Faces In The Crowd: Meet Those Who’ve Helped Crisler Morph into a Basketball Madhouse

Basketball

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — I came up with the idea for this article a few weeks ago. After covering Michigan for almost an entire season, and having Crisler Center get so loud to the point of pain in the ears. I wanted to do a deeper dive on those who support Michigan Basketball and have cheered on the Wolverines as they have gotten out to a 47-5 record at home since the start of the 2016-17 season (when Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, and Charles Matthews arrived on campus.) Thanks to an assist from the program, I was able to watch Thursday’s game against Nebraska from all over the arena. From the Maize Rage to the highest seats in the 200-level, from courtside to press row, I wanted to shine the spotlight on those who make home court advantage at Crisler as raucous as it is as the Wolverines finished their home slate 17-1 with an 82-53 win over Nebraska Thursday.

110:00 until tip-off

I sat down in press row with Don Svenson, a Detroit native who has been working Michigan Basketball games as an event staff member for 12 years. Don is always the first smiling face you see when walking up the stairs into Section 201. He’s seen the ups and downs of the Beilein era from almost the very beginning. Senior Day games are always a chance to look back.

“A win” Don chuckled when asked what he wants as a lasting impression for a Senior Day game.  “Basically a win so they can start off well in the tournament, and on the road and do something good. The Maize Rage seniors, it’s gotta be a moment of “oh man four years go by so quick” when you’re a freshman and a sophomore it seems like an eternity to become a senior.”

Meanwhile, members of the Maize Rage, some of them seniors themselves, are lined up against the side of Michigan Stadium, waiting to walk through the tunnel and down the steps between sections 126 and 128 to fill the bleachers behind the team benches.

78:00 until tip-off

Michigan PA announcer Anthony Bellino during the Wolverines game against Nebraska. The game marked the completion of his third season behind the mic for the Wolverines. Photo by Jay Sarkar

I grabbed a seat courtside with Anthony Bellino. Michigan fans may not recognize him on the street, but he is the booming voice behind the public address microphone at Crisler. A lifelong Michigan fan, Bellino is finishing his third season at Crisler as the men’s basketball PA announcer, meaning he has only seen five losses in that span. Sitting at the scorer’s table, Bellino’s voice can play a role in energizing the crowd, but that comes with its challenges.

There’s a fine line between trying to do the job and being excited about what you see, and maybe pushing it too far,” said Bellino. He also shared a story that at practice, Michigan’s players will sometimes mock their teammates when they miss a shot by using the same flat tone of voice Bellino does when an opposing player scores.

“You want the crowd to feed off your energy, and you want to provide an extra spark for the players if you can if they even hear it, but a lot of the time they are so locked in this is just white noise anyways” he continued.

Michigan senior Charles Matthews was honored Thursday night before the game. Photo by Jay Sarkar

10:00 until tip-off

After Michigan honored Charles Matthews on the court for Senior Day, I took my seat in the front row of the Maize Rage: Section 123, Row 2, Seat 15. I’m seated next to four of the outgoing Maize Rage seniors I profiled leading up to the game. Words they used to describe the moments just before the game begins include: “Nostalgic”, “Bittersweet,” “Surreal” and “I’m already crying.” Senior Alex Kettwich, known for wearing his Michigan onesie pajamas and holding a whiteboard that he draws messages and cartoons on, has a frown on his face while posing for pictures as the board reads “So Long Partner” with Woody from Toy Story drawn.

Senior and Maize Rage Vice President Alex Kettwich has put plenty of messages on his whiteboard during his time at Crisler. Photo by Jay Sarkar

0:00 until Tip-Off

Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes blares as the Maize Rage chants along enthusiastically, the bleachers begin shaking as the students jump up and down and Michigan center Jon Teske and Nebraska center Isaiah Roby take part in the jump ball.

17:20 1st Half: Michigan 5, Nebraska 2

Teske drains a three-pointer from the corner to put Michigan up by six (8-2) off a feed from Isaiah Livers as the students work themselves into a fervor with the Wolverines leading already.

14:33 1st Half: Michigan 13, Nebraska 7

Freshman Colin Castleton, who has seen limited minutes this year, checks in for Teske after the junior records his first foul. Castleton scores his first shot attempt of the game with a post up basket. “Was that our first post up basket of the year? It damn well might’ve been!” wonders Maize Rage senior Jon Markwort

10:22 1st Half: Michigan 21, Nebraska 7

The Maize Rage has revived the maize and blue Canadian flag for the first time in five seasons with freshman Ignas Brazdeikis filling the Wolverines Canadian quotient. Photo by Jay Sarkar

Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis gets fouled on a three-point attempt, and out comes the maize and blue Canadian flag, which was first spotted in the Maize Rage when Nik Stauskus (2012-14) arrived in Ann Arbor. The flag’s charm only helps Brazdeikis convert one of his three free throw attempts. Michigan leads 22-7.

