Explaining the home-court advantage in basketball is, of course, simple enough. The litany of reasons has been chanted for years until every visiting coach—and they all visit sooner or later—can relate them at the drop of a game: 1) visiting teams are subjected to the abuse of Cro-Magnon fans in tiny, cramped, dim gyms; 2) the officials are all "homers"; and 3) the home team uses all the little tricks, like cutting off the heat in the guest locker room, to make the visitors miserable. How can any coach be expected to win on the road with conditions like this prevailing? How indeed?
Well, the truth is—taking those difficulties in order—that huge, clean field houses are springing up like Levittowns to replace the bandbox gyms; today's officials travel well out of their own Zip Code zones and are chosen largely by neutral commissioners, not the coaches; and, finally, conference and NCAA ethics committees have all but erased home-gamesmanship. So the home-court advantage is a myth—right?
Wrong. This year 70% of college basketball games have been won by the home team (see chart on page 20). The advantage is as significant as it ever has been, possibly more so in certain areas. Last week, for example, as conference races entered their critical phases, 14 games were played in the Missouri Valley and the AAWU. Twelve were won by the home team. Defending national champion UCLA has won all its home games and lost seven on the road. Wichita has won all its Valley games at home and lost all the others. All three Kansas losses and three of St. Joseph's four were road games. "Anytime you win on the road it's an upset," says Marquette's Al McGuire.
A few specific home-and-home series provide dramatic illustration of the problem:
UCLA (home) 79, Oregon State 35
Oregon State (home) 66, UCLA 51
Difference: 59 points
Oklahoma City (home) 138, TCU 114
TCU (home) 103, Oklahoma City 93
Difference: 34 points
Evansville (home) 104, Butler 68
Butler (home) 110, Evansville 83
Difference: 63 points
According to Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder, who studies "the baskets" from his command post in Las Vegas (and who may be conservative nevertheless), every college team is worth at least five additional points when it plays at home; when the home team is Kentucky, Evansville, Brig-ham Young, Penn State or DePaul, the edge moves into double figures. Basketball teams remain, as Euripides said of women, "Good for everything at home, but abroad good for nothing." And the question is why. Why—especially in view of the improvements noted in gyms, officiating and general behavior?
A clue to one answer is to be found in the National Basketball Association this year. Last season the NBA's home winning percentage was 58; this year it is 71. One reason for this remarkable rise is the performance of the Boston Celtics. They are winning at home (23-3) about as well as ever, but they are no longer ruining the home records of the other clubs. Their record on the road is 13-17. For one reason or another, the Celtics have moved down to the level of the rest of the NBA; except for Detroit, there is better balance all around the league. And the same is true for college basketball.
All over the country college teams are getting better and better and, with a few exceptions, approaching parity. The result is well put by Coach Gary Thompson of Wichita: "Since any two teams are likely to be extremely even, those factors that, taken together, produce a home-court edge will usually determine the outcome of the game. I know that's true in the Missouri Valley, where even our last-place team, North Texas, can hold a team like St. Louis to a two-point margin on the North Texas court. But it isn't limited to the Valley. Six or seven years ago you could look down your schedule at the start of the season and pick half a dozen games you could count on winning. This year I didn't see a single one I could count on, particularly on the road. Today, if each team plays its average game, the home team usually will win. Coaches understand this. The public doesn't. Soon after we beat Michigan at home in December, Butler also beat Michigan, also at home. Fans were shocked. Coaches weren't. They knew Butler had a good, sound team capable of beating anyone at home."
Another new factor, replacing some of those that are disappearing, is the growing popularity of full-court pressing defenses. These defenses, almost always an integral part of a team's offense as well, rarely function as efficiently on foreign courts as they do at home. For just one thing, the home crowd, alert to its team's style, adds the irritation of wild screams to the rattling effect of the press itself on the visitors. Roaring home fans will count in unison as the visitors bring the ball upcourt, to make sure they are not allowed more than 10 seconds to get past the center line. On the road, however, the pressing team gets a different kind of attention from the crowds. Says Pete Newell, California's athletic director and a master of this style of play: "On the road you simply don't play as aggressive a defense as you do at home. Many times violations are called because the home rooters pointed them out to the officials—like hacking or blocking. These are never called from the stands about the home team. Somebody will yell, about a visiting player, "Watch Jones, he's always shoving,' and the official finds himself looking for shoving. The zone press is an intimidating kind of defense that requires aggression. It loses its effectiveness if Jones is reticent, and if early fouls are called on him—to his surprise—his aggressiveness is curbed." With its press UCLA has not lost a game at home in three years. Against Duke in North Carolina this season, UCLA lost twice on successive nights, and in both games the press was used only sporadically and was ineffective. Duke may well have been the better team in any case, but the fact remains that UCLA did not play the same kind of game it plays at home. Few pressing teams do.
(An interesting corollary to this is the newly launched theory that ball-control teams, with their steady, take-it-easy style, will fare better on the road than strongly aggressive teams. It sounds reasonable but is not borne out by the figures, possibly because visiting ball-control teams, who may find the referees more friendly, also inspire a greater volume of booing from restless, hostile spectators. The nation's top 20 offensive teams, taken as a group, have better records overall than the top 20 ball-control teams. They are better at home—86% wins to 82% wins—and on the road—58% wins to 57% wins—than the ball-control teams. So the slowdown style has little, if any, effect on the home-court edge.)
