PHOENIX — Blaring dubstep beats and electronic music build like a massive wave barreling toward the shore, the students dropping lower and lower as Lil John shouts “Higher! Higher!”
They hold position as the chorus of “We hit turbulence!” rings out, then spring into the air as if propelled by the bass drop. The beat shifts dramatically and they start bouncing in synch with it, arms waving, streamers flying, dancing like exploding kernels in an arena-sized popcorn machine.
Welcome to college basketball’s biggest dance party, hosted by Grand Canyon’s Havocs, who are quickly making a name for themselves as one of the nation’s best student sections.
“You’ve got something special here, really special,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after experiencing the Havoc of GCU Arena on Dec. 3. “Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that environment tonight.”
Once on the verge of bankruptcy, Grand Canyon turned to a for-profit model in 2004 and later decided to make men’s college basketball a cornerstone for its future.
The private school made a big splash by hiring former Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle as coach, and he has pushed the program to new heights each season as it heads toward full Division I status next year.
The Havocs have risen with it.
They were created in 2013-14 to be the rowdiest part of the student section then known as The Monsoon (havoc being the most destructive part of the storm).
It was far from devastating; the Havocs barely filled the first two rows of the three student sections the first season.
Then it started to spread: a few hundred the second season, over 1,000 last season and into full mayhem this year, more than 2,000 face-painted, costume-wearing Havocs dancing and shouting at every game.
— Shane Dale (@ShaneDaleABC15) December 15, 2016
“It’s really has transcended into this culture on campus,” said Brandon Kaiser, one of the original Havoc leaders. “It’s become bigger than just basketball and that was one of our goals, to create a community.”
A growing national identity has come with it.
Nearly every coach who visits GCU Arena marvels at the pregame buildup, the choreographed dances, decibels that rival a Metallica concert.
Pitino had a hard time calling plays in the huddle when GCU Arena was Havocking, and San Diego State coach Steve Fisher had to ask for a timeout three times before the official heard him during a game last week.
“In college basketball, my 40-plus years, (that) was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” Pitino said. “Awesome.”
College basketball has its share of loud arenas: Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas, Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, The Pit in New Mexico.
None have the rave-like feel of GCU Arena when the Havocs are in full effect.
In the early days, the Havocs had an intro song for running down the steps to fill their seats. Choreographed dances were added over the years, some created by Havoc leaders, others organically in the do-what-he’s-doing fashion.
The Havocs prepare for the show with a pregame party on the lawn outside GCU Arena, then gather behind a fence. The GCU band plays and the cheerleaders cheer to keep the Havocs entertained, then they’re released like a horse race that starts slow and turns into a sprint despite ushers shouting “no running!”
Once in their seats, the Havocs are in full party mode, dancing to whatever song comes from the turned-up-a-couple-extra-notches loudspeakers.
— GCU Men’s Basketball (@GCU_Hoops) December 9, 2016
The choreography starts with the Purple Pre Game Party, when the students wave their arms above their heads like 2,000 rubber-antlered antelopes — the team mascot — to Vengaboys’ “We Like to Party!”
The hype builds with the spring-loaded “Turbulence” and the intimidation factor ratchets up for opposing team introductions, when the Havocs bounce and point at the players to “Springen” by MAKJ.
Another opportunity to get their groove on — as if they need one — comes at the under-12-minute media timeout, when a remix version of DHT’s “Listen to Your Heart” blares across the arena and turns on the popcorn maker again.
“There’s not too many places like this in the country,” Grand Canyon senior guard DeWayne Russell said. “Every game, no matter who we play, they bring the energy. It pumps us up so much; we know every game they’re going to be rockin’ it.”
This article was written by John Marshall from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.