It was 90 minutes before game time, as Northwestern prepared to take on Penn State in a men’s basketball matchup that was almost entirely meaningless — except to a young man named Seth Bernstein.
Although attendance was expected to be low, Bernstein arrived early, as he does for every game, to claim his favorite seat under the basket and kitty-corner to the visitors’ bench. This has been his ritual for four years at NU, where Bernstein is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism.
As a freshman, Bernstein was a student in my intro to journalism class, and I sensed even then he was prone to unusual behavior. For one thing, he dressed every day in basketball shorts, even in subzero weather, and he had a habit of answering my questions in an exaggerated manner that suggested he was auditioning to replace ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman. Also, for reasons I could never discern, he sometimes addressed the class in Spanish.
So I was not surprised to hear that in the three and a half years since I had last seen him, he has gained a measure of fame on campus for his nutty but loveable personality and his obsessive rooting interest in NU basketball. If you’ve been to a men’s basketball game in the past four years at Welsh-Ryan Arena, this long introduction will be unnecessary, because you already know what I’m talking about: Bernstein is the Deposit Guy, and he’s impossible to miss.
It began during a game during sophomore year, when Harris Bank (now BMO Harris) presented fans with light purple towels with the word “DEPOSIT” printed on them. Bernstein wasn’t sure — and still isn’t sure — if “deposit” was supposed to have basketball connotations (deposit the ball in the basket, maybe?), but he likes to make a spectacle of himself and he likes to have fun, so he held up his towel and shouted “Deposit!” every time a Wildcat player made a three-pointer. Then he began shouting it — “Deposit!” — when anything good happened for the Cats.
A note about Bernstein’s voice: It is sharp, it is high, and it stings like a spitball.
Soon, both for Bernstein and fans, “Deposit!” became an existential expression, devoid of meaning. It was just the thing the brown-haired, moon-faced kid under the basket shouted.
“I’m not sure it necessarily means anything to me,” said Bernstein, 22, who hopes to become a professional baseball broadcaster when he graduates this spring and has worked the past two summers broadcasting Cape Cod Baseball League games. “But I’ve stood there this whole time with a sign that says ‘Deposit.’ It became a tradition, and I have a lot of respect for tradition and history in sports.”
At one point Bernstein abandoned the towel a “DEPOSIT” sign he made on poster board. This year he ordered a nicer sign for $18.95 on BuildASign.com. And at another point, when NU was mired in a terrible slump, he made another that read “TISOPED,” which is “deposit” backwards, in the hope that he might reverse the team’s luck. He shouted “Tisoped!” all night, but the Wildcats still lost and he went back to “Deposit!”
I asked Bernstein if he worried that people think he’s nuts. Given that he wasn’t terribly worried about his freshman journalism instructor thinking him unusual, I had an idea what he would say.
“Yes, it’s supposed to be nutty,” he said. “I have no problem with that. In the future, when I’m working, I won’t be able to be that nutty. But I’m a college student. I want to be a little nutty while I have the chance.”
Was it hurting his social life, I asked, particularly with women? “It’s not making it any worse!” he said, grinning big.
In fact, Bernstein is not all goof. There’s a clever part to his behavior. He arrives early to games not only to secure his spot closest to the opposing team’s bench and to save seats for his friends but also to schmooze with visiting broadcasters, to help WNUR’s student broadcast team set up their equipment, and to get to know players. He’s making valuable connections.
“Seth’s just one of those kids, a friendly, spirited guy,” said Drew Crawford, a senior who has been one of the team’s best players in recent years. “He puts it all out there. He doesn’t care what people think. And he definitely gets in the other guys’ heads. He doesn’t stop. He’ll stay you on you all game.”
When Bernstein isn’t shouting “Deposit!” or “Tisoped!” he’s heckling the opposition. At the Penn State game, he picked on head coach Patrick Chambers who, even with his team leading 12-0 in the first half, looked mad enough at one point to bite off one of his hands and throw it at the referee.
“Coach!” Bernstein shouted. “You’re such an angry man! I don’t like angry people! Smile! Coach! Go back to the bench! Be happy, not angry! Coach, if you want to save on car insurance I can help!”
Chambers, who was no more than 20 feet away from Bernstein, showed no reaction. Some of his players, however, were biting their lips trying not to laugh.
Bernstein’s act has one more part. When visiting players are at the foul line, staring him in the face, he does his best to make them miss by pulling objects from his backpack and shouting their names: “Radio!” he shouts, holding up a radio. “Debit card!” “Gator Bowl media guide!” “Lotion!”
The highlight of his heckling, he said, was a game last year against Michigan. When Tim Hardaway Jr. went to the foul line, Bernstein started pulling out posterboard cutout heads that he had made himself featuring the cast of Inside the NBA — one each for Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Craig Sager, and Ernie Johnson. Hardaway laughed and missed five straight free throws.
But Bernstein got another thrill for his last home game before graduation when NU fans voted him and two other fans into the inaugural class of the WildSide Wall of Fame, which honors the school’s most exuberant of sports fans. The prize was a four-and-a-half foot high, four-foot wide cutout of his face. In the cutout, he’s wearing broadcaster’s headphones and a gentle grin.
When he wasn’t holding up the DEPOSIT sign in the game against Penn State, he hoisted his big head in the air.
“Hey, coach!” he shouted at one point, cardboard head high about his real one, “How can you make this happy face so angry?”
But Bernstein wasn’t angry, just tired, and a little bit wistful.
In the second half, Penn State took a commanding lead and the small crowd at Welsh-Ryan got smaller. Even the student section thinned. Bernstein remained, still shouting.
“I’ll always be a straight up Northwestern fan,” he said, “but it’s sad that I won’t be able to be at every game. As a professional broadcaster, I’ll probably have to tone down certain things.”
“But I’ll always have the ‘Deposit’ sign.”