Many of the old familiar handicaps that have bedeviled visiting teams for decades still take their toll and, according to Arizona State's Ned Wulk, are insuperable. "I've tried everything," he says. "Arrive a day early and get in two drills, change eating schedules, call meetings, do anything to keep the boys busy and not bored or tense. Nothing works. No matter what you do it still boils down to whether the ball goes into the hoop, and a boy doesn't have to be far off to be way off. Different lighting, different floor feel, the home crowd—they all add up to a couple of inches, and he won't hit anything. You can't psych basketball players as you do in football; there are too many games on the schedule."
True enough, a basket has always counted for two points and that is how the game is scored and, thereby, won. But shooting, even by average players, has become more and more accurate through the years. A missed shot today often means a four-point difference in the score—two points lost to the team whose player has missed, two points added by the other team, which gets the ball and then scores itself. And the home team has all of the advantages cited by Ned Wulk in shooting on its own court.
If "homer" officiating no longer contributes to the home edge, most coaches still feel that the crowd does exert some influence, though they always make sure to use the word "subconsciously" in expressing this opinion. "It is one of life's satisfactions to feel that you are doing a good job," Tex Winter of Kansas State says. "If a crowd boos you consistently you may get the idea that you aren't doing a good job, and you may subconsciously try to please that crowd." That covers a touchy subject as neatly as anyone could ask.
But even if all games were played in silence before computerized referees, somebody still would have to travel, and traveling in winter can often be unsettling. Blizzards and cold do not add pleasure to plane, train or bus rides. In addition, no basketball player believes that public carriers recognize the existence of legs. Neither do motel beds. "My big guys don't get their feet warm from the time we leave for a road game until we get back home," Forrest Twogood of Southern Cal says.
To combat some of the hazards of travel coaches try to create an atmosphere of home away from home. Adolph Rupp, whose Kentucky team has lost nowhere this year, has an agenda he follows on every trip. Its purpose is to maintain a normal routine as well as to prepare the team for a game. On arrival the day before, the Wildcats have a get-acquainted practice at the battle scene, then have dinner and see a movie. Next morning, up at a regular time, they have shooting practice after breakfast to break up the morning. Lunch is followed by rest, a game movie, chalk-talk and a walk about town. Then come dinner, rest and the game.
Many coaches ignore or at least soft-pedal the whole home-court controversy in the presence of their players, on the theory that such talk makes matters worse. Says Ted Owens of Kansas, "Remember, a player will seldom appear on a so-called hostile court more than three times in his career. He rarely associates it with any special difficulties. It's the coach who remembers all the bad things that happened over the years." George Ireland of Loyola asserts, "Many coaches get psyched. 'Gee, we just can't win at Wichita,' they say. And that is the real reason people do lose at Wichita."
Nevertheless, many of these same coaches use obviously different strategies away from home. The press is the prime example, but most visiting teams will substitute more and will utilize different personnel, going with the players who do better under pressure. In one game this year Ray Meyer ordered his team to let the opponents drive early in the game, so that DePaul would not get into foul trouble quickly. When a visiting team gets ahead another tactic is to slow things down sooner than it would at home. This serves to relax the tempo and the home crowd, and it also forces the home team into fouling situations. John Benington of Michigan State insists that he dreads getting far ahead on the road against a good team. "You are liable to get caught." he says, "and when you are, they'll fly right past you. I'd rather be close all the way, so that no great momentum can be generated for the home team. When you're at home and the opponents get a burst, you don't have to worry so much because the crowd isn't going to be a factor in their favor."
There is some evidence to suggest that a rabid home crowd can be too much of a good thing, for teams that are especially favored by screaming supporters may come to rely on them to such an extent that road games are mighty dismal events. This may account for the records of Wichita, St. Joseph's and Iowa this season. It is also possible that not having delirious home crowds makes it easier to win on the road. Illinois, for instance, plays in a beautiful new mushroom cloud of an arena in Champaign-Urbana. The seats are so far away from the court that it often seems as if the game is in Champaign and the fans are in Urbana. Last week when Illinois was 2-2 in Big Ten play at home and 3-1 everywhere else, John Benington said, "The way Illinois loses at home and Iowa loses on the road, when they play at Illinois it'll probably be a scoreless tie." Kansas is another team with a huge field house, but the Jay-hawks are undefeated this year at home and the fact that Coach Owens had the cheering section moved out of the balcony to floor level might help account for this. "I would have to say," Ray Meyer admits, "that that guy we've got in the first row, beating the bass drum, is worth four points to DePaul anytime."
Though the crowds may be improving—the hot pennies, paper clips and dead fish are rarities today—no codes of behavior are likely to inhibit the emotional outpouring that basketball inspires. Nor would it be good if that did happen. "You tell a crowd to be quiet, and you kill it—whatever it is that the game has," says Doc Hayes of SMU. "And it certainly has something to make the crowd act that way." As long as basketball is so quick and precise a sport, as long as drums play and pretty cheerleaders cheer in the visiting coach's ear, there is going to be a home-court advantage. The encouraging thing is that now, more and more, this advantage springs from natural causes and is not manufactured, the way it used to be—when it was strictly a disadvantage to the game.
Traditional trials of travel include (from bottom) discomfort of public carriers, short beds, strange food, home-gamesmanship, unfamiliar floors and lighting, home pressure on officials, blaring bands, lack of support in stands, close seating, loud heckling and, saddest of all, the final score.
HOME WINNING RECORDS IN MAJOR SPORTS
COLLEGE BASKETBALL 69.7%
PRO BASKETBALL 71%
PRO FOOTBALL 52%
COLLEGE FOOTBALL 63.6%
Comparison with other sports demonstrates basketball's home-court advantage, even among pros. The edge in college football is attributable to many of the same hazards—plus one other: climate.