The Cameron Crazies at Duke taunt Michigan guard Caris LeVert as he waits to inbound the ball in December. Duke went on to a 79-69 win. (Grant Halverson / Getty Images)
East Lansing — Denzel Valentine has heard it all. Whether it be in an opposing arena or on his smart phone, the Michigan State sophomore has been spared little in his less than two years as a college basketball player.
“It can be a gift and a curse,” he said on Tuesday. “They love you when you’re hot and they hate you when you have a bad game.”
“They,” of course, are the fans. And in the wake of the three-game suspension of Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart that stemmed from him shoving a fan at Texas Tech over the weekend, the relationship between fan and player has come into sharper focus.
Late in Texas Tech’s victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday, Smart fell into the first row of stands behind the basket. He turned and shoved a fan, who later admitted saying something to the player — though what he said is apparently still a point of contention.
Around the Big Ten, the incident had coaches and players re-examining how they handle the abuse they get — both on the road and in their own building.
“I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, “and I’m shocked that this is the first time something like this has happened.
“In basketball, the fans are right on top of you. For a player to go after a guy … based on what I’ve heard, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more.”
Northwestern’s first-year coach, Chris Collins, knows all about hostile environments. He played at one of the most hostile during his four-year career at Duke. And a trip through the Atlantic Coast Conference was no picnic.
He’s trying to take that experience as a player and apply it to his team now.
“We were in a lot of hostile environments and we would always talk to our players about, ‘No matter what is said, no matter what is done, you have to walk away,’ ” Collins said. “A lot of times, the line is crossed. Things are said about your family, things are said about you, and your initial instinct is to want to (act on) fighting words. When you’re in this position and the limelight the way these athletes are, you’ve got to know that’s part of it.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean agreed, saying there is a fine line between creating a great atmosphere and going too far.
However, he emphasizes to his players where their emotion needs to be directed.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to keep trying to remind people that the fight is within the lines,” he said. “The fight is within the 94 feet. The fight is within the football field, the baseball diamond, whatever it is. You keep the fight in there, you keep your edge in there and you try to treat the rest of it just as noise that you work through.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t think fans are any more personal in their attacks than they were, say, 15 years ago. The difference to him is that it is no longer limited to the arena.
For the past several years, Twitter and rest of social media has drawn his ire and he’s convinced it plays a much bigger role in how kids deal with pressure these days.
“We used to be able to go to a game and have a bad game and leave the game and you never heard about it because nobody read what you guys wrote,” Izzo said. “Students don’t and they don’t watch local TV. They are too busy tweeting people.
“I’ve been saying this for two years and I think you’re starting to see some of the things that are happening. You think fans are any different than they were five years ago? I don’t. I mean, I’ve been called an angry midget since I went to Ann Arbor, you know? And I’m sure they’ve been called stuff since they’ve come here. I’m sure we got on the Fab Five when they went here. That hasn’t changed that much. It’s, there’s so much pressure on these kids and they’re hearing it just around the clock, around the clock, around the clock.
“I just feel sorry for these guys. I’m the hardest on them, and I’ll tell anybody in this room I’m as hard on them as anybody out there. And I love those guys to death, and I mean even players from other teams. I watched that Marcus Smart thing, and I felt bad for him. Because I happen to know him a little bit and I happen to know the kind of guy he is.”
Izzo hasn’t forced his players to stop reading Twitter, joking on Monday that would be like asking them not to breathe. He even added that today’s phones are like a drug, saying there should be “phone tests.”
But, at least for some coaches and programs, it’s not a laughing matter.
Collins agreed with Izzo and talked about the “constant accessibility” fans have through various social media.
“Fans can get to players in more ways than just showing up at games,” he said. “I think people feel they have a bigger freedom of speech to talk to the players because they can do it in more forums and I think that’s made it more dangerous.”
Several Spartans have heeded Izzo’s advice and have at least taken a Twitter break, including Valentine, Gary Harris, Matt Costello and Branden Dawson.
Costello said, “90 percent of what is on there is waste,” and added it has helped him greatly since deleting the app from his phone.
Harris said when he was in high school he would fire back at some fans, but as he has matured he realized it did him no good.
“It’s just another outside distraction and I need to focus on basketball and school,” he said. “All they want is a response anyway. Just let them talk, they end up looking stupid, anyways.”
Izzo’s message is starting to get across to his players, and as he stated Tuesday, he doesn’t care if it rings hollow to others or is used against him in recruiting.
“I’m sticking up for the players,” he said. “I really don’t care anymore because I’ve had guys in my office in tears. Grown men, according to ‘birthdates.’ I’ll leave a meeting with a player and you know where I go? Call my daughter, I go over to the dorm, I drive her around campus for an hour and tell her, ‘Listen, this is what can happen. Stay off that thing as much as you can if you’re using it.’ ”