Stud senior guard Marque Perry and his St. Louis University teammates are clinging to a narrow 39-36 second-half lead over the favored DePaul Blue Demons, but up in the stands at Savvis Center, the crowd remains indifferent to the on-court excitement.
At midcourt, Perry is pressuring DePaul's Delonte Holland when suddenly a forceful chant erupts from a wig-and-jersey-clad group of fanatics just behind the bucket.
When God made the river
When God made the birds
When God made DePaul
He made a bunch of nerds!
Holland attempts to dribble to his right, but the muscular, cat-quick Perry anticipates the move, and the two players fall to the floor. The referee whistles a foul on Holland, who has obviously borne the brunt of the collision and remains on the floor, clutching his wrist and writhing in pain as team trainers rush out and hover over him.
This is the sort of moment that typically brings a hush, followed by cursory applause from even the most mean-spirited of college-hoop crowds. But behind the basket, alongside the Billiken pep band, SLU freshman Dave Gallaher is not in the mood to feel Holland's pain.
"Get up, you pussy!" Gallaher yells. "You're faking!"
Gallaher's off-color venom elicits both shock and laughter from his Blue Crew mates, a coed group of 60 or so raucous SLU students whose primary goal is to harangue the Bills' opponents during every home game (and some on the road). Yet the moment of profanity fails to provoke so much as a reprimand from a Savvis Center usher named Juanita. She's apparently been intimidated to the point of total deference. Her kid-glove treatment doesn't surprise freshman Zach Crowder, a Crewmate -- and already a legend in the group -- who'd complained earlier and managed to get some visiting DePaul students ejected from an adjacent section shortly before tip-off.
"That usher's worthless," says Crowder, who, with his headband, wild mane and five-day stubble, resembles Phish drummer Jon Fishman. "She's fighting a losing battle."
Louisville upset aside, losing has been an all-too-common refrain for the 10-12 Billikens (as of press time; 4-7 in Conference USA) this year. But despite the on-court carnage and empty seats, the Blue Crew's ranks have swelled to unprecedented numbers, thanks in no small part to the leadership of senior Peter Brokish, a biology major who dusted off the Blue Crew concept some three years ago.
"When Peter -- he's from Champaign [Illinois] -- came to us, he wanted to do what the Orange Crush did at Illinois," says SLU assistant athletic director John Garrison, referring to the Illini student cheering section. "[The Blue Crew] had gone away for five years or so. He was the one student who was instrumental in getting it back going again."
Brokish recalls that "school spirit was just horrible" when he decided to reinvigorate the Blue Crew, which has been around for some fifteen years with on-again, off-again popularity. He has built up the off-kilter pep squad through word of mouth and a steady leaflet campaign that targets underclassmen, thus assuring the proper amount of seeding for the Crew to thrive long after he graduates. His recruiting strategy (take note, Brad Soderberg) has worked -- about 45 of the Crew's 63 members are freshmen or sophomores.
The Crew's funding comes from donations -- Johnny John's provides the pregame sandwiches -- cash sponsorships, a cut of the SLU student-activity fee and nominal membership dues (which include the $25 cost for a student season ticket). Hence, with its biggest financial backer the sport-drink maker Powerade, the Blue Crew exists as a sort of public-private entity, professing allegiance to SLU in its mission statement and code of ethics while often winking at those standards when the floor action demands it. But don't think that the Blue Crew is rife with Greek-system "fratitude." It's not. Rather, the Crew could be pigeonholed as a bunch of cool artsy kids who like to tie a bag on eight days a week.
"We're gonna be representing SLU," says Brokish, coiffed and newly peroxided, maxin' and relaxin' at his Laclede Avenue apartment, "so let's cut down on the swearing. But if there's a bad call, I'm gonna be in the ref's face."
"We just don't drop F-bombs all the time," says Crowder, trying to explain the group's self-policing profanity standards.
So is calling an injured opponent a pussy considered a bit overboard?
"That's not as harsh," says Crowder.
Although Garrison might take issue with the expletives, he acknowledges that the school grants the Crew considerable leeway, provided it doesn't get complaints from Billiken fans or Savvis Center staff.
