Oakland Zoo antics rally team, distract opponents

By Gretchen Andersen

A sea of students dressed in gold rippled in waves when guard Travon Woodall grabbed a loose… A sea of students dressed in gold rippled in waves when guard Travon Woodall grabbed a loose ball on the court during Wednesday’s South Florida game.

One of the more brazen attempts to distract the Pitt basketball team’s opponent — South Florida was this week’s victim — involved roster sheets handed out before the game starts.

“I love this part,” said one girl in the crowd as she nudged her friend before unfolding the paper, covering her eyes from the scene unfolding on the court.

When the announcer called names of South Florida’s starters, students in the Oakland Zoo cheering section buried their faces in the paper. But although the paper covered their mouths, it didn’t muffle the shouts of “sucks!” the students tacked on after the names of the opposing players were called. It’s a sudden welcome for opposing teams who come to one of the most unforgiving places to play college basketball.

Before the roster is complete, the last player is served a “he sucks too,” indicating the next moment to come, when the Petersen Events Center goes dark with a seering fire-alarm noise.

Robert Hogan, senior and Oakland Zoo president, said he tries to make the Pete the hardest place to play. As president, Hogan sends Facebook messages and distributes papers before every game. He also exerts some form of control over the crowd with his whiteboard. During games, he writes specific cheers for the fans, who enthusiastically comply.

Hogan — who was sitting in the first row across from half court — said he goes to every home game and makes it to as many away games as he can.

Since its inception nearly a decade ago, the Oakland Zoo has doggedly bolstered fans and intimidated opposing teams. Only six years after the Zoo’s birth, Sports Illustrated crowned Pitt as the toughest place to play in college basketball.

Comprised of student fans who dress up in the signature look of the Zoo — a gold T-shirt — the Oakland Zoo is known for its various gimmicks and ploys to distract opposing teams.

The screams and antics of the Zoo do more than just distract the opponents. In a press conference yesterday, guard Travon Woodall said that the Zoo gave the team a boost in the South Florida game.

“They definitely came out with a lot of energy, and gave us a boost of energy when we had that little lull in the second half, but they definitely gave us that boost of energy,” he said.

Dr. Todd M. Kays, sports and performance psychologist and president and founder of Athletic Mind Institute in Ohio, said there is definitely a home-court advantage.

“If you hit a rough spot in the game, you have the crowd’s support and you feel it puts you in a better mental state to perform better,” Kays said. “The crowd can provide adrenaline and keep players focused.”

The crowd doesn’t just encourage its team, it also distracts the opponent, he added.

“The crowd can serve as a distraction factor — taking [the opponents’] minds away from basketball and to irrelevant things. And when that happens, performance will automatically drop,” Kays said.

How large a role the Oakland Zoo played in South Florida’s loss is indeterminable, but the Zoo will be back with its papers and cheers next Thursday when Pitt takes on West Virginia.

When the announcer shouts, “Panther fans, arrrrrrrre you ready?” Pitt fans respond with a deafening combination of yells and stomps.

Game cheers reach a high when the actual game starts.

“GARRRYYYY!” students shouted as Gary McGhee jumped in the air during the tip-off, stretching his almost-7-foot frame to grasp the ball before South Florida’s forward Ron Anderson, Jr.

“GARY HUNGRY!” screamed a couple of students, who cupped their hands to their faces to amplify the cheer.

Raucous voices weren’t the only sounds to fill the Pete. Throughout the game, the pep band entertained the Zoo with songs like Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”

Sousaphone player Tope Abegunde is often present for some of the biggest moments in Pitt basketball, and it didn’t take him long to recall his favorite moment.

“When Ronald Ramon shot that 3-pointer against WVU, in that huge upset” the senior said almost instantly, remembering the game in 2008. “I never saw the Zoo go more crazier.”

And the cheers aren’t just beneficial to the basketball team. Kays said some of the psychological benefits of attending games for fans include getting a break from the everyday grind, and spending time with friends:“Sports are wonderful for people because they allow us to be a part of something bigger, and be energized and excited among other emotions, in the confines of a couple hours,” Kays said.

Hogan agrees.“I missed a lot of classes, but I have no regrets,” he said.