On the eve of his team's final road trip of the 2005-06 college basketball season, USC guard Gabe Pruitt received an instant message from a secret admirer.
SexyBruinBabe introduced herself in bubbly pink font as "Victoria," a UCLA student who had her eye on Pruitt since watching him play earlier in the season.
The longer Pruitt chatted with Victoria, the more intrigued he became. Victoria flirted unabashedly with Pruitt, sent him pictures and complimented him on his "amazing body." Pruitt responded by telling her, "u have a nice fit body" and "I want to see u bad now."
Victoria eventually invited Pruitt to a party she and her friends were throwing that Saturday night and urged him to bring a few teammates. Pruitt quickly agreed to meet her in Westwood after he returned home from a road game that afternoon at Cal.
"Me being girl crazy at the time, I took high interest," Pruitt told Yahoo Sports. "I was with my teammate Chris Penrose and I couldn't wait to share the news with him about these new girls I met for us."
Pruitt was still excited about his date with Victoria until the moment he stepped onto the floor at Haas Pavilion and took a peek at Cal's student section. Only then did he realize Victoria was a hoax and he was the victim of one of the most devilish pranks in college basketball history.
One group of Cal students held up sheets of paper that spelled out "C-A-L-L G-A-B-E" on one side and the digits of his cell phone number on the other. Other students waved posters with pictures of "Victoria" on them and messages like "We'll see you at UCLA tonight" scrawled underneath. As USC players lined up on the floor for the national anthem, the entire Cal student section serenaded Pruitt in unison with chants of "Victoria! Victoria!"
"I just remember going, 'Oh my God,'" said Penrose, a walk-on guard who roomed with Pruitt on the road. "Gabe came up to me and the look on his face was unforgettable. He was so rattled, so rattled. It's hard to actually articulate the sickening feeling in your stomach when you come to realize that the date you were looking forward to was one big prank and the whole student section was in on it."
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Uncovering the identity of the prank's mastermind isn't easy because for a long time he did not want to be found. Even after graduating from Cal in 2009, Steven Kenyon chose not to speak publicly about it for years out of fear a future employer might not find humor in what we now know as catfishing.
With the 10-year anniversary of the prank set to arrive on Friday, Kenyon no longer has such concerns. He told Yahoo Sports the purpose was to give Cal a competitive advantage by throwing Pruitt off his game, something he'd been doing to opposing players all season that year.
A passionate Cal basketball fan with a penchant for heckling, Kenyon usually arrived early enough to home games to snare a floor seat as close to the opposing bench as possible. Instead of resorting to cussing or cliches like most hecklers do, Kenyon befriended dozens of opposing players on social media and sought out potential fodder that way.
"Facebook was brand new," Kenyon said. "Not a single person used Facebook like they do now in the sense of security and personal boundaries. Athletes from all over the Pac-10 added me at will and I was literally staring at phone numbers, email addresses, screen names, personal photos, girlfriend names. I was like, 'Hmmmm, how I can I use this to give my team an advantage?'"
Sometimes he'd mess with an opposing player by poking fun at a silly TV show or movie he liked. Other times he'd come to games armed with printouts of the star player's goofiest Facebook photos. Responses varied from an Akron forward hurling insults back at him, to Stanford's Brook and Robin Lopez laughing uproariously at his barbs and high fiving him after the final buzzer.
When Cal entered the final week of the 2005-06 season in need of at least one victory to secure an NCAA tournament bid, Kenyon decided his trademark methods of distraction were insufficient for games this important. The Cal freshman instead decided to up the ante by attempting to dupe an opposing player with the help of the contact information at his disposal.
Since 15th-ranked UCLA was Cal's first opponent that week, star point guard Jordan Farmar was Kenyon's initial target. He created the screen name SexyBruinBabe on AOL Instant Messenger, chose an attractive blonde Cal athlete to use as her likeness and selected the name Victoria as an alias.
"I was going to be named Victoria if I had been born a girl," Kenyon said. "That's where the name came from."
A couple nights before UCLA's visit to Haas Pavilion, Kenyon posed as Victoria and sent a flirtatious instant message to Farmar. The future Los Angeles Lakers draft pick didn't bite. Undaunted, Kenyon turned his attention to USC next in hopes that Pruitt would be an easier target. The Trojans' second leading scorer took the bait.
