This week, Josh Levin told the story of the “air ball” chant on a special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. You can listen to the audio version—which features interviews with North Carolina basketball player Rich Yonakor and Duke fan James Armstrong—by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph, and you can subscribe to Hang Up and Listen in iTunes.
Back in January, an official from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association emailed officials at state high schools to say they “should take immediate steps to correct … unsporting behavior” at school-sanctioned games. Among the unsporting behavior cited: students chanting “you can’t do that,” “fundamentals,” “air ball,” “there’s a net there,” “sieve,” and “we can’t hear you.”
A little while later, the WIAA tried to walk back that email, saying, “The intention of the message was misconstrued and morphed into something far beyond what it was and what it was intended for.” If that’s the case, then the WIAA’s original email did a poor job of making that distinction. Everybody chant: “Confusing email”—CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP.
The Wisconsin sporteaucrats’ biggest mistake here was their failure to recognize that some rhythmically chanted quasi-insults are better than others. “Sieve, sieve, sieve” is impossible to chant in a harmonious fashion. It’s too harsh, too clipped. But “air ball, air ball, air ball”—now that’s a chant. It’s sing-song-y and devastating, a beautiful, brutal response to the most pitiful of basketball errors: a shot that misses the basket entirely.
The air-ball chant can come out as a series of aggressive staccato bursts, as in this 2010 game where Maryland fans jeered Clemson’s Trevor Booker:
On other occasions, it can sound dismissive, almost scornful, as in this rendition by the student section at the University of Central Florida:
That second clip features what I consider the classic air-ball chant. The syllables are long and drawn out, the crowd perfectly in sync as it taunts the not-so-straight-shooting opposition.
This is a beautiful, miraculous thing. In a 1995 paper titled “Air Ball: Spontaneous Large-Group Precision Chanting,” an English professor named Cherrill P. Heaton wrote that “without direction, instruction, a conductor or a pitch pipe, thousands of strangers, massed in indoor stadiums and arenas, are able, if stimulated by an air ball, to chant, ‘Air ball,’ in total and rhythmic unison.” An Associated Press story on the phenomenon noted that the professor’s “research has provided no clues about how or why this interesting sporting phenomenon takes place.”
That’s not quite right. We do have a few clues about where this interesting sporting phenomenon comes from.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for air ball is a 1967 story from the Hayward, California, Daily Review: “Cal State, four times lofting air balls at an orange basket that may as well have been painted invisible.” The writer, Jack Smith, went on to note that Cal State’s problems went beyond simply shooting basketballs that failed to touch the rim. The Pioneers “four times flipped the ball directly toward a startled but appreciative [Chico State] Wildcat.” You will not be surprised to learn that air-ball-lofting Cal State lost this game to mighty Chico State by the score of 57–43.
By 1968, the term had traveled south to Santa Cruz—“John Wittman picked off an air ball of teammate Mike Compton,” reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel—and by 1971 it had made its way to the East Coast, arcing into newspapers like the Bennington Banner of Vermont. (“For Mt. Anthony, the fourth period should go down in infamy as the period of the ‘air ball.’ ”)
With air balls flying across gyms nationwide, the time was right for America’s favorite mellifluous basketball-themed taunt. Duke’s fabled student section, the Cameron Crazies, credits itself with starting the air-ball chant, a self-congratulatory claim that’s in keeping with the ethos of Duke basketball fandom. Let’s consider the evidence.
On Feb. 24, 1979, the Blue Devils beat the North Carolina Tar Heels 47–40, a game that would’ve been a small footnote in the history of the rivalry if not for the unusual halftime score: Duke 7, UNC 0.
Even in the pre-shot clock era—the 45-second clock came to men’s college basketball in 1985—this was an exceptionally low-scoring half of basketball. Under its coach Dean Smith, North Carolina often ran an offensive system called the four corners. The basic idea: Players on the offensive team stand in the corners and pass the ball back and forth, frustrating the defense. In the era before the shot clock, teams would sometimes use the four corners to bleed the clock down to zero. It wasn’t just Dean Smith playing slow-down basketball: In 1968, North Carolina State beat Duke 12–10 in the NCAA Tournament.
Back to that 1979 game between Duke and North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. According to an article in UNC’s student newspaper the Daily Tar Heel, “Duke had been clobbered by 21 points three nights earlier when Clemson used a deliberate, spread offense.” That gave Dean Smith an idea.
Rich Yonakor, who played forward and center for the Tar Heels that season, remembers Smith approaching the team after practice. “What if we go into four corners from the beginning of the game?” the coach asked. “We’ll take their crowd out of it, and we’ll take their players’ enthusiasm out of the game. Wouldn’t that be something to shut up the crowd?”
“What are we going to say to Coach Smith—you know, that’s a terrible idea?” Yonakor says, laughing. “It was something we never thought of, and so we all said, Yeah, yeah, that would be really good.”
