Kyle Hughes, a senior at University of Buffalo, stepped up to the center of the hardwood, basketball in hand. Halfcourt shot attempts with incentivizing rewards such as tuition or thousands of dollars are a staple at college basketball games. But on February 27 at Alumni Arena, just 12 medium pizzas from Santora’s — a local wing and pizza joint in Buffalo — were at stake.
The prize didn’t matter to Hughes. In his final home game at Buffalo, he trotted up to the halfcourt line, heaved the ball toward the cylinder, and watched the ball position itself perfectly in the fibers of the net. Hughes tossed his hat in the air, strutted around the court in celebration and sprinted over to the student section, as if he just nailed the buzzer-beating shot in the national championship. This student section, known as the UB True Blue, reacted similarly at the sight of one of their longtime members reveling in his moment of glory.
“I don’t think it would (have made its way on SportsCenter) if I literally just celebrated like any normal person would,” Hughes said. “If I just fist-bumped or high-fived a cheerleader, I don’t think it would have been nearly as big of a story.”
But for members of the True Blue, normality is eccentric.
As a result of the celebration over the unusual prize, the sequence generated widespread media buzz, including a spot on Scott Van Pelt’s “Best Thing I Saw Today” segment on late-night SportsCenter. When the video panned over the crowd reaction and upon seeing shirtless fans, megaphones, and plenty of other eye-opening quirks, Van Pelt raised one question:
“What the hell is going on in Buffalo, man?”
To answer that question, two officers of the True Blue — Hughes and UB Naked Guy — provided their insight.
“Buffalo, I’ve come to realize in my last four years here, is its own animal,” Hughes said. “Buffalo has a sports culture and just a way about it unlike anything else. The people here are just unbelievable. To be able to hit that shot like I did in front of my friends and the entire general public of Buffalo, I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else in any other fashion.”
One unique feature of the student section — a cohesive group that travels to road games, conference tournaments, and NCAA Tournaments — is its creation of dynamic characters. UB Naked Guy, Cowbell Kyle (Hughes’ alter ego), and Freshman Kevin (a tall, prominent flag bearer) are just a few of the nicknames of True Blue members that the Buffalo student population enjoys rallying behind.
When gazing at the conglomeration of blue and white, UB Naked Guy is the obvious attention-grabber. It’s difficult not to notice an individual decked in nothing but a hat, sunglasses, speedo, and cowboy boots. But the always visible UB Naked Guy, who currently serves as the body chair, wasn’t always the speedo-clad, boot-wearing superfan that Bulls’ faithful have come to know and love.
“I decided, I’m not going to graduate from a four-year institution and never get that real student experience sitting in the student section and going crazy with them,” UB Naked Guy, former marching band and pep band member, said. “When I joined True Blue, they had all these nicknames and fun monikers, and I had to come up with something humorous. I first went in short shorts and it kind of blew up from there.”
Hughes took on the role of Cowbell Kyle, prompting chants at basketball games with his beloved percussion instrument. During the announcement of lineups and as as chants and songs echo throughout Alumni Arena, Cowbell Kyle serves as one of the primary catalysts that enlivens the herd of 6,100 at Buffalo.
“My freshman year, I showed up more as a student,” Hughes, the current vice president of the True Blue, said. “The more I got involved with True Blue, the more I got to meet their president and their board members at the time. Not only have I been able to grow up in True Blue, but I’ve seen the club able to benefit from the different leadership roles we have and the overall culture of Buffalo.”
One element that plays into the True Blue’s favor is its ability to capitalize on viral moments. Hughes’ celebration after winning the 12 pizzas is the latest example, but the True Blue made its presence known during the 7-overtime football game against Western Michigan and the “UB Mop Guy” incident of January 2015. During the latter, the designated mopper scurried away from a charging Kent State player in the midst of a fast break, incidentally tripping the Golden Flashes’ defender with his mop in the process.
In response, the True Blue printed shirts regarding the UB Mop Guy fiasco, and the clip made its rounds on shows such as SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10.”
“Something humorous coming out of the school is a really good thing because a lot of people watch these shows and are hearing about Buffalo,” UB Naked Guy said. “Just getting that name out there is really important for the growth of the athletic program.”
Other mainstays in the True Blue include distracting Fatheads for opposing teams’ free throws, which have depicted board members from rival universities’ student sections and high school pictures of opposing coaches and players.
“The fact that we have so many different personalities and so many different attitudes getting mixed together makes us so unique,” Hughes said. “The way everyone feeds off each other, we feel like we have more freedom to start different chants and say different things that some other bigger schools may not. What makes us unique is the amount of randomness you can get in any given game.”
Another surrounding factor that adds to Buffalo’s atmosphere is its location. The northern city is renowned for snowy weather, chicken wings, and its two professional sports teams — the Bills and Sabres. After the nation watched #BillsMafia become a viral tailgate sensation for out-of-the-ordinary pregame festivities, there’s no question that the city can also similarly rally around its local college team.
“Buffalo is a big sports town so the city just started to embrace UB,” UB Naked Guy said. “Sports is in the DNA. They’ve always been rowdy, we’ve always had a big student population (30,648 students as of Fall 2017), so the student turnout has started to increase as well and you’re starting to see people standing up and getting really into it.
“We’re not at the point where we’re sending people through tables yet — maybe that’s a couple years after I graduate. But the city’s starting to latch on more to our intensity more than they ever have.”
After skating past Toledo, 76-66, in the MAC Tournament final in Cleveland on Saturday night, Buffalo qualified for its third March Madness appearance in four seasons. As in the past, members of the True Blue are sure to represent the Bulls in their opening round location as Buffalo seeks to become the first MAC team to register a tournament victory since 2012.
The Bulls currently sport one of the best combined records in men’s and women’s basketball, faring a combined 53-13 prior to NCAA Tournament play in 2017-18. The basketball teams’ recent successes have provided a platform for the True Blue to stand on, and the members will continue to embrace all the organization has to offer.
“I don’t think I could have gotten through Buffalo if it weren’t for True Blue,” Hughes said. “I think Buffalo and True Blue have played the biggest role in who I am now and definitely have set me up for the future. Without True Blue, things would be different.”
Different, just like the type of student section the True Blue has manufactured in the heart of Buffalo.