Officials haven't put up a chain-link fence around EnergySolutions Arena with "Beware: Rabid Utah Jazz fans" signs posted on it yet. They aren't requiring rabies shots and muzzles for people attending games, either.
But some members of the out-of-town media and Utah opponents might think that would be a good start for controlling foaming-at-the-mouth Jazz fans.
When describing Utah's crowd, Houston Chronicle columnist Fran Blinebury recently wrote that the "often-maniacal following of the Jazz can make visiting teams feel like they have just walked in on feeding time at the zoo."
Unlike at the zoo, though, the visitors apparently feel like they're the main course.
Though examples weren't cited, Blinebury also pointed out that opponents have accused Jazz fans of going too far "from taunting to personal slurs. Even racial ones."
"Oh yeah, they say things that you don't ever hear anywhere else ... ," Houston's Dikembe Mutombo told the Chronicle. "You can hear anything in this place. You cannot be thin-skinned."
He has since apologized, but ESPN reporter Ric Bucher took shots at the Beehive State's dominant religion, Jazz crowds and the area's nightlife (or lack thereof), saying on air: "Let's be honest. They're Mormon. And they're in Salt Lake. And there's nothing else to do there. You've got to smile and be happy all the time. This might be the one opportunity for fans to get vicious."
The Jazz will be counting on their "vicious" fans regardless of smiling habits or religious affiliation to give them a Game 6 boost tonight at 8:30 when they try to wrap up this first-round playoff series against the Rockets.
"They got our back, no matter what," said Jazz center Mehmet Okur.
Likewise, the Jazz players have their vocal fans' backs. Though others have been critical of various antics and catcalls, the Jazz are big fans of their boisterous fans who have played a role in their 38-5 home record during the regular season and playoffs.
"It's going to be a great crowd like they always are," said Jazz point guard Deron Williams. "We definitely feed off the crowd. The crowd is a big reason for our success."
"We've got great fans. They come go crazy for us. Other times, they do a good job of heckling the opposing team and getting them a little off their game," said Jazz forward Carlos Boozer. "But for us, we bring our energy, and that gets our crowd going, and they return the favor by giving it to us in the fourth quarter."
From his perspective, which is usually on the bench and within earshot of many hecklers, Jazz backup C.J. Miles doesn't think Utah fans go over the top. Miles said NBA players hear "crazy stuff in the stands" to mess with their minds from people making fun of haircuts to tattoos but he hasn't heard racist remarks that some Jazz fans have been accused of spewing.
"They can get rowdy. I think we've got one of the best crowds if not the best crowd in the league," Miles said. "I've never heard anybody say anything (racist) like that either, so I don't know. At the same time, I wouldn't think our fans are like that."
Jazz forward Matt Harpring hasn't noticed it in Salt Lake City, either. He has witnessed it elsewhere, though.
"A lot of times the writers and media don't hear the things that are said to us as we're walking off the court or onto the court. I don't think any of us make a big deal about it," Harpring said. "It's basketball. It's entertainment. I like it when fans get rowdy and they get crazy. I think they have a right to say whatever they want. They paid for the ticket."
Referee Bob Delaney begs to differ. He made certain Jazz superfan Dr. Richard Anderson, the megaphone man who goes bonkers behind the basket, received a "written warning card" for remarks he made in Game 3. Still, Anderson got high-fived by Utah's Andrei Kirilenko while being escorted out of the arena.
Creative fans add to the ambiance. Some had signs saying "Caution: Vicious Mormon Fan" and "The Second-Round Virgin" with Tracy McGrady's photo on it. Another guy wore a diaper and a McGrady jersey. Because of how involved the loud-and-proud Jazz fans are booing, yelling, cheering, smart-alecking or slapping balloon noisemakers together like crazy opponents agree EnergySolutions Arena is a challenging venue. Because the arena was built like an amplifier, it can also be rough on their eardrums.
Houston's Shane Battier told the Chronicle it is "the toughest place to play in the league. Definitely." McGrady said the ESA is "a type of environment that just says basketball." But since the Rockets account for two of the Jazz's five home losses, McGrady said they aren't intimidated by Utah fans.
"They can't come out of the stands and play. So we're not bothered by that," McGrady said. "We just come out here and play our game."
Opponents whose ears are thin-skinned just might want to come play their games with earplugs.
Unlike some, Williams doesn't believe Jazz fans have too much bite with their bark."They're not vicious to me," he said with a smile.
Contributing: Tim Buckley E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]