When Pruitt asked to exchange photos via email a few minutes into their first conversation, Kenyon had to think nimbly and register an address for Victoria on the fly. To maintain the Victoria facade after exchanging numbers with Pruitt, Kenyon also had to have a female friend record a new voicemail message for his cell phone.
Kenyon meticulously made sure the photos he sent of "Victoria" did not contain any Cal gear or Berkeley landmarks in the background of any of them. The pictures he got back from Pruitt included a couple gems, one of him shirtless and flexing in the mirror and the other of him trying to gain favor with Victoria by wearing a UCLA basketball jersey.
To spread word about the prank, Kenyon emailed a few dozen friends he suspected might attend the Cal-USC game. He included a transcript of Victoria's instant messenger conversations with Pruitt and some of the photos they had exchanged.
By tip-off, every Cal student on hand knew about the prank. Photos and excerpts from Pruitt's chat with Victoria were printed on the yell sheet laid on every seat in the student section.
"It was so well done," Penrose said. "When the 'Victoria' chants started, everyone on our bench was looking at me and Gabe because we were the only people who knew about it. I had to try to explain it to everyone as the game was starting."
The prank had the impact Kenyon desired. Cal emerged with a badly needed 71-60 victory to clinch third place in the Pac-10 and a distracted Pruitt played one of the worst games of his career, committing six turnovers and sinking just three of the 13 shots he attempted.
"It was a combination of [the crowd] and me wanting to have the best game of my life because they did that to me," Pruitt said. "I had that in the back of my head the whole game."
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The sheer specter of the prank awed even Kenyon afterward.
When he planned it, he thought it would be just him and a few friends heckling Pruitt about it during the game. He hadn't expected several thousand of his peers to participate, nor did he anticipate word of the prank to spread globally via Internet bloggers and message board posters.
Though a cadre of Cal staffers briefly yanked Kenyon out of his seat and into a hallway during the game to question him about his role in the prank, there were no repercussions beyond that. Angry USC fans threatened to find the Cal student behind the prank and beat him up or prosecute him, but none ever followed through with those promises.
The prank also became a teaching tool for universities eager to keep their athletes from making the same mistake Pruitt did. Kenyon routinely got calls or texts from athletes he knew at other Pac-10 schools saying that the Victoria prank came up during their freshman orientation or social media training seminars.
After graduating from Cal and earning a master's degree in sport management from the University of San Francisco, Kenyon now works for a fledgling San Francisco professional soccer team. He admits his prank straddled the blurry line between fan mischief and deviant behavior, but he insists he'd do it again because it became such a source of pride for Cal students and alumni.
"If you type "Gabe Pruitt" and "Victoria" into Google and you click on like the seventh "O" at the bottom, it's still blogs about the prank," Kenyon said. "Some of the comments are like, 'Oh my god, this brings the most happiness to my heart. Go Bears forever.' Reading that your heart just bleeds blue and gold. You feel like, 'Wow, I just held the Cal flag up for the whole world to touch.'"
The one aspect of the prank Kenyon does regret is including Pruitt's phone number in the emails he sent to his friends. He actually apologized to Pruitt for that via instant message a few days after the game.
"I'm sorry if ppl have been calling you and bothering your personal life," Kenyon wrote. "I know that is not fair to you."
In a show of great maturity, Pruitt responded, "Its ok. I just have to deal with it. That was a good prank tho. I have to admit."
The prank may not have been funny to the USC team the day of the Cal game, but it became a source of laughter thereafter. Everyone from friends, to teammates, to even USC coach Tim Floyd teased Pruitt about it for months.
"Whenever people wanted to mess with Gabe during practice or at a meeting, they would start saying, "Victoria! Victoria!" former USC assistant coach Bob Cantu said. "I don't think he could get that out of his head for awhile."
To this day, Pruitt still can't fully escape it, not even after a two-year stint with the Boston Celtics and five more seasons in the D-League and overseas. Pruitt's friends from USC still relive the story with him every chance they get.
"I couldn't get mad because it was a great prank," Pruitt said. "I got caught."
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