Community, not notoriety, fuels Taylor’s “Silent Night” tradition
UPLAND – His seat was one of the best on the floor. That’s because he was.
No not on a chair, he was literally on the floor. Jake Smith wasn’t even sitting, either. The Carmel freshman really couldn’t
On the back of his brown hoodie were about two dozen wooden clips. It forced him to lay down in one of the corner of the Ogle Arena floor on this Friday night.
First question is, of course, why in the world does he had wooden clips on the back of his shirt.
“I am a porcupine,” said Smith. “Because I had to be an animal. We’re Noah’s Arc, baby!”
Still lost? If you were sitting in this venue Friday night in the middle of the Taylor University campus, it would all make sense. Not far from Smith was a person with leopard prints painted on his face while others had Hawaiian shirts and straw hats.
Nearby them were another group of students that had a collection of long pink balloons strapped to them. Next to them was Jessi Butts, a Taylor junior, who went retro with her outfit.
“Women never get to sit in the front row. We’re always shoved to the bleachers,” said Butts who along with her friends were dressed in 1920’s garb. “So we thought it was about time we got to stand down here.”
She did with a good position behind the basket for Taylor’s game with Kentucky Christian. To her right was a packed set of bleachers that featured about every costume you could imagine.
From a full frog suit to cartoons to biblical characters, it was all about continuing a tradition for an 18th-consecutive year. It all began simply with some sleep clothes.
“It started as students wearing pajamas and it started as a warm up to the president’s reception,” said athletic director Angie Fincannon, referring to then Taylor president Jay Kesler. “He and his wife wore pajamas to the ball game and so the students started wearing their pajamas and then they would go over to his house and spent a Christmas celebration with him.”
With that “Silent Night” began. Over the span of two decades new traditions have been added while others adjusted to create this most unusual 40 minutes of basketball at the NAIA level.
From cheering at certain times to singing at others and invading the floor, it’s all part of what’s become a well-known tradition for the small school. But the goal, from start to finish, remains unwavering.
“The word I think of is community,” said Fincannon. “It is a pure form for Taylor of community.”
It’s not necessarily the oversized gallery that Darayl Jordan think about when he sees this game on the schedule.
After all during the most important part of the game this crowd-by far the biggest of the season for Taylor at home-is a virtual non-factor.
“The first couple of minutes when it’s really quiet,” said the senior forward from Brownsburg. “That’s kind of the awkward silence moment.”
Since 1997 it hasn’t been unusual at all-in fact it’s become the staple of the event. From the time that starting lineups are announced till the Trojans score their tenth point, the crowd remains completely silent.
No matter how big the play, whether positive or negative, no noise whatsoever. Only the PA announce, the players and those on the bench can be heard.
“It’s just gives us a chance to show how well we talk on the floor and then work together to get to that tenth point,” said Jordan-and the time leading up to that is a bit tense for the crowd.
As Taylor got their sixth and then eighth points, some in front rows that were seated now came up to one knee. As a near 10th point shot was missed the slightest of groans was heard through the crowd.
It was a bit of a wait this year-6:23 seconds to be exact-but Keaton Hendricks finally brought down the house. The freshman from Bloomington drove down the lane and put in the hoop while drawing the foul.
As the ball dropped through the net the crowd stood nearly in unison as their bottled-up adrenaline burst all at once.
“The ten points is incredible,” said junior Patrick Stevens, who is from Fishers. “It’s quiet the entire game and right at the tenth point everyone is just going to go crazy and have a good time.”
So much so they rush the court causing the game to be stopped for a few minutes. The loud cheers ping the ears of those in the gym as everyone dances around for about 90 seconds before retreating back to the stands.
“It’s pretty much pandemonium. There’s nothing really like it,” said Trojans senior Jesse Coffee. “At this point we’re calling media timeouts to let everything settle down before we start the game again.”
It’s this moment here that has taken this unique community gathering and made it global. ESPN, The Sporting News and Deadspin.com each featured reports on the events of this night in Upland-with Hendricks’ layup being the star attraction.
All of this was done much under the national radar until Sports Illustrated Columnist Phil Taylor penned a piece on the events in 2010. Add in Facebook, Twitter along with a healthy dose of YouTube and Taylor’s tradition became an internet sensation.
“To have social media see it and really decide to push it a few years ago was a little bit, frankly, surprising to us,” said Fincannon, who has now seen a few colleges and high schools take up the tradition themselves.
Yet the point of the whole night couldn’t be lost in the vanity of notoriety.
Believe it or not, there is a basketball game to be won on this night along with an impressive streak to keep alive.
Since beginning the "Silent Night" game Taylor was a perfect 17-0 coming into Friday night. unbeknownst to some in the crowd but the tenth point actually helped to cut into a Kentucky Christian six-point lead.
"Once we score that tenth point it just becomes a normal game," said Jordan. "The crowd's into it and that helps the guys get going."
One of those helping to keep the energy flowing was Stevens who joined with a couple of other friends along the front row for the game. His friend-junior Mike Miller from Colorado-is right near by cheering on the Trojans as they burst ahead in the first half with a 20-0 run.
"It's feels great to be able to start something so big," said Miller of the "Silent Night" game. "We've seen a lot of schools start doing it all over the nation. It's really amazing to be part of history."
Yet its sharing these two hours of basketball amongst the students themselves that is more rewarding to many students than a little bit of publicity. Originally this game was meant to be a stress reliever before end of semester final exams-which start for Taylor students this week.
Fincannon stressed "Community" when it came to this event-and the students have bought in.
"It's a great night where everyone comes out, whatever they're doing," said Stevens. "It's a night for the community for everyone to come together."
The did so at midcourt after the tenth point and kept the energy going as Taylor pulled away in the second half. Fans did "The Wave" at one point in the second half while giving support to the Trojans along with some good natured ribbing of their opponents.
"Our students come and they enjoy the fun. It's good clean fun," said Fincannon. "They're hear to celebrate. They're hear to support the team but they have so much fun together. They have fun all over campus
"But to have it at a ball game and to have it in our athletic arena is so much fun for us."
Sitting with her sign that reads "Women's Rights #FrontRowFreedom", Jessi Butts talks about the one thing she looks forward to the most during the "Silent Night" festivities.
It's the one part that has disappeared under the national radar.
"My favorite part is we get to sing silent night at the end," said Butts. "I know that's not the biggest part but I love it."
This happens in the final two minutes of the game. Like clockwork the countdown begins with 2:10 left in the second half. Once those ten seconds have passed, the chorus begins.
"Silent Night, Holy Night," starts the singing which is light at first as the student begin to put their arms over each others shoulders. As the swaying increases so does the volume of the words as they pass from the first verse to the second and beyond.
"Most of the things you saw tonight and the great atmosphere we had was really student-led," said Fincannon, who was sitting at the scorers table as the students serenaded the event. We provide the game and some of the activities as you could see.
"But they create the most original costumes and the original ways that they celebrate and I just love it. It's the greatest thing we do all year."
One more time they would rush the court as Taylor closed out it's 18th-straight win on "Silent Night" with a commanding 91-59 win over Kentucky Christian. It's just like they did at the ten point mark, a moment that's already become a viral sensation in the days following.
That was something they did together. Just like the wave. Just like the cheers and even the final chorus of "Silent Night."
Noteriety made this game famous. Community makes it special.
"We hope that this tradition continues to grow and it continues to be meaningful because this is about the students and we all come alongside and celebrate along with them," said Fincannon.
Oh, and feel free to take a seat on the floor if you like or if that's all your costume will allow.