I have lived my entire life in or around New York City, which is considered to be The Mecca of Basketball. I'd always counted myself among the true believers, but I recently relinquished my Knicks season tickets as prices climbed rapidly and the quality of play diminished even faster. Given the current truncated NBA season and stuck with a cable provider no longer broadcasting the Knicks, I found my love for basketball continuing to wane.
Recently, I had an epiphany. I had scheduled a trip to Duke University's Diet & Fitness Center (DFC), and a friend suggested I attend some college basketball games during my stay and write a story about the experience. Truth be told, I had watched my share of college hoops on television for more than 40 years, but pro basketball snob that I am, I had never attended a college game. However, as luck would have it, both UNC and Duke had games scheduled during my visit, so I would get to see two of the best college teams in the country play in their home arenas.
Shortly after my arrival in Durham, North Carolina I met Barry Jackson, a local optician, who told me: "You're either Carolina or Duke. You can't be both." As a frequent client of the DFC, I've always given my allegiance to the Blue Devils, but -- for fear of being killed -- when I walked into the Dean Smith Center on January 26th (Tar Heels vs. NC State), I was wearing a blue UNC shirt. The arena was awash in a sea of blue, and I asked the woman sitting next to me if that color blue was considered powder or robin's egg. "Sir," she answered in formal southern drawl, "you are wearing Carolina Blue!"
The Dean Smith Center is a wonderful arena and the cheerleaders, pom-pom girls and band executed their moves as effortlessly as the Tar Heel team ran a pick & roll. Everything was clean, bright, shiny and so perfect it all seemed too good to be true, yet it was. UNC small forward Harrison Barnes is probably the best college player in the country and the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack handily. The whole experience reignited my love for the game. It was Thursday night and all I could think about was Saturday at noon, when St. John's would play Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I have been told endless stories about what it's like to attend a game at Cameron, but, as a jaded New Yorker, I wrote most of them off as hyperbole.
I was wrong.
I found the experience of a game at Cameron to be wildly unique and truly inspiring. The Duke students who comprise the Cameron Crazies have been called insane but they are actually as well prepared, organized and unified as the Duke team. Considering how amazingly loud and relentless the Duke fans were, I thought they would eventually annoy me, but their antics kept a smile on my face throughout the game and for hours afterwards.
Although I went to the UNC game as a civilian (8th row center), I attended the Duke game as a member of the press, so I sat directly in front of the Cameron Crazies. They seem to speak as one, and their chants are charming, eccentric and -- unlike many pro fans -- never vindictive or mean spirited.
They begin by saying "Hi" (in unison) to each member of the opposing team as they are introduced. ("Hi Moe!") When a St. John's player went to the foul line, the Crazies repeatedly admonished him with a chant of: "Tuck your shirt in." New Yorkers call for defense in two words: "De-Fence!" Duke fans say it as one word very quickly, over and over in an odd up-tempo manner that is curiously addictive. They all seemed to know everything about the opposing players, including their academic major. I asked one of the Crazies if all of this was organic or prepared in advance, and she explained that they hand out information sheets prior to the games. Whatever they do, there is no denying that the Cameron Crazies have a substantial effect on the game and function like a sixth player.
Duke hung on to win the game after blowing a huge lead, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won four NCAA titles, was not pleased. "We did enough to win. It almost makes me sick to say that." I have covered a wide range of events for both television and print, but Coach K's post game session was a real treat. "In order to win you have to be different," he said. "There is only one champion."
Watching these college teams play has reestablished my love for the game of basketball. I am flying back there on February 8th, when Duke plays UNC.
New York City may be Mecca, but North Carolina is heaven.
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