"We want them to be as rowdy as they can without offending anyone," says Garrison by phone shortly before the Billikens' shocking home-court upset of number-two-ranked Louisville. "Those kids are smart. They know when to [swear], I guess. If there's ever a time that we hear anything that's too off-color, they know we'll go to them and ask 'em to cut it out. I've never heard one single complaint about anything the Blue Crew has done."
Had Garrison been sitting in the Blue Crew section at the Cincy game on January 15, he would have been proud. Still rowdy but abstaining from the mildly profane one-upmanship that permeated the DePaul game several weeks later, the Crew stayed with pro-Billiken chants and dead-on zingers drawn from the "scouting reports" -- online searches that turn up a treasure trove of information about opposition players -- prepared by Amy Rosetta, the group's vice president of spirit, and band member Frank Ladd. Rosetta's Google search -- employing the terms "Cincinnati men's basketball" and "trouble" -- offered a slew of bullet points on the Bearcats, such as senior forward Eugene Land's conviction for shoplifting $256 worth of underwear from a department store.
The Blue Crew and the Billiken band enjoy a vocal synergy behind the hoop, though Crowder jokes that he sometimes has "no idea what the band is talking about." The SLU band has long dutifully served a secondary purpose as hecklemeisters extraordinaire, but the two groups' verbal objectives are slightly different. Ladd, for example, says he urges band members not to use the word "suck" and to refrain from making tasteless jokes about Cincy coach Bob Huggins' off-season heart attack. The Blue Crew has no such compunctions. Anything is fair game.
"Sit down, Huggins! You suck!" yelled a Blue Crew member early in the game. "You might die!"
"Hey, Eugene!" another Blue Crew shouted at the Bearcats' Land as he tried to post up Billiken forward Chris Sloan. "Where's the nearest Dillard's?"
Opposing players weren't the only fodder for Blue Crew missives. After a seven-year-old girl made a prizewinning shot from inside the key at halftime, Crew members razzed her for winning a boy's dirt bike. Similarly, after SLU's buttery dance team, the Baby Blues, completed a somewhat perplexing halftime performance to songs containing the word "black," the Blue Crew dubbed them "the SLU tap-dancing team" for their faux chimney-sweep getups and stylistic convulsions. And perhaps the favorite administrative target of Blue Crew barbs was pretty-boy promotional staffer Ryan Wetzel (a.k.a. "the one-shirt wonder"), who commanded sarcastic catcalls of "GQ!" and "You're so hot!" from Crew and band members alike.
Although the Crew's attitude toward the SLU hoop squad is predominantly positive, certain players -- namely, hopelessly uncoordinated senior center Kenny Brown and turnover-prone freshman guard Anthony Drejaj -- consistently draw the Crew's verbal ire.
"When Kenny misses his ninth free throw in a row, we're gonna let him hear about it," says freshman Gene Mussel, notorious for "sleep-pissing" all over Crowder's backpack after a long night of drinking at an acquaintance's house in Tucson, where the visiting Bills were drubbed earlier in the year by the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats.
Crowder and Mussel belong to a small band of first-year guerrillas -- six freshmen Brokish sends to select road games -- who shine the brightest in victory or defeat, home or away, something not lost on Billiken stalwarts Sloan and Perry.
"It's nice to have someone on your side on the road," says Sloan, a junior forward from St. Charles. "Other schools maybe have more numbers than we do, but the Blue Crew makes just as much noise."
"Man, I love 'em," says Perry, sure to be the only Billiken to have a shot at all-conference honors come year's end. "I wear a headband to the game -- and I saw one of 'em with my jersey and a headband on. It makes us feel better to have our student fans out supporting us in cold weather. One day I went over and got my picture taken with them to let 'em know I appreciate them."
Even SLU's opponents don't seem to mind the Blue Crew's outbursts.
"When I came out for the second half, they just kept calling my name," says DePaul guard Marlon London, "so I waved to them. It's funny -- it means they're paying attention."
If anything, says Perry, the Blue Crew is the noisiest, ballsiest, funniest and most intelligent group of fans at Savvis Center -- something the Bills could use a lot more of in future years.
"I know they always say things to the opposite team to try and throw 'em off," says Perry. "That's what we need. That's what I love the Blue Crew for. I try not to pay attention, 'cause I know I'd laugh at some of the things they say. They come up with some good lines. The opposing team is always, like, 'Where did they come up with that information?'"