5:35 1st Half: Michigan 31, Nebraska 13

With the Wolverines leading by 20, my eyes shift to Bellino. Seated in the front row of the scorer’s table with his microphone in front of him, he has his eyes on the game and his roster of both teams in his right hand. Also in front of him is a computer showing the game’s statistics feed. Ten seconds after a timeout, Zavier Simpson hits Jon Teske for a dunk in the paint. Bellino’s voice bellows throughout the arena as the crowd roars with approval.

Halftime: Michigan 43, Nebraska 21

As the game goes to the break, the Maize Rage sits down for the first time since before the game started. I head upstairs to Section 216 Row 32 where I find Michigan fan (and self-proclaimed member of “Michigan Twitter”) Serena Rabie – Undergrad Class of ’13, Michigan Law ’17. Now an attorney in Detroit, the Nebraska game is her fourth and final game of the season at Crisler.

It’s really different, I remember some of the games when I was in early undergrad, 2009, 2010 and you wouldn’t see anybody in here,” Rabie says, reflecting on her earlier experiences with Michigan Basketball at Crisler Center. “I mean they were bribing the students with pizza to get them to come to games back in those days. It couldn’t possibly be more different now.”

She also notes that regardless of the location she is watching the game, nothing tames her enthusiasm when Michigan makes a big play.

14:32 2nd Half: Michigan 50, Nebraska 32

The Wolverines have been outscored by Nebraska 9-7 since play resumed for the second half, the first media timeout gets called and I walk down to the Blavin Tunnel, which leads to Michigan’s locker room. Seated one row behind the seats occupied for the last eight years by now-former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, I find Joan Knoertzer. By day, Joan is the owner of the Library Bed and Breakfast in Ann Arbor, by night, she rarely misses a Michigan game. A season ticket holder since 1957, Joan recalls the many ups and downs she has seen over 62 years of Michigan Basketball as a fan.

Joan Knoertzer (standing) has been a Michigan season ticket holder since 1957. Photo by Jay Sarkar

We had very few people in the stands most of my years here,” Knoertzer said. “When Steve Fisher was here, he was trying to get the crowds up, he was just getting fans to come in when all of the trouble happened. Now we’re back with Beilein, and this is a thrill to see, and they measure the decibel levels and I wonder if I was going to go deaf!” she exclaimed. 

As play resumes, Joan is discussing how the most exciting thing she has seen this year was a Jordan Poole stepback three-pointer against Purdue. As soon as she finishes her sentence, Poole is soaring to the rim in front of her off a fast break initiated by Zavier Simpson. Poole finishes the dunk, the crowd goes wild, and Nebraska’s Thorir Thorbjarnarson fouls him to create a three-point play opportunity. “He’s a playmaker too!” she exclaimed after we both witnessed Poole’s dunk.

I feel a buzz at my phone to see Rabie had texted me “HOLY SHIT POOLE.” She wasn’t kidding about having enthusiasm for Michigan regardless of locale.

6:55 2nd half: Michigan 67, Nebraska 43

“Iggy! You gotta be a bulldog!” John Beilein yells towards his freshman forward. The Maize Rage complies by barking vociferously as Nebraska’s Glynn Watson Jr. misses a jump shot on the possession.

4:52 2nd half: Michigan 72, Nebraska 45

Brazdeikis would fulfill his coach’s wishes two minutes later when he makes a three-pointer to give him 20 points on the game. The students celebrate Brazdeikis’ triple by doing his money-sign celebration along with him. With the game well in hand, Beilein begins motioning to his bench for players to get ready to enter for starters.

3:27 2nd half: Michigan 74, Nebraska 49

As the final media timeout is triggered, the Michigan Marching band fires up “I Can’t Turn You Loose” from The Blues Brothers. With basketball season coming to a close, it’s the last time many Michigan fans will do the dance that goes along with it until next school year. The Maize Rage gets an additional boost when trombone players from the pep band play the main riff to the song right behind the Nebraska bench. Beilein subs in David DeJulius, Colin Castleton, Eli Brooks, and C.J Baird.

2:59 2nd half: Michigan 78, Nebraska 49

Baird drains a triple that not only gets the Maize Rage on its feet, but dozens of fans in the lower bowl also stand up in celebration as the Novi native scores his first points since hitting a three-pointer against Chattanooga on Black Friday.

