THE SEED FOR this undercover operation was planted in 2008, at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, the night the Phillies clinched a trip to the World Series. I’d been warned before my visit to “be careful” there, and as my friends and I walked to our car after the game, dressed in Phillies red, I understood why. We weren’t drunk. We didn’t celebrate or taunt. None of that mattered, though, as men and women alike shoved us, threw trash, and shouted in our faces like drill sergeants at boot camp. We were one “Hey buddy, calm down” away from a group curb-stomping.
So much for the idea that Dodgers fans show up late, drink a chardonnay, high-five Larry King, then leave early to sit in traffic. That scene was worse than anything I’d witnessed in a lifetime of sports-watching on South Broad Street. It got me thinking about all the bad press that’s stuck to Philly’s fan base like toilet paper on your heel. A partial dirty-laundry list: throwing snowballs at Santa; throwing snowballs at Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson; throwing batteries at J.D. Drew; shooting off a flare gun at the Vet; booing McNabb at the draft; booing Kobe at the NBA All-Star Game; and, most recently, puking on a little girl at a Phillies game. From hacks like ESPN’s Michael Wilbon (who rarely misses a chance to take a shot at this city), to all the broadcasters who recycle the (largely erroneous) Santa yarn for lack of a more thoughtful—and factual—story line, Philadelphia’s national rep as a sports sewer persists. This past October, a Houston Chronicle article tried to put that city’s fans’ misdeeds in context: “Of course, there’s Philadelphia, where they booed Santa Claus and cheered when Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending injury.” Never mind that those tales are 45 and 14 years old, respectively. The message from the rest of the country is clear: We’re bad, but not like you animals.
This gets my hometown hackles up. Consider some of the vile misbehavior at stadiums and arenas across the nation in the past two years alone. That Houston Chronicle story was prompted by Texans fans who cheered when their struggling quarterback limped off the field after a sack. A visiting fan suffered a skull fracture and head trauma at an Orioles game in Baltimore. Back in Los Angeles, a San Francisco Giants fan was beaten into a coma and now requires around-the-clock care. Not to be outdone, a group of Giants hooligans fatally stabbed a Dodgers fan this past September.
Admittedly, I’m no angel. A Flyers usher once escorted me out of a game for expressing my disappointment via a four-letter word. And on the way into the old Giants Stadium for an Eagles playoff, dressed in green, I waved the New York rally towel I’d been given and then tore it in half, like a matador provoking a stadium full of drunken bulls. And there are scumbags among us, too: the guys who fatally beat a fellow Phillies fan in 2009, the thugs who stomped a military vet in a Rangers jersey after the Winter Classic two years ago, and the lowlifes who roughed up a Detroit Lions fan after the Snow Bowl last month.
But my theory is that Philadelphia is no different from anywhere else—a few Cro-Mags may spoil the fun, but they don’t represent most of us more than in any other city. So I ordered a bunch of gear and prepared to enter deep cover. The ground rules: I’d concoct a backstory detailing my rooting interest in case I needed to explain myself; I wouldn’t break character unless violence was imminent; and I’d bring a friend to each game as backup in case it hit the fan (and, if need be, to identify my body).
MY LEBRON JAMES SHIRT isn’t pissing anyone off. It’s a Wednesday night last March, and I’m up in the nosebleeds at a Sixers game against the Miami Heat. For this experiment, there will be no club boxes or suites, where courtesy could corrupt the results. Here, high above the court, are the salt-of-the-earth folks who’ve stuck with their team despite a losing record and a star player, Andrew Bynum, who missed an entire season with a bowling injury. If anyone asks why I’m cheering for the NBA champions and the boy-king who abandoned Cleveland, my story is that I grew up in the Delaware Valley but moved to Miami for work—car sales—and fell in love with the Heat, just because the Sixers reeked like month-old cod. My goal was to concoct the most annoying biography possible. This one feels like a winner. Too bad no one will hear it.
“King James!” I yell, jumping to my feet after LeBron finishes an alley-oop dunk. Nary a boo nor a four-letter word is uttered. Two Miami-clad older women in the row below cheer when James returns after a substitution. “The King is back!” one yells. None of this moves even the most vocal fans nearby—three teenagers with jerseys and arm sleeves. (One is wrapped in a Superman cape.) My cousin thought the Bynum shirt he’s wearing would anger more folks than my LeBron gear would. Even the Bynum shirt fell flat. The worst behavior we witness is a guy in a leather jacket who flips the bird to no one in particular after Miami scores once again, en route to a Sixers loss.
The lesson learned from my evening as a Heat fan: When the home team is as bad as the Sixers were last season, trash talk is in short supply. The joint was half empty, and roughly a quarter of those who showed up supported Miami. The occasional unpleasantries were directed at the guys in red, white and blue stinking it up on the court.