I remember feeling dejected one evening in the summer of 1984 when my Lakers lost to the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Even before the buzzer sounded, fans swarmed the court of Boston Garden to celebrate with Larry Bird and Co.
Thankfully for me, I got to experience the other side of it four summers later when fans swarmed the court at the old Forum in Inglewood, California, to celebrate the Lakers' Game 7 win over the Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals. It was the fifth title of the decade for the Lakers and the last one of the Magic Johnson Era.
Fast-forward to 22 years later.
The Lakers had just outlasted the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and captured yet another championship. Unlike the fans of the ‘80s, however, the folks in attendance at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, stayed in their seats (or at least stood up from them) and celebrated by clapping and hugging one another.
This more controlled and tempered celebration had grown into the norm for NBA fans by that point.
Why? It probably had something to do with 2004’s Malice at the Palace. I can’t say for sure, but being a lifelong Pittsburgher who’s never had an NBA team in town to cheer for, I feel like the 1980s would have been my last chance to experience something that the Baby Boomers and previous generations got to do all the time: Rush the field/court after a huge win.
The immediate aftermath of Bill Mazeroski’s home run that clinched Game 7 of the 1960 World Series comes to mind; seemingly hundreds of Pittsburghers rushed onto old Forbes Field to celebrate the Pirates' first title in 35 years.
Rushing the field or court was a common occurrence for fans everywhere back in those days. Whether it was the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s, whether it was football, baseball or basketball, one thing that always accompanied a huge game was the swarming of the field/court immediately afterward.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like the 1970s were the golden age for this kind of stuff. And a team didn’t even have to clinch a championship, either. No, it simply had to stay alive for one.
Take the immediate aftermath of the Immaculate Reception, for example. How many folks rushed onto the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium seconds after the late, great Franco Harris crossed the goal line to give the Steelers a 13-7 victory in a divisional-round playoff game against the Oakland Raiders on December 23, 1972? According to the countless stories you’ve heard ever since, 4.2 million fans rushed onto the field that day. I’m pretty sure the number was a lot less than that, but there were certainly enough to make it a sea of black-and-gold supporters who embraced Franco, Terry Bradshaw, and all the players as they exited the field following this epic moment.
What about Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series? Fisk jumped for joy the moment his shot smacked off the left-field foul pole, and as he raced around the bases at Fenway Park, he did so while pushing through crazed Red Sox fans who rushed the field to celebrate the moment.
And the Red Sox lost the World Series to the Reds in the very next game.
If you go on YouTube, you'll find old footage of Steelers fans rushing onto the field of Three Rivers Stadium to celebrate easy playoff victories over the Broncos and Dolphins in the late-'70s.
Contrast the reaction to the Immaculate Reception with that of the Minnesota Miracle, the unofficial name of the end of the divisional-round playoff matchup between the Saints and Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 18, 2014. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum hit Stefon Diggs with a 27-yard pass near the sideline with precious seconds left, and the receiver somehow managed to avoid being tackled before racing the rest of the way for a 61-yard score to give the Vikings a 29-24 win at the buzzer. Everyone associated with the Vikings mobbed Diggs in the tunnel behind the end zone; at the same time, delirious Vikings fans remained in the stands while cheering, screaming and hugging...one another.
Why did this stuff just suddenly disappear in the 1980s (at least for football and baseball)? I could never figure out the answer, that is until I did some research and discovered a Slate article from 2020 that suggested this mostly ended in 1980 when the mayor of Philadelphia decided to send out cops on mounted horses to ensure fans wouldn’t storm Veterans Stadium to celebrate a possible Phillies win over the Royals in Game 6 of the World Series to clinch the first championship in franchise history.
I’m glad I got some clarity because it didn’t make sense that this decades-long fad would just go away all at once, that people would suddenly decide en mass that storming a sports field went against the social mores.
It is still commonplace for college football and basketball fans to storm fields and courts after huge wins by their teams. I assumed this was allowed because, well, it was their campus, and they were celebrating with their fellow students.
That’s mostly true.
As per the Slate article, the 1970s saw more and more sports franchises look to their local governments for stadium and arena funding, which meant that these venues became “city property.” So, the motivation for preventing fans from storming the field/court had little to do with player safety and mostly to do with protecting public property.
In a way, it’s kind of a shame. It’s sad that fans are now seen as crazy or stupid for coming onto the field during a game, and the consequences are often severe—just ask the Browns fan who came near James Harrison in a game in Cleveland late in the 2005 campaign.
In many cases, fans probably are mentally ill, intoxicated, or just stupid when they run onto a field or court. After all, it’s against societal norms to do that now.
There was a time when it wasn’t so crazy or stupid to be on the same field or court as a professional athlete. Those were the days when we all got to celebrate together as if we were winning as one.
Oh well, at least we now have social media, where players and fans can interact as if they were peers.
Getting a follow from Najee Harris on Twitter may not be the same as hugging him on the grass of Acrisure Stadium after a huge playoff win, but it’s going to have to do.
That’s the new societal norm for sports fans and the athletes they want to interact with after big wins.