0:00 2nd half: Michigan 82, Nebraska 53

Maize Rage Seniors Aaron Sygiel (Blue hat, yellow dress shirt) , Nick Grygiel (middle) Jon Markwort (right) and Gabby Lefebvre (far right) sing Yellow and Blue one final time as Maize Rage leaders. Photo by Jay Sarkar

The Wolverines win and close out their home schedule with a record of 17-1, and still have a chance to win a share of the Big Ten Championship. Beilein addresses the crowd, thanking them for an incredible season at Crisler, and informing fans that with Charles Matthews as a member of the team, Michigan is 50-12 (dating back to the start of the 2017-18 season.) Matthews gives a short speech, egged on by the bleachers as the students chant “Speech! Speech!” at the usually soft-spoken Chicago native. As Matthews says his piece, thanking everyone, the players pile into the Maize Rage to sing The Victors with their home fans one final team this season.

As the band plays “Yellow and Blue” the Maize Ragers lock arms, many of the seniors holding back a lot of emotion as they come to realize their time leading fans at Crisler has ended. After the song ends, I asked all five members of the executive board to describe how they felt and if it had “hit them” that their time at Crisler as students was over.

“Not yet, it will hit soon. It will hit soon,” said Maize Rage president Aaron Sygiel “Absolutely, nothing better, dominant win at home? Nothing better.”

“It’s up there, it’s not too high because it was the last one,” Nick Grygiel said plainly. “But it was a good win. It was what I thought it would be.”

“I don’t think it’s gone, it’s gonna get worse the next couple hours I think,” remarks Jon Markwort. “It probably wasn’t the most meaningful basketball win of my career but I can’t think of a better way to cap it all off here. This game had a little bit of everything and I’m glad it was going out on this one.”

Senior Gabby LeFevbre was fighting back the tears as I asked her the same question. “It’s been so much fun following the team and above all making some amazing friends that I will have for the rest of my life,” she said. “This is one of the best college experiences I have had here. I am never going to forget this.”

Last but not least, it was the end for Alex Kettwich, also known as “Michigan Onesie” on Twitter. When he answered my questions via email earlier in the week, you could sense the emotion he felt about Thursday night. He could barely parse those emotions into words once the game end.

“I’m like this close. It’s been a great ride.” When asked if he would trade these experiences for anything else: “Damn it, you got me with that one” said the Concord, Mich. native, as he raised a hand to his mouth, attempting to hide tears behind his sunglasses.

The view from Section 216 at halftime of Michigans game vs Nebraska. Photo by Jay Sarkar

So marks the end of another brilliant home campaign for the Wolverines. One that featured plenty of wins over quality opponents, and only one loss for the second year in a row. Based on what Michigan returns next year, it’s not too far-fetched to think the homecourt advantage Michigan has started building will continue, in the Maize Rage and beyond.

We’re at the same level of Duke, no two ways about it,” Svenson remarked about the Wolverines 47-5 mark at home the last three years. “They have nothing on us whatsoever, they’ve got probably more years of that, but that is okay because we are doing our job.

“I think there was a comment from (Purdue Center) Matt Haarms,” Bellino said. “He said it was bad at Indiana, he said Michigan is bad, Michigan State is bad, but this place… When you have a player thinking about your arena and how difficult it is to play, then mission accomplished from a fan standpoint. I think that the Maize Rage will catch on, we hear about K-Ville, the Izzone, why isn’t the Maize Rage mentioned in the same conversations? I think that eventually will happen.”

“In 2013 people hadn’t really bought in yet to the fact this team had sustained success and then five years later, they are in another Final Four,” said Rabie, who attended the 2018 Big Ten Tournament in New York as well as the Final Four in San Antonio. “Despite bumps along the way, two Final Fours in five years is nothing to scoff at and ultimately once people realized “Hey, we’re not going anywhere” it made it much easier to buy into fandom and be here night in and night out.”

While no one can be sure what the future holds, one thing is for certain, John Beilein and his team love playing at home, and having the support behind them that they get every time they take the floor at Crisler.

Michigan coach John Beilein thanks fans for their support after the win over Nebraska. Photo by Jay Sarkar

“Love the crowd, just the atmosphere, even way back to the Northwood game,” Beilein said after the win Thursday. “Holy Cross we were down by six at the half, and if somebody told me we’re gonna go 17-1 at home, and you’re gonna win 25 games with two to go, I probably wouldn’t have believed that.” He elaborated a bit more when I asked him about home court advantage earlier in the week.”

Our kids understand that is why they came to Michigan, to play in that type of environment,” Beilein told me. “It’s thrilling for our recruits to see, thrilling for people that are watching on their tv’s at home wherever they may be in the world, that is the type of environment that we want, we’re glad we have established it.

47-5 is undoubtedly proof that Michigan has been riding a wave at home for a while now. The Wolverines hope to carry that win percentage into next season when they take the floor at Crisler Center once again.

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