If you watch Rockets games, you've probably noticed a small collective of insane people as the camera passes over fans in the lower bowl of Toyota Center, situated in section 114 behind the basket. They're banging drums, wearing costumes, and chanting. Always chanting.
It's (generally speaking) the same 50-some-odd individuals in the same section at every home game and, after one is fully immersed in Rockets culture for a while, they become a familiar sight. Something like the New York Jets' Fireman Ed.
These are the Red Rowdies.
After winning 15 of 26 games at home during the 2005-2006 season, then-Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy decided he would hold tryouts for the best 50 fans and would effectively give them a spot in section 114 for every home game for the next season, in hopes of creating a more hostile environment for visiting teams.
The next year, the Rockets went 28-13 at home, and 52-30 overall.
We'll ignore roster variables and schedule differences that would otherwise explain the change in record. That would ruin a good story and no smart writer wants to do that.
"I love rooting against the Lakers." Eric Martin said. "Everybody hates the Lakers. Even if you're a Lakers fan, you're probably just lying to yourself. Mavericks and Spurs are always in there too, just given the proximity. After home wins we either yell ‘I-45' or ‘I-10' just so the opposing team knows how to get home."
Eric and I had stopped at Phoenicia Specialty Foods' downtown market on Austin Street to talk about the Rowdies and by that point in the interview had landed on the subject of teams most fun to root against. Martin, who works for the Rockets as a Red Rowdy Coordinator for the Red Rowdies lamented the fact he couldn't grab a beer.
"Always on the clock when I'm down here. That's how it goes."
He was laid back and upon first meeting, it became obvious that he doesn't consider his job "work" as most of us would. He radiates love for the Rockets. He can barely contain his excitement about the game that's to follow in a few hours.
It's the last game of the season and the Rockets need a win against the longtime rival Utah Jazz and a San Antonio loss to Anthony Davis and his New Orleans Pelicans in order to win the Southwest Division for the first time in 21 years, secure the two-seed in the playoffs and guarantee a coveted matchup with the Mavericks.
Eric explained what my experience, as a Red Rowdy for the evening, would be like.
"Sure, there's lot of transplants in Houston, and there are some ‘corporate fans' as you called them, but our job as a Rowdy is create a collegiate atmosphere, it's our job to take the times when the crowd is not as energetic, and infuse some energy into those moments."
Attendance hasn't exactly been a strong suit for the Rockets in the past, but the arrival of Dwight Howard and James Harden has helped. The Rockets moved from 22nd in the league in 2012 up to 14th this season. That's better, but it proves a point: even while playing like one of the best five teams in the league, the Rockets are still a middle-of-the-pack city with its home crowd.
My pal Tyler Cashiola (the guy who introduced me to basketball as a religion, rather than a sport) had decided to tag along for the experience, so 40 minutes prior to tip-off we made our way to section 114 as instructed.
The first Rowdy we met introduced himself to us as Juan. Juan is really your standard Rockets fan. You know, if your standard Rockets fan is usually seen carrying a snare drum. Another fan arrived and introduced himself as Amir. Amir was also a pretty laid back guy, except that he was wearing a full replica 1960's orange astronaut suit, decked out with various Houston Rockets branding.
As we followed everyone back into the main concourse we asked a blonde woman of about 50 named Patsy what happened next.
"Next we romp." Patsy said. "Be sure not to buy your beer yet, they don't like us to drink and romp."
As cryptic of a description this was, everything became apparent as soon as the chanting started.
Honestly, the Rowdies chanting is deserving of an article unto itself. There were various "Who Dat?" iterations, you're standard "Let's Go, (insert team)! Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap" and so, so much more. I'd need a cheat sheet just to keep up.
The amazing part was that it never stopped. From our first lap around the main concourse, high-fiving fans and waving towels, back down to 114, throughout the first quarter, and then into the second, the chanting never stopped. I can't speak for the rest of the Toyota Center, but among the drums, cowbells and screams, I've never had a louder experience at a sporting event in my life.
One thing that stood out was the intensity. The energy level stays at a solid 10 for four entire quarters. Every single time the other team has a possession you're yelling "De-fense! De-fense! De-fense!" Honestly, it's physically demanding.
"Could you do this for every home game of the season?" I asked Tyler somewhere around the end of the first half. Wide eyed he shook his head, "I'm exhausted." Tyler said. "Seriously, I'm sweating."
We both were. So was everyone around us. I can only imagine what Amir's space suit must have been like, but the Rockets tee I was wearing felt like a parka at one point.
The game was everything you could want out of what was supposed to be an immersive experience as a super fan. The Rockets went on to absolutely destroy the Jazz and James Harden dropped a triple double in three quarters of play to the sound of the Rowdies chanting "One more assist! One more assist!"
After the win, news spread fast that the Pelicans had just staved off a late push from the Spurs, giving the Rockets the divisional win. We emerged back onto the concourse with full numbers.
That's another thing that really stands out about their commitment; none of them leave early. Ever. As Eric had told me earlier, "Rowdies don't beat traffic. Rowdies make traffic. If someone bails before the final buzzer, they're not getting invited back."
Overwhelmed with the joy that only a blowout over a truly hated team can bring, we chanted, danced and high-fived strangers for another 15 minutes before finally making our way back outside of the stadium.
I was emotionally drained from the night. I was sweating, elated and felt like I'd just had a glimpse into a subculture that very few understand, but that affects literally thousands of fans and players a year. If you're at a Rockets game, or you're watching a Rockets game from home, you feel their energy. It's impossible not to.
I had started out nervous about the experience. Would everyone welcome in an outsider who wanted to see what things were about? Would they change their behavior just because I was there? Would I even enjoy a game with that much pressure to be a good fan?
In November the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Creech asked Jason Terry about what it was like to be on the Houston side of the Mavs-Rockets rivalry.
"It was always those fans in section-114, they're loud and they're rowdy." Terry told the Chronicle. "I love it."
No, JET. I love it.
Ian Jacoby is a writer for The Dream Shake. Follow him on twitter @IanJacoby.