Full disclosure: I’m not much of a basketball fan. Truth be told, I piece together the rules of the game as I watch, and sometimes it feels like I’m learning another language. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the jargon: “in the paint,” “field-goals” and “from downtown” are irresistible phrases, but I haven’t mastered all their meanings. What I can appreciate, just as much as anyone else, is the power of a communal passion that brings together thousands of people from across the country, to dress in the same colors, to shout as one and jump to their feet in unison. That’s a sight to behold, and for an outsider like me, it can be even more interesting than the basketball.
We know by now that Xavier lost to Baylor Friday night in Atlanta. The Muskies got off to a slow start, even I could see that, and a second-half rally fell short. Whatever the reasons behind the loss, it wasn’t lack of crowd support. The stands of the Georgia Dome were full of white and blue. Cheeks were painted, rally towels were swung and rhythmic chants of “Let’s Go X!” and “De-fense, de-fense” rang out, along with the occasional, “You’re HORRIBLE, ref!”
It would be a strange display of humanity indeed were someone to drop in from another planet and observe. There is a social organization at its root, a proclamation of identity, an assertion of self and community. A primordial tribalism, you might say, although Jim Alerding ’67, would protest the connotation. “It’s probably tribal, but we’re open,” he tells me at an alumni reception before Friday night’s game. “Anyone who has the same passion can join the tribe.”
Alerding knows a thing or two about being a fan. He’s followed Xavier basketball for the better part of half a century, and the success of each season is framed by that broad context. “I think it’s doable,” Alerding said about Friday’s game. “We have to play an exceptionally good game and Baylor will have to be off a bit.” The prediction was sound. Xavier’s game was less than exceptional, and Baylor’s wasn’t off a smidge. But win or lose, Alerding’s support of Xavier is unwavering.
“We never would’ve dreamed when we were in school that we would have such success,” he says. “We’ve suffered through the bad years and this is the payoff.”Alerding and his buddies endured losing season after losing season for the Musketeers, in the Schmidt Fieldhouse and Cincinnati Gardens. So the new success is an earned pleasure.
His friend, Dan O’Malia ’69, has stuck with the team, too. “Between 1968 and 1982, we lost 100 games more than we won, and some to D2 schools,” he says. “To watch the thing climb has just been incredible.” O’Malia would know. He’s been to every Xavier NCAA playoff game–with one exception when he was in eighth grade–and he can tell you the score of each of them, too. Friday (70-75) was his 45th playoff game.
Alerding, O’Malia and about 30 others are members of the Lew Hirt Society, a 26-year old club of extreme fans who live at least 100 miles from the D’Artagnan statue at the Cintas Center, and thus travel great distances to attend games at home and on the road. They are run by a committee, Alerding says, although no one knows the leaders. They don’t often accept new members, and promoting yourself will only hurt your chances of joining. They do have something of a mission statement, though. Alerding paraphrases: “We have fun. We act like we’re kids. But our primary focus is about Xavier basketball and being a good fan.”
Alerding was surrounded by good fans at the pre-game reception, many of whom had traveled great distances to support their team. Among them was Jon Kelly, lugging a giant red bag into the room behind Xavier’s pep band and cheerleaders. Inside the bag was Kelly’s alter ego, D’Artagnan, the Musketeer mascot of Xavier basketball. A lanky senior in track pants and sneakers, Kelly is as warm and upbeat in person as he is in costume. Staying peppy for the whole game isn’t easy, he says, but it’s important. “When we’re down, I’m sweating buckets out there and I’m tired,” he says. “But you gotta keep the fans in it.”
Equally aware of his role is Matthew Westgate, director of Xavier’s pep band. At the reception he’s wearing a blue and white wig that he picked up in Atlanta. His students have been practicing just as long as the basketball team has and they’re ready to put on a memorable show. “This is what they wait for all year,” Westgate says. “This is our Sweet 16, too.” It’s great to see Xavier in the national spotlight, he adds. Indeed, the exposure produces measurable results for Xavier.
Back at his table, with his group of traveling fans, Alerding crosses his arms and smiles. The band is playing “Sweet Caroline” and a glance at his Xavier wristwatch tells him it’s almost game time. “We’re just fanatic sports fans,” he tells me. “We have been forever.” There’s a hint of wistfulness in his voice as he recalls the early days of his love affair with Xavier basketball, which began when he was a student. “It was a great time, and a great education,” he says. “I have nothing bad to say about it, except it ended a little too soon. It would’ve been fun to stay a little longer.”
Win or lose, Xavier fans like Alerding aren’t going anywhere. He’s supported the team for almost 50 years now, and long ago it became part of his identity. How many more Alerdings were in the crowd Friday night, dressed in blue and white, swirling towels and shouting toward the court as if the volume of their voices would carry their team to victory? Every seat in the Georgia Dome was occupied by an individual Friday night, but for 40 minutes, they saw, moved and spoke as one–the Xavier tribe. They’ll be back again next year for another season and, happily for basketball novices like me, new members are always welcome.