Robin Ficker isn’t happy.
“Those names all stink!” says the political and pro-basketball gadfly.
Ahhh. The names. Pollin’s Folly. From news reports, it appears that Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin wants to grab a new handle for two reasons: First, Yitzak Rabin was slain by a young Israeli who hoped to derail the Middle East peace process through use of, unfortunately, bullets. Second, sales of licensed Washington Bullets merchandise, such as T-shirts, boxer shorts, and shot glasses bearing the team’s lame hands-in-the-air logo, are for shit.
Whatever his actual motivation, a few months ago Pollin announced that his team would adopt a new name and logo when it moves into the MCI Center, a work in progress in Chinatown, for the 1997-98 season. Local fans would make the choice, Pollin said.
Ficker, for the uninitiated, is Dr. Heckle, hands down the most notorious ticket buyer—“fan” doesn’t really do the guy justice—in the NBA. He’s made a name for himself by making an ass of himself. Game after game—he claims to have perfect attendance at Bullets home dates for the past 11 years—Ficker sits in the first row behind the visitors’ bench, and screams. Incessantly. And as a reward for satisfying this oral fixation over such a long period, Ficker has been, among other things, disparaged in several players’ autobiographies (Larry Bird’s was the first, Reggie Miller’s the latest) and given cameo roles in ESPN promos.
All in all, these should be good times for Bullets rooters. Going into this weekend’s All-Star break, the team had already won one more game than it did all of last season. What’s more, for the first time in years, the Bullets had a presence at the league’s showcase: Juwan Howard made the Eastern Conference roster, and Tim Legler won Saturday’s three-point shooting contest. But that other competition—the one that will determine which name the team will be stuck with for 1997 and beyond—still makes Ficker wanna holler.
“I don’t think of bullets or killing when I think of the Bullets,” sighs Ficker, who rarely sighs.
After tens of thousands of submissions from fans, management named five finalists: Stallions, Express, Wizards, Dragons, and Sea Dogs. Assuming Pollin goes through with the plan, the team will take on the name that gets the most votes through a 900 phone service ($1 per vote). Since the last batch was announced, there’s been little enthusiasm for any of the names. The general consensus has been that you’d have to go to the Iowa caucus or the Miss Latvia contest to find a field so feeble.
Ficker, typically, jeers them all.
Stallions: “If the team were in the Italian league, Stallions might work,” he says. “But for Washington, it’s just irrelevant. Unless you want to say there’s a lot of horse-trading on Capitol Hill. But that’s a stretch. Why bother?”
Express: “Again, what’s that got to do with Washington? I like Express-ing myself at the games, I guess, but Washington Hecklers would be a lot better than Express. Washington Express is just kind of silly.”
Wizards and Dragons: “Forget ’em both! They’re Klan names! Sooner or later you’re going to have some dummy from the KKK go in and try to get a little publicity. I mean, the Klan marched down Main Street in Skokie, didn’t they? Abe Pollin is by no means a racist. But for a team playing in this city, the racial angle of those names makes them ipso facto unacceptable. The Bullets should have done a lot better job of checking those names out ahead of time. That’s ‘New Coke’ all over again. They have to admit they made a mistake.” (Ficker, either out of mind-numbing naiveté or because he has balls the size of Texas, intends to come to an upcoming Bullets game in full Klan regalia as a form of protest.)
And finally, Sea Dogs: “I still haven’t figured out if Sea Dogs was put in as a joke or not. I suppose it was. It would serve Abe Pollin right if that got the most calls. All of the names are so bad, I doubt that 900 line is even getting many calls. So I could probably make sure Sea Dogs won just by spending a few thousand dollars of my own money on phone calls. Come to think of it, I might do that.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the guy’s meddled with an election: He’s run for office in Montgomery County more than a dozen times, and gained infamy on the Maryland political scene after discovering that he could get very annoying budget referendums placed on the ballot just by paying kids to collect grownups’ signatures at malls.
He’s also had prior impact on the ways and means of the NBA. The league took steps to curb Ficker’s influence on its proceedings a few years back. Teams visiting the arena formerly known as the Capital Centre were moving strategy sessions from the bench to the middle of the playing floor in order to distance themselves from the Energizer Bunny of tormentors. After receiving so many complaints from coaches who’d incurred an attack from the rear, the league promulgated a prohibition against fans “disrupting communication between coaches and players” during breaks. Violators of the Ficker Rule get one warning per game, and are ejected from the arena for a second infraction.
“That’s a joke,” he says of the edict, which forces him to tone down his act during play stoppages. “The league puts out all those ads that show people yelling and jumping up and down like I do and saying, ‘I love this game!’ There’s supposed to be truth in advertising, so the ads should really show people yelling and jumping up and down, and then show an NBA official come up and tell you that if you don’t sit down and shut up you’ll be thrown out.”
Ficker strictly adheres to a self-conceived conduct canon during tirades: “No racial comments, no sexual comments, no profanity. Ever.”
Ficker’s shtick has been impaired by the NBA regulation named in his dishonor. In three of the Bullets’ past five games, he’s gotten warnings—but no ejections, yet—for violating the Ficker Rule. The most recent admonitions came on Martin Luther King Day, when the Chicago Bulls came calling. Ficker didn’t focus his barbs on Jordan or Pippen or Rodman. He went after Phil Jackson, screaming out passages from the coach’s 1975 autobiography verbatim. Jackson became enraged when Ficker reached the chapters detailing the Zen master’s now-ancient marital troubles, and convinced officials to threaten him with eviction if he didn’t stifle.
“If Phil Jackson didn’t like what he was hearing, he should sue himself for libel,” says Ficker. “I was yelling his own words! How’s that disrupting communication?”
No matter what name the franchise is going by, Ficker hopes to hold the same heckler-friendly vantage point when the new arena is opened. Management, which has long considered Ficker an earsore, has insinuated that it would prefer if he’d take a position further away from the action, but Ficker’s not biting.
“They asked me to buy seats in the concourse level,” he says. “But I want to stay just where I am, right behind the bench, close to the players. I hope they’re smart enough not to try to get me away from the bench. I want to keep doing what I do.”
Votes for the new name must be phoned in by Feb. 20, and the announcement of a winner will be made two days later live on WRC-Channel 4.
Just as the NBA All-Star festivities were kicking off, the National Football League told Art Modell his franchise could leave Cleveland as long as the name Browns and the team’s colors and records stay on the shores of Lake Erie. Any doubt that Modell’s head is stuck way up his ass was removed by the man himself, with the quickie announcement that the suddenly nameless Baltimore football squad will sponsor, you guessed it, a name-the-team contest. Hey Art, why bother? A good name is just about to be freed up. Baltimore Bullets has a nice ring to it….