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Girmindl's Ghost

A diary of Shaker High School's 2005-2006 basketball season, a retelling of Shaker's fabled 1979-1980 season, and general commentary on high school hoops, updated daily...

"I like sitting in the back row. I found that sitting against the wall is just easier on your back." -Dean Smith, on the comfort of the H-gym bleachers

Interview: Shaker's "6th man"

On the record with Shaker's "6th man": [Note: A week ago I had the chance to sit down with Shaker seniors Tom Maldonado and Chris Caradori, two of the leaders of "Shaker's 6th man," the informal name of the student cheering section that is rabidly supporting the team this year. Unfortunately, this interview took place prior to the school cracking down on cheering. So I wasn't able to ask them about that. I did, however, get a good sense of what is driving the amazing Shaker student section this year.]

UPDATE (12/21/05): If you read this column the day it came out and then went to the Averill Park game the same night, you probably think I'm crazy - the 6th man was both not big and not loud last night.. For various reasons - a school concert, illness, and cheering suspensions - the 6th man was short on bodies and talent last night - no painted chests, no signs, and lackluster cheering. In fact, the whole crowd was pretty subdued. Read more about this in the game report from the AP game. The 6th man has already promised to return to form in the upcoming games. Consider the AP game an abberation.

Original Essay

It's Tuesday. It's Shaker basketball. And it's loud.

If you've been to a Shaker basketball game this year, you certainly know what is causing most of the noise, at least off the court. It's the Shaker "6th man." You can't possible miss it. Dozens of Shaker students, all clad in matching t-shirts, standing in the student section, chanting their lungs out nonstop in support of their team. Guys and girls alike. "Un - de - feat - ed! Un - de - feat - ed!"

Now, student cheering isn't all that unusual at a high school basketball game. As I've detailed in my levels of cheering section essay, good basketball teams come with obnoxious and boisterous student cheering section. That's kind of how it goes. But the 6th man is different: I've been to hundreds of Shaker games in my life, and I can tell you that there is something unique going on this year. What sets the 6th man apart is two things, both instantly noticeable to anyone at the game: first, the intensity. It's the shirtless boys with painted chests. It's the homemade signs, dozens of them. It's the laugh-out-loud funny chants. And it's all happening on a Tuesday night early in the season, against an opponent Shaker shouldn't have a problem defeating. "You - can't - do - that!"

But even more than the intensity, it's the organization of the damn thing that surprises you most when you first see it. What kind of high school student section is selling T-shirts, for god's sake? And the chanting is so well organized, you'd think they had both a writer and a director sitting there working full time in the 10th row. In some ways it's more like a college cheering section - dozens of students, dressed identically, screaming their lungs out. "Not - in - our - house!"

Ultimately, it's a swagger. It's students who know that their team is one of the best, and that their cheering section is the best. And that's the first thing I noticed as Tom Maldonado and Chris Caradori entered Lafollette dining hall last Tuesday to chat with me before the Columbia game. The swagger. Already dressed in their 6th man T-shirts and unable to sit still in their chairs, they give off an energy more indicative of athletes before a competition than of fans about to watch a game (indeed, both of them play varsity football for Shaker). Unable or unwilling to mask their intense pride in the 6th man, Chris and Tom nevertheless have an understated ease when talking about their own role in the student section. "Warm - up - the - bus!"

"We're just overall hyper kids and we have a lot of fun at the games. And we get a lot of support," says Caradori as Maldonado nods in agreement. "People just seem to join in."

And join in they do. You can't help but excited by Chris and Tom's energy. Even just sitting and chatting with them one gets pumped up about Shaker basketball. Down in the gym, it's much the same. On any given night, the Shaker student section is packed with a legion of 6th men, simultaneously feeding off each other's energy and producing a collective energy that can often be seen visibly pumping up the players on the court. "Puuuuushhh-iiiiiiitttt! Puuuuuussshhhh-ittttttt!"

Truth be told, Maldonado and Caradori are on a different level than other members of the 6th man. Every band needs a director, and they relish the role. During warmups for the home games, the two of them (along with a random, rotating third man) parade into the gym, Rocky-style, as the rest of the 6th man hoots and hollers for them. They rip off their shirts to reveal painted letters - S, H, and S - as the student section bursts into a frenzy just before tip-off. "S , H, SHS!"

For the next 90 minutes, they're at work, leading the 6th man through cheer after cheer - be it a roaring "Not in our house," after a Sheehan block, a comincal "We can't hear you!" to taunt an opposing cheering section, or a bleacher-smacking cheer cooridnated with the varsity cheerleaders. And don't forget the old standy, "De - fense! De - fense!" One question was an obvious: who actually picks the individual chants and starts them rolling?

"We do," Tom says emphatically. "Sometimes you'll get the occasional freshman who wants to start their own chant. But that's not how it works. If you start a lame chant, that can ruin the energy."

The combination of a good team and the boisterous 6th man seems to have produced a buzz at the school. "It's really big at school right now," says Caradori. "[Our enthusism] is catching on with the juniors and sophmores. People really love going to the games and getting into it."

