it, with so many different dynamics at play? On any given night in Belk Arena, you'll find alumni, community members, little children, older adults, and students who are trying to balance academics, extracurriculars, fun, and sleep. The 2009-2010 season marked a palpable shift in fan participation, with the early departure of Stephen Curry to the NBA; though some games drew large crowds, tickets and seats were far easier to find in both alumni and student camps. Morgan believes that "our fan base needs energizing a lot of the time ... I just do my best. It's just frustrating; at least give them some encouragement ... They need people ... It definitely helps. That's why we do it, 'cause we really want to be there."


Jeff mulls it over. "Y'know, one thing which I think we could have done a better job of was explaining to people that it is not some sort of exclusive thing." He wants students to know "if you have a really fun creative costume idea, do it ... Please, come be here with us. That just hit me right now. We never put off a vibe [of exclusivity], but at the same time we weren't overtly seeking people." In an academic environment where students find it hard to take a break, he hopes that a more open invitation might make a difference. "Man, I wish all of my fellow students were as energized about Davidson basketball as us, because it wouldn't just be a few people going nuts ... but it would be everyone all the time. I suppose at a school [like Davidson] when everyone's so incredibly overscheduled ... it's hard to -- not really fair to expect Davidson to be a place where we're gonna cram our entire student section with a bunch of crazies. I wish ... everyone came with the agenda that we're gonna be hype for the next two hours and we're not gonna stop until the last buzzer rings."

Some misinterpret what they're trying to do; Phil recounts a time his freshman year when a fan posted on the Davidson message board (which is not sponsored by the school, but run by alumni) with the opinion that he represented "classlessness in our school." Phil gets quiet and looks at the table. "When it comes down to it, people have their own opinion. We're rooting for the same thing so I feel like -- I'm not ripping off my clothes ... I hope I don't -- I don't represent classlessness.

"I think with us dressing up," he adds, "I just feel like -- trying to be outwardly ... spiritual, spirited for the team, maybe other people can join in and see, 'Oh my gosh! ... this is the actual student section where you can yell and scream and jump up and down.' I guess I was trying to do that, to reach out. 'It's okay, you can act like a buffoon for two hours and then do your organic chemistry homework.' That's what I was trying to do."


The quartet has found their expression of school spirit to be an outlet for stress, as well as a framework for friendship and community-building. "I keep doing it every single time because it's always outrageously fun," Jeff says firmly. "I've never not had a fun time ... I mean, going to a Davidson basketball game is always a 3-hour event [and] it's always worth it."

"A lot of the excitement is being together," Wes agrees. "It was really exciting once it was clear we were going to another level in terms of the program ... for the fans to also have a new experience."


During a televised game in 2009, a friend sent me a text message containing a sportscaster's comment: "I love this crowd. Everyone has been singing and dancing this whole time out, including the White Lobster and the, uh ... dark ninja." When I relayed the comment to Jeff after the game, he beamed, pumping his fist so hard I thought he might pull a muscle. "One of the great things is that we all dance," he continues now. "They play all this great music at the basketball games, so it's just four guys in costumes doing all of these goofy dances. Four guys who completely don't care about their self image at all, we're just being ridiculous."

Their outfits have seen it all, and whether it's due to superstition (Phil) or level of difficulty (Morgan), not much has washed off. "When we're on a winning streak I never wash that thing at all," Phil admits; after the twenty-five game winning streak in 2008, the Cat in the Hat was "nasty." Wes is in the same boat: "It's kind of funny how the costume has deteriorated over time ... This isn't funny, it's actually sad and gross, but it hasn't been washed." And if Morgan continues the legacy of the White Lobster? "I'll have to get a new one eventually -- this one is nasty."

The small town, small school setting certainly fosters a sense of belonging that allows them to let loose and be themselves. "I feel connected to a lot of other fans," Wes clarifies. "I definitely couldn't have ... been as ridiculous as I have been if it hadn't been for the fact that I felt comfortable ... Being a good fan, you just feed off each other."

He smiles, and pushes himself up off the bench. "Well, that was a good break to take from the library."

**

"When they're warming up," Jeff says of the team, "I sit there and I talk to them and encourage them and ... they acknowledge me. It makes sense -- if you've got fans that commit to come ... even to watch you warm up, that's a big vote of confidence in what you're doing as an athlete and you're gonna respond to that. So that is special. All that hard work and practice and stuff that you guys do, we really appreciate it. And we're glad we can be here to tell you that."

With Jeff and Wes's graduation in May, another chapter will close in the century-old book of Davidson basketball, but the countless memories will never disappear; they are "just seared in my mind," Jeff says. "It was a lot more than a sport."

"It's definitely something I'll share with my kids," Wes grins, "and something my wife will probably joke about: 'You'll be a boxer like your father!' And I hope I'll be blessed enough to take them to Davidson games and Duke games, and watch basketball with them like I did with my dad. That will definitely be the highlight."

"It's just a love of being wacky," Jeff goes on. "And the ability to not necessarily care what other people think. That's really all it is, that's all it's ever been for me since high school. To just find a crazy idea that works and just be nuts, be yourself. There's a lot of freedom, a lot of fun."

Phil smiles and shakes his head. "I do not regret anything, any of it." Even though he has one more season behind the basket as the Cat in the Hat, "I already know what I'm going to do with it ... I'm going to frame it after I graduate, and it's going to be in my house somewhere, and it's just going to be there, and every time I look at it, I'm just gonna smile."

And on this night for Jeff and Wes, the last home game of a topsy-turvy season, and the last game of their college years, emotions blur together. "It did hit me walking out -- that's the last time I'll ever do this. 'Cause this sort of thing is just for the students. It's a student thing, for sure," Jeff says.

"I cried a little a couple of times," Wes confesses. "Shed a few tears too when I first put on my robe for the last time and thought about it. I was like, 'You sentimental punk. Quit thinking about it like that.'"

**

After the final buzzer of his final home game, Bryant Barr jogs over to the front row. He steels himself, takes a running jump, and hoists himself over the rail. He embraces Morgan, claws, tail, and shell. "Congratulations, man," Morgan says.

"Wait!" I shout, pushing through the small crowd. "We need a picture of this."



The White Lobsters, from Maine and Memphis, two students -- one an athlete and one a supporter -- who never expected the random, wonderful, hilarious ramifications that a nickname and a crustacean costume would have on their lives.

"Well, Morgan," Jeff asks, gazing at the court out of his ninja eye-slits after Bryant has jumped back down, "did that make it worth it?"


Morgan looks straight ahead, smiling.


"It was always worth it."




(Happy college basketball season, friends!)

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