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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.
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.
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