Muzzling the Mouth That Roars
YOU’VE GOT A BUNCH OF WIMPS ON this team!” screams a familiar voice. “You’re a bunch of sissies! A bunch of SISSIES!” It’s a Saturday night at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where the hometown Washington Bullets and the visiting Golden State Warriors are going at it on court, and, first row directly behind the visitors’ bench, Robin Ficker, the National Basketball Association’s Most Obnoxious Fan, is in full throat.
Ficker, 48, considers himself the sports fan nonpareil—he has been going to Bullets games for 38 years and has had a season ticket since 1984-85—but Bullets opponents consider him the Heckler from Hell. Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls once threw a basketball at him. Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons tossed a shoe. Big deal, shrugs Ficker. “These guys are used to being treated as demigods,” he says. “If you poke a little fun at them, they assume it’s a mortal sin.” Last year his verbal harassment proved so disruptive during time-outs that the Philadelphia 76ers held a large banner between Ficker and their bench.
This year Ficker may meet his muzzier. Under a new NBA fan-conduct rule—prompted, according to Ficker, by his own behavior—the attorney stands to have his two season tickets, worth $4,100, revoked if his verbal taunts disrupt a game by distracting players or make it impossible for team members to communicate during a time-out. In November officials at a Bullets-Celtics game, in which he had unceasingly ragged Larry Bird as “a crybaby” unworthy of his selection to the U.S. Olympic team, issued him a stern warning. One more such warning and Ficker is out for the season.
The loud one insists he should not be faulted just for making a lot of noise. “I controlled this from the very beginning by not swearing or saying anything libelous,” he says. But his contention that the regulation violates his right of free speech gets no support from the American Civil Liberties Union. Says Arthur Spitzer of the Washington, D.C., chapter: “The First Amendment says that the government cannot censor your speech,” Spitzer says. “It doesn’t say that your mother can’t or the NBA can’t.
Obnoxiousness is a trait Ficker seems to have worked long and hard to perfect. The son of a Library of Congress researcher and a nurse, he was expelled from West Point in 1963 for having too many demerits, most of them for speaking abusively to hospital personnel while being treated for a broken leg. It was there, however, where Ficker developed his “command voice.”
After completing his undergraduate studies at the Case Institute of Technology in 1965, and earning a law degree from the University of Baltimore five years later, Ficker set out to make his voice heard in the world of politics. In the years since, while working as a defense attorney, he has campaigned unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress from Maryland four times—once as a Democrat, once as an independent and twice as a Republican.
Ficker the fan has not been getting many votes either. Charles Barkley of the 76ers is one of the few NBA players who takes the heckler’s courtside manner in stride. “I think he’s funny,” said Barkley, who showed his appreciation after a recent Bullets loss by giving Ficker the game ball. But Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone curses him, and the Warriors have doused him with Gatorade. T.R. Dunn, assistant coach of the Charlotte Hornets, says Ficker “hits nerves because he’s real knowledgeable about the players, their games, their lives, their weaknesses.”
Even the Ficker family has begun to distance itself from his antics. His wife, Annette, 52, a former nun who is now a pediatrician, seems too embarrassed to attend Bullets games with her husband. Sons Robby, 13, and Flynn, 9, are both quiet and well-mannered and express indifference to their father’s behavior. But Desiree, 14, a high school middle-distance runner, says she knows how all those NBA players feel being at the center of Ficker’s vocal focus. “I get the same thing,” says Desiree, whose father roots for her when she competes. “Dad comes to meets cheering, ‘DEZZZZ! DEZZZZ!’ And sometimes I just want to yell back, ‘CALM DOWN, DAD!’ ”
MARY ESSELMAN in Landover