Sunday, Nov 26, 2006
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It's 25, was begun by an SJSU alum, and is beloved. Or none of that

By David Pollak
Mercury News

It has been part of sports and pop culture for a quarter century now, popping up everywhere from the Olympics to ``Field of Dreams.'' Its mechanics have been analyzed by biological physicists in Hungary. Its merits are the subject of passionate debate.

Today, the wave turns 25. And forgive the man widely recognized as its creator if he doesn't take the scientific analysis and heated arguments too seriously.

``It's just a fun little thing,'' said George Henderson, the 62-year-old professional cheerleader known as Krazy George, whose roots go back to San Jose State. ``And I'm glad I invented it.''

But one man's invention can be another's annoyance. For some fans, the wave -- where people in a stadium leap from their seats in sequence to create a visual sense of mass movement -- is just one more thing to bicker about.

Example: During the Sharks' season opener on Oct. 5, repairs to damaged boards at HP Pavilion led to an 18-minute delay. At one point, the wave -- a rarity in franchise history -- began. Two nights later, it returned and continued during play.

An hour after the Oct. 7 game ended, someone started a thread in the team's chat room at sjsharks.com that declared ``Sharks fans embarrass city again,'' targeting those who did the wave with the game in progress. Blocked views were an issue.

Game on.

``The wave is lame,'' wrote one. ``If people want to do it, they should stay home and confine it to their living rooms.''

Countered another: ``I had a great time. Some people are just unhappy no matter what. The wording of this thread is an absolute disgrace.''

The wave's critics include Louis Gray, who ripped the practice last month at athleticsnation.com, an A's fan blog.

``The wave is a travesty,'' Gray, 29, of Sunnyvale, wrote in an e-mail. ``Usually started by inattentive, inebriated fans who would struggle to tell you the current score, let alone the situation of the game, the wave violently distracts from the activity on the field.''

Krazy George doesn't let the anti-wave crowd get to him.

``It takes 95 percent of the fans doing it to make it work right, so they at least go along with it at that moment,'' said Henderson, who figures much of the anti-wave movement is based in the media.

``I remember at Wimbledon, they started the wave during a rain delay,'' Henderson said. ``One of their sportswriters wrote that it was `the end of Wimbledon, our staid tradition has now been destroyed.' ''

Henderson said that circumstances have to be perfect before he'll generate a wave.

``The place has to be full, the place has to be the right shape, and it has to be the right time, after a big touchdown or a team has scored a few runs,'' said Henderson, who noted he starts the wave at only a handful of the 40 to 60 events he works each year.

``And,'' he added, ``I never do any cheer when there's action on the field.''

Origins and high points

Krazy George moved to New Rochelle, N.Y., several years ago, but he was a Bay Area fixture for decades.

He began working the stands at San Jose State games while a student in the 1960s, and his reputation grew from there. He still considers himself a Spartan and, inspired by the football team's 3-1 start, showed up at Saturday's game without getting his usual fee.

Henderson's renown as the wave's inventor is pegged to its appearance at the Oakland Coliseum during an A's-Yankees playoff game on Oct. 15, 1981. His standing has been disputed in some circles -- the University of Washington, for example, contends the wave first appeared at a Huskies-Stanford homecoming game two weeks later -- but Henderson is adamant and cites video footage to back it up.

If anything, Henderson said this week, he created the wave a few years earlier, at an NHL game in Denver while working for the Colorado Rockies, the franchise at the time. It started out as a cheer in which he had three sections rise and sit as they each yelled one word of ``Go, Rockies, Go.''

Then he came up with a way to get everybody into the act.

``But they'd only draw 4,000 people most games, so we did it only a few times. And I don't think they were ever televised,'' said Henderson, who also tested out the wave at high school pep rallies around San Jose.

Television helped turn the wave into a global phenomenon, starting in August 1984 when, according to an entry on Wikipedia, a crowd of 83,642 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto did the wave during an Olympic soccer match between Brazil and Italy. Two years later, Mexico City crowds were so into it during the World Cup that it became known in Europe as the Mexican wave.

The largest? According to that same entry, more than 110,000 people at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and at University of Michigan football games, where students vary things by sending the wave around counter-clockwise or in slow motion or doubling its speed before splitting it into two counter-rotational waves.

If that sounds complicated, consider the work of a team of scientists from Eotvos University in Hungary and Dresden Technological University in Germany. Using a mathematical model designed to determine how a pacemaker stimulates heart cells, they studied films from Mexican soccer stadiums to figure out how waves develop.

Their findings, as first reported in the Sept. 12, 2002, issue of the science journal Nature: Between 25 and 35 people are enough to initiate a wave that typically moves at a speed of about 20 seats per second and is about 15 seats wide at any given point.

Unsophisticated?

Or just plain fun?

Krazy George discovered a semi-scientific finding, too. ``It has a residual effect,'' he said. ``No other cheer that I do adds that extra amount of energy to a stadium.''

Sharks management feels similarly -- which is why the team won't do anything to discourage waves.

``It adds electricity to the building,'' said Steve Maroni, director of event presentation. ``I don't think you can script stuff like that, but when it's spontaneous and the fans are having fun with it, that's all you could ever want.''

Of course, not every fan will be happy to hear the wave is welcome. Such is its nature.

Merrill Melnick, a professor at the State University of New York-Brockport who teaches a course in sport spectating, suggests that some fans may have moved beyond the wave.

``I'm wondering if we've become too sophisticated an audience for something like that,'' said Melnick, a co-author of ``Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.''

``There was a time it was reasonably cute and a collective show of support,'' he added. ``But maybe not anymore. Maybe we're too advanced. It really is diversionary -- `Why be bothered? I'm into the game.' ''

But don't expect anybody to successfully kill the wave on a large scale. That isn't likely to be any easier than trying to an end a single wave.

``It's easy to start,'' Henderson said. ``But it's impossible to stop.''


More on the scientific study of the wave can be found at http://angel.elte.hu/wave. Contact David Pollak at dpollak@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5940.