Last Sunday, Bill Morris in the New York Times added to the recent meme that college athletics are “out of control” and need to be reigned in. To illustrate his point he profiles the new-ish tradition at Duke University where students camp out, now months in advance, to insure entrance to the Big Game of the year: Duke vs. UNC men’s basketball. While I agree in some part that college administrations sometimes direct athletics un-due attention and resources that are probably contrary to their founding missions as academic institutions, I also cherish the act of cheering for one’s college team as a form of pure and benign community building. And I think that Morris has latched onto the wrong symbol of collegiate athletic access when he speaks of “Krzyzyewskiville.” Then again, I may be biased because I was there, in line, at the beginning.
I arrive at Duke in the fall of 1982, and I distinctly remember our freshman orientation guide, a junior with spiky blond hair, asking our group if we followed college basketball. All ten of us looked around and then shook our heads. He smiled and said, “a year from now you will be big fans.” Frankly I was most looking forward to the ACC football season as our family were big Ohio State football fans, so I had watched many Big Ten football games growing up and finally wanted to see a college game in person. I didn’t even know if Ohio State had a basketball team, though Dad had mentioned once or twice that John Havlicek of our beloved Boston Celtics had played for Ohio State.
Duke football did NOT disappoint that season. With standout quarterback Ben Bennett running offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier’s up-tempo offense (along side freshman running back sensation Julius Grantham) the Blue Devils won their first three games before falling back to earth a bit, eventually going 6-5, beating North Carolina, and attending a bowl game for the first time in forever. The season was amplified by the fact that I lived in the freshman athletic dorm with half the dudes on my hall of ten rooms football players. When I walked out any of the four doors along the the dorm building and looked left, I was looking at Cameron Indoor stadium with Wallace Wade stadium just behind it (the ONLY stadium to host a Rose Bowl other than its namesake, an awesome trivia question if you’re ever stuck for one).
Once in a while I would be surprised by passing a VERY tall dude in the dorm hall, or on the stairs. That would be either Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, or Bill Jackman (who transferred to his home school, Nebraska, after his freshman year). We learned that the *star* recruit of Coach K’s second recruiting class was guard Johnny Dawkins from Washington, DC, who was not super tall, and also very quiet, so he went largely unnoticed. That was most of what I knew about Duke basketball.
One evening, joking around with my two roommates (that’s right, for the privilege of living on the main campus as freshmen three of us lived in a 10′ by 15′ dorm room) one of us said — “hey, I think there’s a basketball game tonight. Let’s check it out…” We tumbled out of the dorm, walked across Campus Drive to Cameron Indoor Stadium, flashed our student IDs to get in, and strolled along the sidelines during a time out to sit in front row seats (courtside!) in the middle of the first quarter. We saw a bunch of our dorm mates in context, and noticed that Johnny Dawkins wasn’t just faster than everyone on the floor, but he shot better than most of them, too.
“That was fun,” we thought as we walked out into the still warm November night in Carolina.
We went to a bunch more games that season and watched a spirited but young team mostly lose. Those games memorably included Virginia during Ralph Sampson’s senior year, and the Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, and Michael Jordan show from Chapel Hill. For every game we went to, we just showed up about 15 minutes before the game and walked right in, flashing our student pass.
It’s worth noting that Duke took a chance hiring a young Bobby Knight disciple on the heels of his first job coaching at Army. My freshman year was Krzyzewski’s second year at Duke where he took over for Bill Foster who left for South Carolina after taking a Duke team with Mike Gminski and Gene Banks to the Elite Eight in 1980. Coach K was 10 – 17 his first year. His 1982 recruiting class — his first full recruiting class — was highly ranked, but his best players were freshmen, so the low expectations matched the 11 – 17 record that year. No one, at this point, knew that he would become “Coach K” and we had no idea that he might become (blasphemy!) a bigger legend than the established legend coaching 12 miles away at the time — Dean Smith. This was before ten ESPN channels and wall-to-wall sports coverage. Most folks outside of the ACC didn’t care about college basketball all that much besides the occasional marvel of a UCLA dynasty, or the very close-walled sparring among Eastern Catholic colleges who loved bashing each other in tiny stinking gyms for bragging rites.
Here’s the important part: Duke is different than many other schools in that it lets undergrad students in free, AND seats them court side. Cameron has a wall around the court that is about ten feet high. Above that wall are the fixed seats for which you buy tickets. Below the wall are sliding (collapsable) bleachers that can be pulled back to allow for a larger floor in the arena. There are no seat numbers in the bleachers (at least not in my day) — you sit where you can fit, first come first pick of seats.
