November 02, 2011
With growing impatience, they stood and waited.
Hundreds of blue-and-gold-clad John Brown University students craned their necks in anticipation of their team's first basket Tuesday night, rolls of toilet paper in one hand and cell phone cameras poised to capture the moment in the other.
When John Brown senior Andy Garcia put back a teammate's botched alley-oop attempt 75 seconds into the game to give his team a 2-0 lead, the NAIA school's revved-up sellout crowd responded by letting the Charmin fly from all corners of the gym. Toilet paper blanketed every inch of the court. Players from both sides sought cover. And the home team's Golden Eagle mascot did snow angels on the floor as though the flurry of two-ply was an actual blizzard.
"I'm from New York, and it was just like a big snowstorm back home," Garcia said afterward. "Once people threw the toilet paper, you saw nothing but white. It's very special to be the one to score the basket. I'm not going to forget about it. It was a good feeling."
The TP game is the most anticipated event of the year in Siloam Springs, Ark., and one of the premier traditions in all of college basketball. Fans clad in blue and gold jerseys, T-shirts and body paint annually unleash several thousand rolls of toilet paper once the Golden Eagles score their first basket of their home schedule, a celebration that results in what USA Today once aptly called "the best technical foul in sports."
Surrendering a pair of early free throws once a year doesn't bother John Brown coach Clark Sheehy because the event is so significant for his program and his team consistently has overcome the minor disadvantage. This year was no exception as the Golden Eagles fed off the emotion of the crowd that packed their 2,400-seat arena and stormed to a 101-58 victory over Hillsdale Freewill Baptist.
"This is my fifth year coaching at John Brown, and the tradition has gotten bigger and bigger each season," Sheehy said. "What our players look forward to and what I look forward to is a lot of energy and excitement from the fans. It's just a fun, fun night. I think it's one of the greatest traditions in college sports."
About the only folks who shouldn't enjoy the party-like atmosphere of the TP game are members of the opposing team, but even they often seem to appreciate the tradition. Hillsdale Freewill Baptist coach Eric Wright has volunteered to be John Brown's opponent in the TP game each of the past five seasons because his players relish being part of a historic tradition and getting the chance to delay the onslaught of toilet paper as long as possible.
"I guess we're the sacrificial lamb, but I don't mind it because it creates a tradition for us to be part of a game like that," Wright said. "I even use it as a recruiting tool. We play in a historic game. The kids will go look it up on YouTube and they're just like, 'wow.' They know what's coming."
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how or when the tradition of the TP game began because former coaches and administrators at John Brown each have different recollections. What they all agree on, however, is how the event's popularity has steadily grown in the roughly 30 years since John Brown students first began sneaking rolls of toilet paper into old Murray Sells Athletic Center for the school's home opener.
When John Sheehy, Clark's father, began his 18-year tenure as basketball coach at John Brown in 1989, school administrators showed far more interest in eliminating the TP game than in promoting it. They didn't appreciate that students annually broke into storage closets in every campus dorm and pilfered boxes of toilet paper rather than purchasing it at the store.
What prompted the school's shift in attitude was a conference administrators attended about 15 years ago at which organizers pointed out that students remember their alma mater's traditions long after they've forgotten much of what they learned in a classroom.
It dawned on John Brown administrators that the TP game was one of their most cherished traditions, so they went from barely tolerating it to fully endorsing it almost overnight. They had the school's student life department hand out rolls of toilet paper to fans at the entrance of the arena, set up recycling bins inside to collect it in afterward and create halftime games for prizes in which students had to sink a free throw or topple bowling pins with rolls of toilet paper.
"The biggest reason it's grown so much is that the administration embraced it and said, 'Let's make this a fun event for our students' as opposed to saying, 'Boy, we need to stop this,'" John Sheehy said. "At that point, it really took off and now it's one of the finest small college traditions that I know of."
In the combined 23 years John and Clark Sheehy have coached at John Brown, their teams have only lost one TP game and most of the victories have been one-sided. That's why Clark felt comfortable playing to the crowd by setting up a game-opening alley-oop for one of his seniors two years ago and attempting the same for senior Adrian Miller on Tuesday night.
Neither the elder nor the younger Sheehy have enjoyed much success trying to weasel their way out of the technical foul the Golden Eagles receive in the TP game, but John was stubborn enough to try early in his tenure.
Because he previously saw a Texas school escape with just a warning when its fans threw a few rolls of toilet paper onto the court, John Sheehy didn't like when a referee refused to show his team the same courtesy in a TP game against Northeastern State in 1989. As a result, he vowed revenge when he learned the same referee was working his team's game at Northeastern State the following season.
When the Golden Eagles scored their first basket of that game, Sheehy arranged for a pocket of John Brown fans to hurl rolls of toilet paper on the visiting team's floor. Sheehy suspected the referee would have to call a technical foul on Northeastern State since he'd done the same to John Brown the previous year.
"Their athletic director's in shock, their coach is white as a sheet and someone's yelling on their loud speakers that anyone who throws things on the floor will be escorted from the gym," John Sheehy recalled with a chuckle. "The official had us lined up for a free throw, but somebody told him that the stuff came from behind John Brown's bench. I didn't argue at that point. It was a practical joke on an exuberant referee."
Andy Garcia was not aware of any of the TP game's rich history when he transferred to John Brown from Carl Albert State College in Oklahoma in 2010. Only after he experienced the game for the first time last season did he realize how special it was.
Although the roaring standing-room-only crowd typically gives John Brown an emotional boost, the enthusiasm sometimes turns to tension if a few possessions go by without the Golden Eagles scoring their first bucket. That's one of the reasons Garcia was relieved not to delay the celebration even if his routine put-back wasn't the intended outcome of a play that was meant to be a highlight-worthy backdoor alley-oop.
"It was actually good we got it over with," Garcia said. "I think last year we went a couple possessions without scoring and it got pretty tense"
No such problems this year. The TP party was on the moment Garcia's shot dropped in.
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