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One of college basketball's most creative traditions had some extra star power Thursday night.
Eighteen-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps made an appearance in Arizona State's famed Curtain of Distraction during the Sun Devils' 86-68 victory over visiting Oregon State.
With 13:47 to go in the second half and Oregon State freshman Stephen Thompson at the free throw line, Arizona State students parted the curtain behind the basket and revealed a shirtless Phelps with a swim cap on his head and a half dozen gold medals around his neck. Thompson tried to maintain his composure as Phelps pantomimed a freestyle stroke, but the 67.7 percent foul shooter had his first attempt rim out.
Phelps was again behind the curtain when it parted a second time, but this time he wore nothing but his swim cap, a bow tie and a Speedo. Thompson again missed his free throw as a smiling Phelps clapped his hands and encouraged the roaring crowd to get louder.
"I don't think you could have written it any better with the Oregon State player missing both free throws," Arizona State associate athletic director Bill Kennedy told Yahoo Sports on Thursday night. "You could see the look on his face. He couldn't help but look. He was trying to hold himself together, but you could tell by the look in his eyes he was going to miss the first one. Missing the second one was just icing on the cake."
The Curtain of Distraction is the brainchild of some founding members of the Arizona State student group known as the 942 Crew. When an opposing player shoots free throws toward the Arizona State student section, students seated closest to the floor set up a pair of black curtains directly behind the basket and part them to reveal an often hilarious, always weird mystery character.
Sometimes it's a gyrating Elvis Presley or a diaper-clad Cupid. Other times it's a pair of kissing unicorns or a cross-dressing Miley Cyrus with a wrecking ball.
"Some of the things that come out of that curtain, you can hear the whole crowd laughing," Arizona State senior Nick Granillo told Yahoo Sports last year. "You know there's no way the free throw shooter could have blocked out what's coming out. He had to have taken at least a quick peek at what it is."
Recruiting Phelps to participate might be the 942 Crew's greatest coup.
Phelps is training in Tempe this year because his longtime coach Bob Bowman is now the coach of Arizona State's swimming program. When members of the 942 Crew found that out, they approached Kennedy and asked if he could find out whether Phelps had any interest in making a Curtain of Distraction cameo.
Kennedy waited until the week before the Arizona-Arizona State swim meet to ask Bowman and Phelps. His sales pitch was that an appearance from Phelps could help draw more students to that meet.
Turns out Phelps didn't need any coercing. He'd seen the Curtain of Distraction at a previous game earlier this season, and he was eager to participate — even when Kennedy told him the students were hoping he'd be the centerpiece of a Chippendales routine.
"He's like, 'No problem,' Kennedy said. "He couldn't have been nicer. The funny thing is he absolutely loved it. He couldn't have been more excited when the guy missed both shots. I know he had a great time."
Could that mean more Curtain of Distraction cameos for Phelps in future years? Maybe so considering how much he seemed to enjoy this one.
Wrote Phelps on Instagram, "@942Crew we just killed it!!"
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