That wasn't always the case. "It took a while to get the cheering going," admits Maldonado. "We've been regulars at the games since our freshman year, but the serious chanting just started last year." As it turns out, even the most visible symbol of Shaker's newfound home court advantage - the royal blue 6th man t-shirt - is a recent development.

"We talked about doing a shirt last year. Toward the end of the year, and in sectionals, lots of people started coming to the games. But we never got on it," says Maldonado, almost apologetically. "Then Joe [Bianchino] just came up to us one day this year and said, 'Guys - I got it.' So we did it. And it really has gone well."

And the beauty of the 6th man T-shirt - which is sold for $10 in the lobby prior to games - is that it's selling pretty well to non-students and students alike. "We've sold about 80 shirts, and I think we'll sell another 75 or so in the next few months."

It's hard to measure (or even comprehend) what a shirt can do for a cheering section, but as someone who has been to hundreds of Shaker games, I wouldn't underestimate it. It gives everyone up there something tangible to bond them together. And that's the remarkable thing about the cheering section. Even in 1991, when the student section was packed night after night, it never seemed quite so much like a family up there as it does now. "Georgia Tech! Georgia Tech!"

Of course, none of this explains where the 6th man gets its passion for Shaker basketball. As it turns out, it's as much friendship loyalty as it is school spirit, at least for the leadership of the 6th man. Caradori put it quite simply. "Our best friends are on the team - Brad, Duclos, Vernon, Hans, Griff. You start coming to the games to support your friends, and then it catches fire and all of a sudden you realize that your friends are some of the best players in the section. Now you're not only going to support your friends, but also to see one hell of a basketball team."

And it's obvious that Caradori and Maldonado are among their friends' biggest backers. It doesn't take much to get them gushing about the players, particularly the seniors. "The great thing about this team is that they all have skills that compliment each other," says Caradori. "And they are such intense competitors. Griff in particular. I've never met anyone who wants to win more than he does. After the footbal team lost to Saratoga, you could see it in them - Griff, Duclos, Vernon - they were just counting down the days till basketball season." It's obvious that the intensity and emotion in the 6th man is many years of friendship in the making, both on and off the team. "These guys have been playing together forever. And I feel like I've known them forever. I went to kindergarten with Brad and Duclos," Maldonado interjects with a slight nostalgia in his voice.

And that kind of friendship is important, especially given the strained relations between the 6th man and the school right now. While the school is all for a strong and organized cheering section, they are wary (some people, including this author, think much too wary) of both the section 2 code of conduct for spectators and the image of the school itself. The 6th man likes to press a lot of buttons with the opposing team, and where they draw the line and where the school thinks the line should be drawn are often very far apart.

"We can't do the bull-shit cheer anymore. So we had to start doing a 'push-it' cheer," notes Chris. "But often they [the adminstrators who monitor the student section] will come down on us for really petty things. We start doing a cheer they don't like - even if it's not vulgar - and all of a sudden they are yelling up to us to stop it. We usually try to call them up to the 6th man and talk it over with them, but they get pretty uspet. It's like the school is all uptight about maintaining some image or something. They suspended one kid from coming to games for two weeks, because he yelled something at the ref."***

Ultimately, my time with Chris and Tom convinced me of three things relevent to the 6th man vs. administration battle. First, whatever the problems the school thinks the 6th man is causing, these kids have their hearts in the right place - in support of their friends and their school - and their heads on straight. This isn't a bunch of drunk and vulgar loudmouths (like we witnessed in 1991-92, the last time Shaker basketball found itself a major student cheering section). These are enthusiastic and spirited kids, who'd rather be clever than vulgar. Secondly, with the exception of the team itself, no one is doing more right now to get people interested and excited about Shaker basketball than the 6th man. Their personalities are infectious, their attitude is refreshing, and their love for this team undeniable.

Finally, the 6th man is a serious asset to Shaker basketball right now. As Chris confessed, "the CBA game was the best basketball game I've ever been to. I wish we could provide that level of crowd support for them every night. It absolutely helps the team, especially in a big game like that."

And he's right. In the coming months, Shaker is going to play bigger games in front of bigger crowds, and hopefully in bigger gyms in faraway places. Shaker's 6th man will be there, one way or another. Let's hope the school allows them to be there the way they want to be there.

At 7:10, I start to ask another question, but Caradori interrupts me. "I think we should head down to the gym. We've got to get our chest panit on and get ready." So I head down to the gym with them, both of them hopping about the hallway more than walking per se. It's time to get excited.

Twenty minutes later I'm in my seat in the adult section, and I watch them explode through the double doors to the delightful shrieks of their disciples standing in the student section. Another Tuesday night at Shaker begins.

Coming in January: Look for a special report and essay as I join the leaders of the 6th man in the Shaker student section for an entire game on 1/13/06 against Colonie. I'll provide a full rundown of the experience and a first-hand account of the ongoing 6th man vs. school administration battle.

***Since the interview, more has happened on this front. See my cheers and jeers post for more details.
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