The “Cameron Crazies” idea doesn’t really mean that Duke fans ARE crazier or more passionate than other fans. It’s that by having Duke students down low they become part of the show, an inescapable and easily noticed visual component of any picture — moving or still — of the play in-bounds, also inches away from any reporter’s ear covering the game at the press table on the floor. One dorm — “The Bog” — made it their mission to collectively sit behind the visitors’ bench and to heckle the opposing team NON-STOP throughout every game. This couldn’t happen if the student section is up in the rafters, away from the cameras and less “in-your-face” to visiting teams and reporter’s row. For the students, the athletes are NOT distant gods — they are almost human (well, they still are basketball players…) playing ten feet away at eye level. The chanting and singing and the call and response conducted by the cheerleaders is infectious when you are immersed in it, inspiring you to yell louder just to be heard. When some smart aleck starts an original chant, *everyone* can hear it, and if it’s clever and good (vs. drunken and crude), *everyone* joins in on the second round. When you sit among the students, and the only lights are on the court, you have no idea that there are thousands more sitting above you. It feels like it’s the players and the students alone sharing this experience.
Combine all this with the rise of ESPN, that was desperate for programming (hurling!) and willing to broadcast nationally a game that was rarely broadcast locally. Then add an excitable commentator (Dick Vitale) who ***LUVS*** college basketball to begin with, and ***LUVS*** kids who get excited about college basketball, and then gets to sit among those kids, and it’s no wonder he ***LUVS*** coming to Cameron to broadcast games on ESPN at the same time that Coach K begins to build something super special, and ***LUVS*** to tell people about this every time he’s in front of a mic. The birth of DUKE BASKETBALL was the result, vaulting Duke from a regional thorn in the side of UNC to becoming more hated nationally than the Yankees because of the coverage and the success.
Fast-forward to my senior year: Duke has been to two NCAA tourneys since 1982-83, but lost in the Round of 32 in both. But their impressive play, and returning senior class of stars led them to become ranked #6 pre-season. They won fifteen games before losing two in a row to @ UNC (ranked #1 at the time) and @ Georgia Tech (#4…back in the day the ACC ruled college basketball).
Later, one Saturday morning when Georgia Tech, now ranked #2, was set to visit Cameron I wandered over to the stadium front door with a couple textbooks to get in line for the game while I studied. I was the only person there for about an hour, and I thought I might be kicked out, but then someone else showed up. They had a chess board so we played speed chess for a while until it got crowded and jostle-ly in the small portico and we had to stand up. First in line meant that I could pick the perfect seat, which was not on the floor but mid-way up the bleachers at center court on the Duke bench side. I had a great view of that Duke win, which boosted them back up to #2.
They end up going 28 – 2 before their final game of the season, traditionally against the Tar Heels of UNC. According to Wikipedia, a few friends including a woman named Kimberly Reed decided to put up tents on Thursday for a Saturday afternoon game in order to be at the front of the line to get in. This fits my recollection, only I didn’t hear about this until Friday morning when someone breathlessly told me about the crazy people that had set up tents for the line to the game. I had planned to show up at dawn again, as I did for the GA Tech game, but with my classes over for the day (and my natural Line Phobia) I wandered over there to have a look and naturally got in line. Eventually friends of mine joined me, and we all camped out for the night in the open, taking turns doing pizza and beer runs, scavenging cardboard to sit/sleep on, and sleeping bags to keep us warm. For the most part it didn’t rain (hooray!) and it turned into a big party. The next morning the news trucks came to interview a bunch of us and take pictures. Dickie V jumped around and yelled at us for a while, and I distinctly remember the players looking at us incredulously as they walked through the line (the tents were stowed away in the morning) to enter the gym a few hours before tip-off. There were no structured rules as there are now, except for common courtesy, though it became clear (after friends joined friends of friends who then waved more friends to join them in front of me) that even though I was about the 5th group in line, I would be about the 300th person to enter the stadium when they opened the doors. That was fine — I just wanted to be in the building for that game, and I was, though not at center court. Instead I was mid-way up near the Duke bench but slightly behind the hoop at that end. They were still excellent seats, and I still had an excellent time as Duke, the newly minted #1 team in the country, beat their arch-rival who were then ranked third.
That season ended with a great sweep through the NCAA tournament to the final game where (Never Nervous) Pervis Ellison (who?!?!) lead Denny Crum’s Louisville team to the title that year over Duke. It was such a disappointment, but also such a great experience, one that I will never forget.