On Feb. 24, 1979, Duke scored in the first minute to take a 2–0 lead. And then North Carolina held the ball. And held it. And held it. “Five minutes elapsed. Nothing. Smith watched calmly, his arms folded, his legs crossed,” wrote the Daily Tar Heel. “Ten minutes elapsed. Still nothing. Smith still calm, the fans still irate.”
James Armstrong, who was then a freshman at Duke, watched the game from the student section. “It was pretty annoying,” he remembers. “We started chanting boring with the cadence ‘boooooo-ring, boooooo-ring.’ And we did that off and on through the first half.”
Duke eventually stole the ball and made a free throw to take an enormous 3–0 lead. And then, with a little more than four minutes to go in the first half, Rich Yonakor went rogue.
“I had gotten the ball in the corner, I was down in the left corner on the baseline in this particular scenario. And boy that hoop looked really good, it looked so big,” Yonakor says. “And I took a dribble in, and I took a shot. Like I’ve told people over the years, it was a great shot, it was right on line, but it was an eight-foot shot and I shot it 14 feet.”
In this clip from the game broadcast, you can watch Yonakor’s wide-open lefty jumper sail over the rim.
In the footage above, you can hear the crowd roar, and the announcer says, “Boy, he got nothing but air.” But what you won’t hear is anyone in the crowd chanting “air ball.”
What you hear in that clip—and what you don’t hear—contradicts written accounts on the Duke website and in Duke basketball encyclopedias, all of which indicate that fans started chanting “air ball” immediately after Yonakor’s missed shot.
Even so, players from that Duke team—including the Blue Devils’ All-American Jim Spanarkel and Kenny Dennard, the guy who caught Yonakor’s air ball—told me they heard the Cameron Crazies chant “air ball” that day. Barry Jacobs, a Duke grad and a longtime sportswriter, also told the Charlotte Observer in 2005, “I was there and heard it.” And there is contemporaneous, non-partisan evidence that, at the very least, Yonakor was derided for his missed shot, with the Washington Post writing on March 4. 1979, that he “got the nickname ‘Airball’ for a shot he threw up during Duke’s recent victory over Carolina.”
It’s not just Duke players and Duke grads who remember hearing “air ball, air ball, air ball” that day. So does Rich Yonakor. “I always give credit to the Duke students, who are just insane about their team,” he says. “They were the ones that came up with yelling out the term ‘air ball.’ ”
Here’s what I think happened. Air ball connoisseurs will know there’s yet another variation of the chant. If a guy misses the rim, devoted fans won’t just razz him right away. They’ll also jeer him for the rest of the game, shouting “Air ball! Air ball!” every time he touches the ball.
Unfortunately, the full game broadcast isn’t available online. But Kenny Dennard, the Duke player who rebounded Yonakor’s miss, has posted videos of the play on YouTube and Vimeo. One of the versions includes a caption written by Dennard: “After this shot, every time he touched the ball at Duke for the rest of his career, Duke students would hauntingly chant, ‘AIRBALL, AIRBALL, AIRBALL!’ until he gave up the rock.”
Duke alum James Armstrong says Dennard is right. In his recollection, the Cameron Crazies started in with “air ball” the next time Yonakor touched the ball, not immediately after he missed.
But Armstrong doesn’t agree with Yonakor and the Duke players on the larger claim here. He says the Cameron Crazies didn’t invent the “air ball” chant. Armstrong remembers hearing someone shouting about an air ball when he was still in high school, earlier in the 1970s. He attended Mendham High School in Mendham, New Jersey, and he says the chant would’ve come from the opposing fans, because the Mendham team was terrible.
Prior to 1979, Armstrong believes, fans would chant “air ball” the same way they chanted “defense, defense.” It would go: air ball, CLAP CLAP, air ball, CLAP CLAP.
On Feb. 24, 1979, Duke fans invented a new cadence for an old chant. Armstrong says the new “air ball” chant—the longer, more drawn out “aaaaaiiiiirrrrr ball, aaaaaiiiiirrrrr ball”—was a natural evolution from “boooooo-ring, boooooo-ring.”
If the new thing here was the cadence and not the chant itself, then the Cameron Crazies still deserve a lot of credit. “Air ball” is a reasonable insult. It’s the cadence that makes it the perfect basketball taunt.
While North Carolina did lose the famous air ball game—they came out of their stall in the second half, but they couldn’t catch up—Rich Yonakor did get his revenge a few weeks later. In the finals of the 1979 ACC Tournament, he scored 10 points as UNC beat Duke 71-63.
Almost four decades later, Yonakor doesn’t hold the chant against the Duke fans—he thought it was smart and creative and funny. He says he’s happy with how his career played out, and not at all bitter about being associated with a shot that flew several feet over the rim. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to perform the “air ball” chant himself. “I never chanted it,” Yonakor says, “so I don’t know how to do it.”