Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Taylor U's sounds of silence ... and bedlam

In October, my tour of Indiana small colleges landed me at Taylor University in Upland for a football game between Taylor and the University of St. Francis, Joliet, Ill. When I made contact with the school to make arrangements for that visit to Taylor, interim sports information director Ted Bowers -- who also coaches the men's cross-country and men's and women's track teams -- asked me if I'd heard about Taylor's highly popular annual Silent Night men's basketball game.

I asked Bowers what the Silent Night game was about, and despite his very accurate description -- which instantly captured my intrigue and interest -- I had no idea of the event's spectacle until I was there to see it myself. I had thought my first experience two years ago at the renowned Monon Bell Classic football game -- an annual rivalry between Wabash College and DePauw University -- could not be topped as a small-college tradition spectacle.

But that changed on Dec. 7, the day of the 2012 Silent Night game at Taylor, a small Christian liberal arts school.

I feel bad for Taylor basketball players to say that the game that night, an opening-round contest of the 29th annual Ivanhoe Classic, played a distinct second fiddle to the people-watching and the unbridled, yet healthy, fun enjoyed by Taylor students. So let's address the secondary element quickly -- Taylor defeated the University of Akron-Wayne, 90-58, then came back Saturday to defeat Trinity International in the title game, 75-50. Trinity had defeated Indiana University-East in the second game of the Silent Night program, but the party in Odle Arena had ended before Trinity and IU-East took the floor Friday.

"Party" is as close to an accurate description of what Silent Night is about -- and what it means -- to the Taylor student body. Longtime men's basketball coach Paul Patterson introduced the idea in the early 1990s, seeking a fun way to promote school spirit while giving students an outlet for fun and healthy stress release on the Friday before first-semester final exams each year -- and to do it at Odle Arena, where they could direct that energy on cheering for the Taylor Trojans men's basketball team.

What has evolved since then is equal parts Halloween, party, music, dancing, hooting and hollering, and -- in the game's closing minutes -- the solemn, a cappella singing of the Christmas carol "Silent Night."

The event's tie-in with silence -- the "silent" portion of the event's name -- is that the packed arena knows that from the end of the singing of the national anthem that opens the game until the home team Trojans score their 10th point of the game, nobody in the crowd utters a word or sound.

So quiet does it get that the only things you hear in that huge hall in the opening minutes are the echoed squeaks of players' sneakers, whistles of referees officiating the game, and the player's rhythmic bouncing of the basketball. Until the 10th point is registered, when a Taylor player scores any points, the home crowd "cheers" by shaking open-palmed hands on raised arms. That sea of shaking arms and fingers is a spectacle in itself. Some fans also mime screams while shaking arms and hands -- they'll open mouths wide and tense the facial muscles, as if they were really screaming. As you observe this, it's as if you were watching television with the audio muted.

When that 10th point is scored, the arena mute button is reversed. Sound is immediate, a din of crowd roar. Think of what you would hear if a player were to sink an NCAA championship-winning buzzer-beating three-point heave from more than half court. And let me emphasize that there is no crescendo of noise; it's instantaneous to ball passing through net. The decibel level sustains at a constant high pitch for several minutes, changing only to increase -- if that could even be possible -- when Taylor scores another basket.

In each of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Silent Night games, the Trojans' Casey Coons of Indianapolis (right), a graduate of Franklin Central High School, had the fortune of scoring the racket-ratcheting 10th point, all on free throws. All eyes fixed on Coons in the opening moments of this year's game; you knew fans were looking for Coons to make it a career sweep of the honor.

Coons, a sharp-shooting guard, had knocked down a couple baskets early Friday as Taylor built an 8-0 lead. When Akron-Wayne didn't score on a possession 2 minutes and 30 seconds into the game, Coons brought the ball down the court and within a matter of only a few seconds, he had knocked down a 3-point shot.

The silent portion of the game was over, and in a huge, loud, deafening way.

The spectacle actually begins an hour before the 6 p.m. tip-off, when arena staff admits students into the venue. According to custom, students dress for Silent Night in all forms, shapes, patterns and colors of attire and costumes. Students know to not pass a certain line of taste, Bowers said. "We do not have any guidelines for costumes. We let the students' sensibility dictate that, though I'm sure we would step in if we felt anything was offensive," he said.

Santa and elves hats are popular for both men and women, and colorful pajamas are favored by the vast majority of women. But these are the tame ones. The male students easily outclass females for creativity and ingenuity. I saw guys dressed as a Twinkie snack, Star Wars characters, Abraham Lincoln, Super Mario and Luigi, Donald and Daisy Duck, a black-costumed Batman, a Roman centurion, a bumble bee, the Grim Reaper, male students dressed as Christmas presents, bananas, construction workers, long-bearded backwoodsmen (with triangular guitars in their hands, they might have passed for ZZ Top), white underwear briefs over red tights and men dressed as women. There were quite a few guys shirtless, and several of those sported one of the letters that spell Taylor Trojans -- or exclamation points -- painted on their chests in the school's colors of purple and gold.

Most diverse were the hats and headware -- straw, cowboy, Panama, sombreros, baseball caps (some with bill pointed forward, others backward), a football helmet, hard hats, squirrel heads, bandanas, head bands, at least one cheesehead (and being from Wisconsin, I appreciated that!), tiaras, stove pipes, Army helmets, a captain's hat (as an accessory, the guy wearing this chose a thick white fur draped around his shoulders), wigs ... You get the idea.

