“Hey, Michael! How much you want to bet on this game?”
The scene was the 1993 NBA Finals in Phoenix, and the voice was loud, braying and, to fans at the time, as familiar as the strains of NBC’s “Roundball Rock.” This was Robin Ficker, the NBA’s heckler extraordinaire, doing what he did best: burrowing deep into the skulls of the NBA’s elite.
A D.C.-area defense attorney until he was disbarred last year, Ficker spent much of the 1980s and '90s at courtside cheering for the team then known as the Bullets (now the Wizards), ripping every opposing player of note who came through Washington. Isiah Thomas once threw a shoe at him. Former Utah Jazz head coach Frank Layden once spit on him. The Portland Trail Blazers’ Kevin Duckworth once had to be restrained from going into the stands and pulling Ficker apart like a chicken wing.
Ficker even had the ability to rattle Michael Jordan, which is how he ended up in Phoenix taunting Jordan, holding a copy of a book alleging Jordan was an inveterate gambler. Ficker got the near-courtside seat courtesy of one Charles Barkley, whose Suns were playing the then-two-time defending champion Bulls and needed every advantage they could get. (It didn't work.)
As it turned out, Phoenix security wasn’t nearly as indulgent as Ficker’s hometown ushers, and Ficker was bounced from the arena in the first quarter. A few years later, when Washington moved into a new arena, Ficker found his courtside seats were no longer available for him to purchase. Around the same time, the NBA created a code of conduct banning fans from bellowing at players during timeouts; the unofficially named Ficker Rule remains in effect today.
Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne is a world away from the NBA’s domain, but Novak Djokovic spent a frustrating evening there at the Australian Open this week effectively begging for something similar to a Ficker Rule. While working his way through a four-set victory over French qualifier Enzo Couacaud, Djokovic played through constant heckling from a quartet of Australian fans dressed as “Where’s Waldo” characters.
The heckling lasted for so long that at one point in the third set, another fan shouted for the Waldos to shut up, which inspired a “thank you” from Djokovic. Finally, in the fourth set, Djokovic approached umpire Fergus Murphy and begged him to intervene.
"You know who it is," Djokovic said, pointing at the crowd. "The guy is drunk out of his mind. From the first point he’s been provoking, provoking. He’s not here to watch tennis. He just wants to get in my head. So I’m asking you, what are you going to do about it? You heard it at least 10 times. I heard him 50 times. What are you going to do about it?"
Djokovic presents an attractive heckling target for multiple reasons. He’s the best tennis player in the world and it’s always fun to take shots at the top dog. He lacks the charm, charisma and the public goodwill of fellow stars Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. He can come off as arrogant, conceited and condescending, but unlike many of his more judicious peers, he actually shows that side of himself to the public. Plus, his steadfast refusal to get vaccinated, even at the cost of playing in major tournaments, has enraged vaccine advocates around the world.
The Waldos — or Wallys, as they’re called outside North America — didn’t exactly look like they were offering nuanced political points about Djokovic’s vaccine stance, though. Beers in hand, veins on necks bulging as they shouted, the Waldos kept on heckling Djokovic right until security finally escorted them from the arena. Not that they were thinking of themselves in such terms, but the Waldos bring up an important question in our coarse, throaty, post-lockdown era: how much heckling is too much?
When heckling goes too far
Remember the days immediately after most lockdowns ended and fans finally returned to arenas? Most were glad just to be back watching live sports again, but a few acted like toddlers who’d just been let loose after being confined to their rooms. Within one 48-hour stretch in 2021, a Knicks fan spat on Atlanta’s Trae Young, a Sixers fan dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook and Jazz fans insulted the family of Ja Morant … this wasn’t exactly high-level heckling going on here, this was basically assault.
Heckling in itself isn’t a sin; the ability to give a bit of grief to the opposing team, or an underperforming member of your own team, is the right — in some cases, I’d argue, the duty and obligation — of any good fan. Sure, the venue is a consideration. You don’t want to go shouting for a player to miss a putt on the 18th at Augusta National unless you want yourself and the next five generations of your line banned. But if you’re not hollering when the opposition is at the plate in the late innings or on the free throw-line in a crucial moment, give up your seat to someone who will.
Heckling thus works on a sliding scale, an algebraic formula that takes into account the sport being played, the venue, the vibe, the target and — most important — the wit of the heckler. This is why Ficker often succeeded at getting under opponents’ skin — he was never profane. Screaming “F*** you!” at a player is easy; reading uncomfortable pages from their biography out loud is so much more devastating.
There are limits, like actually physically assaulting a player, shouting racist insults or going far out of the bounds of good taste — say, mocking a player’s recently deceased mother. Djokovic’s hecklers apparently didn’t say anything offensive enough to get them kicked out of Rod Laver Arena on their own merits, but they just kept going on and on and on and ON.
Djokovic: 'There's a limit'
In his postmatch news conference, Djokovic expounded on his thinking in asking the chair to take action, even knowing he would be perceived as a “bad guy” for getting a fan kicked out of the arena.
“Why should we as players be put in a position where we have to always react when it’s been two hours? It’s not 10 minutes,” Djokovic said. “I can tolerate five, six times somebody telling me something, but there’s a limit and that limit was crossed.”
That limit is both the key to the heckling question and a moving target. Plenty of fans believe their ticket entitles them to air their views on the opposition, often at high volume. It's a right they’ll defend by saying the players are rich, so they should have to sit there and take the abuse. (This line of reasoning doesn’t hold up so well when insulting, say, college kickers or Little League umpires, but common sense never really enters into the heckler’s calculations.)
Granted, living a life in the public eye — and cashing large checks funded by the public's attention — comes with inherent drawbacks. You present yourself to the world, you lose much of your right to complain if the world doesn’t universally love you. A player can't be as tender as, say, Ian Poulter, who once had a patron at Augusta ejected for making fun of his pants. But players shouldn’t have to give up their dignity so some fan five rows back can expound on their heritage or their odor.
Back when Ficker was doing his thing in Washington, comedians who worked in the kinds of nightclubs that had brick walls as their backdrops had a standard, hack response to hecklers: “Would you like it if I came to where you work and rocked the Slurpee machine?” Eighties-era cheesiness notwithstanding, it’s a good point: how many of us could handle someone shouting out instant, harsh reviews of our performance every minute we were on the job?
Imagine a crew of Waldos mocking you throughout your workday, and then imagine you aren’t allowed to put them in intensive care, or even respond, without drawing a cascade of boos. Kind of puts a new perspective on Djokovic, doesn’t it? Heckling can be fun … as long as you’re not the one getting yelled at.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.