I am going to tell you a story about the worst sports fan I know.
I have season tickets to Georgia men's basketball here in Athens. I grew up near Champaign and the University of Illinois, where I went to college, and Illinois is undeniably a basketball school. We care about the football team, and everybody's excited about Lovie Smith, but some schools are football schools and some schools are basketball schools, and Illinois is a basketball school. When I was growing up -- before the recent downturn -- Illini basketball tickets were nearly impossible to come by: They were essentially the hottest social event in Central Illinois. (So, you know: Pretty hot!) You can walk into any particular football game essentially for free, but basketball, you'd be waitlisted for years if you wanted season tickets.
When I moved to Athens in the summer of 2013, I quickly discovered the University of Georgia was the exact opposite. For football season tickets, I would have needed to put my name on the waitlist 30 years ago for the chance to buy tickets 25 years from now, but my new home was within a 15-minute walk from Stegeman Coliseum. So I immediately signed up for season tickets. To procure season tickets for most major college teams, you have to make a donation (essentially a personal seat license, except it's tax deductible and everyone pretends it's a charitable contribution) for each seat. I gave slightly above the minimum, thinking it'd start me out in the upper level and after 10 years or so, I could sneak closer to one of the bottom 10 rows. When my tickets came and I went to my seats for the first game, I was stunned: They were literally on the floor. They're not the Jack Nicholson seats … but they're the Dyan Cannon ones.
Suffice it to say: They care a little less about basketball in Athens than football. But that's fine: More for me! I'll never give up those seats as long as I live here. So anytime you see a Georgia game on television, or you ever visit Stegeman in person, you'll find me (and, depending on whether or not the game starts past their bedtime, my two sons) down there in the front row of Section Q, jumping up and down and cheering the 'Dawgs.
When you're a season ticket holder and attend (nearly) every game, you of course become friends with everyone in your section, your fellow diehards who show up whether the team is playing well or struggling, who will trudge out regardless of the opponent, even if it's Norfolk State on a random Saturday afternoon in January. My fellow Georgia fans and I have all become friends: We cheer together and grouse together and high five and question play calling and talk about recruiting and all the things you do when you're a college basketball fan. They also note how big the boys are getting, every time they see them. And we notice everyone around us, the people who show up every game, what they're like, who their favorite players are, what they react most strongly to. You get to know people.
And one of these people is … this one guy. You know this guy. He doesn't attend games to cheer on his team. He attends games to get out his own personal aggression. He's at every game, usually with his (much quieter) family, and all he does, the whole game, is scream at the refs and Georgia's opponents. He never sits down, he's never relaxed and he's never in sync with the rest of the crowd. He yells the most hackneyed lines at the refs -- I swear, he actually used the "you need your eyes checked!" line twice a few weeks ago -- he finds whatever physically different aspect of an opposing player he can find (hair, height, weight, eyewear, difficult-to-pronounce-maybe-foreign last name) and repeats it 1,000 times throughout the game and is usually this close to saying something a little bit racist. He's loud and obnoxious and generally insufferable, particularly because no one else in his section -- which is mostly older fans with families; the students sit on the opposite side of the court -- ever joins in with him. Like all fans like this, of course, he thinks we're all on his side, cheering him on, while in reality we're looking away from him, wishing he'd stop and pretending he's not there. But he always is. We spend most of the year rolling our eyes at him.
So, this brings us to last Saturday. Last Saturday was the biggest game of the Georgia Bulldogs season, and, really, the biggest game of any SEC team's season: Kentucky was in town. The place was sold out, Dick Vitale was calling the game, Georgia needed a win to give it any NCAA Tournament hopes at all, it was on ESPN in prime time … it was all revved up to go. It was the sort of game that students line up at 6 a.m. to get into:
It's the game you have season tickets for in the first place.
So, the game gets going, and Stegeman is rocking, and Georgia gets out to an early lead, and then something terrible happens: Yante Maten, the Bulldogs' best player, crumbles under the basket, holding his knee. He limps off the court, but he wouldn't return: The gym, so deafening just seconds earlier, was dead silent.
But back came the Dawgs! Led by senior J.J. Frazier playing the game of his life, and Mike Edwards doing this out of nowhere:
Take another look at Mike Edwards' high-flying dunk from last night �� pic.twitter.com/841pSrhFUp- Georgia Basketball (@UGABasketball) November 18, 2016
Georgia stayed in the game, and even led for long stretches, against a team of future NBA stars. The great thing about Kentucky is that opposing crowds all rally for Kentucky games like this one, and it was the best atmosphere at Stegeman since the last time Kentucky was there, two years ago, when the unbeaten Wildcats barely escaped with a victory. We were all just going nuts. It was a blast.
It was about a third of the way through the first half when we realized something: For as loud as the building was, it was noticeably quiet in our obnoxious fan's row. In fact, we couldn't even see him.
Then we realized why we didn't see him: Sitting where he and his family usually sits were … three Kentucky Wildcats fans. The whole section was red and black, except for those three fans, all in their Kentucky blue, yelling against the tide, cheering on the 'Cats. They were nice enough folks: Kentucky fans might be lunatics online, but I've always found them plenty friendly in person. But there they were, in our screamer's seats.
He had sold his tickets to Kentucky fans.
Now, I understand that it's a bit of a wintry economic climate out there, and far be it from me to begrudge someone getting a little extra scratch where they can. They're your tickets: Do whatever you want with them. He certainly wasn't the only guy who sold his tickets to Kentucky fans, though they didn't take the place over like Georgia football does at Georgia Tech games or anything.
But then, if you are going to do that, if you are going to sell your tickets to the biggest game of the year, the one that you have season tickets for in the first place, the one in which all your fellow fans are showing up to cheer their lungs out … then you don't get to spend the rest of the season screaming nonsense just to get noticed and deal with your own issues, to be one of those fans who makes it all about you rather than the game that's going on. You don't get to try to convince us you are the only fan mad enough to tell the refs really what's what. Because we do not believe you. Because when push came to shove, he sold the tickets. You can sell your tickets. That's fine. But then please sit down for the rest of the games. We're all trying to watch.
Georgia, as has been its habit all season, fell just short: Frazier played his heart out, but Kentucky held on. It's a shame. It would have been amazing to tell our friend we were there when Georgia pulled off the upset of Kentucky. I have no doubt that our screamer friend, had that happened, would have told everybody the same thing: That he was there too. We all would have known better. We'll always know better now.