Mamma Mia! Hoop Moms Rejoice

Those weren't graduate-school enrollees sitting in the front row of the student section during the Penn State basketball team's final home game. They weren't part of the university's continuing education program, either. Who were they?

CHICAGO — Michele Claxton had no idea why the commotion had erupted around her. It was the first half of Penn State's Feb. 12 game against Ohio State, and Michele, the mother of Nittany Lion freshman Geary Claxton, was in the center of it all.

“Look, look, look,” everyone was saying, pointing to the scoreboard video screen high above the court. When Michele looked up, she saw two young ladies in the student section holding up a sign that read “Geary's Mom, Come Sit With Us!”

Michele's initial reaction was one of horror at suddenly becoming the focus of the entire arena. But the more she thought about it, the more the idea of moving from her seat 10 rows behind the PSU bench to spend some time with the students made sense. So after the game, she talked to the girls, who were both members of the enthusiastic student fan group “The Nittwits.”

“I promised I'd be there for the next game,” Michele said. That game happened to be State's Feb. 16 matchup with then unbeaten and No. 1 Illinois, which drew the loudest crowd to watch the struggling Nittany Lions in years.

“It was wonderful,” Michele said. “The momentum, the cheering, I enjoy all that stuff. The kids are great, and you're right on the floor. The energy is great.”

So great, in fact, that she was back with the kids for the next home game, a Feb. 26 tilt with Iowa. For the home finale against Minnesota March 2, Michele rounded up reinforcements.

“It was at Michele's insistence that we do it,” said Mary Ellen Morrissey, the mother of Lion freshman guard Danny Morrissey. “She said, 'Come on guys, let's do it. Why don't we go over there and give them even more support?' So we went over. We had a blast.”

“We” in this instance, meaning Michele Claxton, Mary Ellen Morrissey and Lorie Walker, the mom of another PSU newcomer, guard Mike Walker. You can bet Bonnie Hassell, the mother of Lion freshman forward Brandon Hassell, would have been along had she been able to make it to the midweek game from the family home in Ohio.

“Everyone probably thought, what are these nutty mothers doing going over there,” Lorie Walker said. “I guess you have to be a little crazy, though. We went over there to encourage the [students and players], and the crowd was really into it.”

If you are looking for subtle signs of improvement for a program that is carrying its fourth-straight No. 11 seed into Thursday's Big Ten tournament opener vs. Ohio State here, this is one of them. Second-year coach Ed DeChellis would never admit it, but he's had nearly as much trouble dealing with disgruntled parents as disgruntled players in his two years at the helm.

The combination has led to a host of transfers (one before he arrived, four more since), another athlete who insisted on turning pro early (even though he was not ready) and other problems that have never made it into the public eye.

The current crop of freshmen is the first full class DeChellis recruited, and he obviously spent time scouting their families, as well. The players quickly developed a chemistry when they arrived last June, one that suggests they are more than four separate pieces. It didn't take long for the parents to form bonds, either, though they hail from Connecticut (Claxton), Ohio (Morrissey) and Pennsylvania (Walker).

“You don't know what you're going to be introduced to or who you are going to be introduced to,” Mary Ellen Morrissey said. “This was Danny's choice. But believe me, there is no pretense [among the parents] whatsoever. We're enjoying one another. We keep saying, this is going to be the best four years of our lives.”

“Call it destiny, call it fate,” Michele Claxton added. “But right off the bat, from Day One, Geary met the boys and something was clicking. Similar situations. Similar family backgrounds. You get a sense of people through their children. We are having a great time, everything has clicked.

“It's like we're one big, happy family, all looking out for each other because we have the same goal,” she continued.

The trip into the student section was proof of that. The moms are not quite as energetic as the kids - “I don't know if they take excitement pills before they come or what,” Lorie Walker said. Added Michele Claxton: “Every timeout, if you take a peek, I'm taking a seat to rest.” But they are definitely involved in the game.

The mother of five children, Lorie Walker has perfected a loud, attention-getting whistle. She also yells for Penn State players to “Think the Shot!” while they are at the foul line. She wants them to visualize the ball going through the net, though “some people think I'm trying to say 'Sink the Shot' and have a lisp.”

“I try to yell positive things for everybody, because everybody is working hard,” she said.

Added Mary Ellen Morrissey: “It's encouragement for everyone. Travis [Parker] and Hojo [Aaron Johnson], Ben [Luber], the freshmen boys and the seniors, we're here for the team. We want the team to win, not just one kid.”

Morrissey was so alert to the goings on in the student section she realized that the PSU athletic department snuffed out distribution of the Nittwits newsletter Forty Minutes shortly before the home finale. Meant to poke good-natured fun at opponents, she was told it was canned because Iowa complained about the content. Other sources say the athletic department didn't like a reference to a beer commercial that was in the on-line version of the final newsletter.

Having traveled all over the Big Ten this season, Mary Ellen Morrissey laughed at the suggestion that anything in the newsletter was in poor taste.

“Danny lists caddying as a hobby in the media guide,” she said. “Kids from the student section at Michigan were asking him if he was free to go caddy after the game. They were picking on everybody, but it was all in good fun. It just promoted more involvement. Nothing was malicious. It was all in good taste, on Michigan's part and what I read in Forty Minutes.”

Forty Minutes or not, the PSU student section finally began coming back around this season. In a move that has since been rectified (to an extent), for the 1996-97 season the students were shifted from the courtside location they enjoyed at Rec Hall into the corners of the Bryce Jordan Center. They responded by staying away in droves for nearly a decade, even after they were moved back close to the court.

DeChellis has taken strong measures to reach out to the students, from direct e-mails to speaking on campus to publishing open letters of thanks. And the Nittwits have done their part, organizing chants and generally making life more fun in the student section.

“We've been impressed with the student section,” Lorie Walker said. “They are so supportive of the kids. This team is struggling and having a hard time, but it doesn't mean the players aren't giving every ounce they've got. The students appreciate that.”

“We've been to every game, home and away,” Mary Ellen Morrissey added. “Our student section, while it's not like Michigan State's, it's there. I think of that old line, 'If you build it, they will come.' Ed's building something great here. And the students are incredible. I can't imagine what it will be like if we win twice as many next year. They're going to start coming out of the woodwork.”

Whether the Lions have enough talent to double their win total next season remains to be seen. But if it does happen, and the student section continues to improve, you can bet there will be just enough room to cram a few moms into the front row.

For their part, the mothers are up to the challenge. Even Lorie Walker, who took a bit of flack from her son due to her first foray onto the floor.

Mike Walker, in one of those “awwww, mom!” moments so many of us experienced at that age, said, “After the game, I told my dad, you have to get her out of there.”

Don't count on it.

“I told Mike this might carry over into next year,” Lorie explained with a laugh. “He said, 'I don't know mom.' But I'm willing to do it. I might have to sneak in there with one of those blue wigs so Mike doesn't notice me, but I'll do it.”

-30-


Fight On State Top Stories