And if students missed dinner because they had to rush to the game, no problem. Several females in the front row brought along -- and ate from -- a couple of Pizza Hut pizza boxes before the game while they did their people-watching.

Halftime usually is a break from action, but on Silent Night, it proved to be the spectacle's second wind. Bowers said none of what I saw was planned, and what I saw was an on-court dance party consisting mostly of students. It started, though, with a very young man -- not more than 7 or 8 -- dancing alone to the music being piped through the P.A. system. Gradually, students joined the boy on the floor, at first keeping their distance to let the boy have his 15 minutes of fame. When the dancers finally converged, stage two of the dance party began. With music still pumping through the arena, two students were passed around the on-floor mass. One of them, a guy dressed as a Hostess Twinkie, was hoisted up and down at least a half-dozen times (see photo leading off this post), each time safely caught by the students below him.

In the second half, as the game became an obvious runaway by the Trojans, students entertained themselves with cheers. One version was a call-and-response exchange: Male fans at the west end directed calls to residents of various dormitories sprinkled throughout the crowd, pointing to the section in the crowd that was the object of their call on their last syllable. The recipients returned the cheer.

Later, a bearded student dressed in a blue-pattern one-piece muscle outfit and standing along the student section sideline started a lengthy spelling cheer -- I couldn't make out what was being spelled -- but the crowd behind him quickly joined in and played along.

Finally, with less than 4 minutes to play, the last of the Silent Night traditions played out. Students locked arms, and swaying back and forth, sang the opening stanza of "Silent Night" not once, but twice. I grabbed a couple still pictures before I switched to the camera's video feature and recorded it the rest of the way. I had no tripod, and I know now I did too much panning, but ... you can view the "Silent Night" singing video clip at my SmugMug site.

Oh yes, there was that basketball game. I'll present some of the game pictures in the next post. In the meantime, if you'd like to peruse the full gallery of images from the people-spectacle portion of Silent Night, those pictures are also at my SmugMug site.

The photos appearing below are a representation of what you'll find in that SmugMug gallery. I begin with quite a few photos taken before the game started -- the assortment of costumes and students enjoying the moment.

Above and below: Two young boys camped out in a rare open-view area behind chairs that were part of the Akron-Wayne bench. The Warriors dressed only nine players, so there were some empty chairs on the bench. 

Above and below: Before Taylor scored its 10th point, fans would "cheer" points scored by the home team by shaking open-palmed hands on raised arms. Anyone you see in these two pictures with mouths wide open were miming their screams; not a sound was heard.

Above: Taylor's Casey Coons (15) brings the ball down the court on the possession in which, 10 to 15 seconds later, he would sink a 3-point basket from the left corner (your right) to push the Trojans' point total past the 10-point silence threshold. That's when the silence ended ... and the sustained crowd roar,  beginning with the photo below, began. 

Above and next three below: Microcosm looks at the spectators' deafening celebration following Casey Coons' 3-pointer that gave Taylor an 11-0 lead over Akron-Wayne.

Above: Pulling back on the zoom, and following the crowd enjoy its celebratory moment. After the photo below, the remaining full-crowd shots reflect a pan, from left to right, of the student section in the early moments after Coons' shot. 

Above: I would think Taylor staff would have prepped Akron-Wayne coaches to expect this extraordinary spectacle, but it's possible the visitors couldn't have imagined the magnitude of the situation. The Warriors Kimyata Cooper (22) seems to have an expression of disbelief about the noise and response behind him. 

Above and next several below: The halftime impromptu dance party began with some moves shown by the youngster in the white T-shirt and denim pants in the bottom right corner above. Students inched onto the court to dance, but kept their distance early on to give the boy his moment in the spotlight. They eventually did converge, and the on-court scene began one. But the show wasn't over yet ... It continued when students hoisted two of their own above the crowd, one of whom -- a male dressed in a Twinkies costume -- they hoisted up and down several times, safely catching him each time. The Twinkies guy appears at the top of the first photo below, followed by some zoomed closeups. 

Above: While the Twinkies guy continues to get hoisted in the background, a second student -- bare-chested in red shorts closer to the foreground -- is lifted up as well. I don't recall seeing him hoisted into the air. 

Above: This robe-clad students busted his moves during the halftime dance party. A sequence of 11 shots of this guy doing his thing can be seen in the gallery at my SmugMug site. The sequence starts on Page 24 and carries over to Page 25 of the gallery.

Above and next three below: Akron-Wayne free-throw shooters had these students to contend with in the background as they tried to concentrate on their shots. There was Abe Lincoln -- one of my favorite shots of the night -- looming over the players lined up along the paint; a mini "dancing Harry" (a possibly obscure 1970s side show at New York Knicks games at Madison Square Garden) leading the charges; and the Grim Reaper, standing front and center to complicate the mission of Akron-Wayne's Marzell Brooks. 

With only a few minutes left on the clock in the game, the crowd locked arms and broke into a spontaneous a cappella singing of "Silent Night." After taking this still picture, I switched to my camera's video-capture feature and recorded the clip you can find at my SmugMug site. It's a rough clip -- choppy and panning faster than I should have, but it does better represent the actual moment.

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