Seventy Years in Cameron
On Saturday, Jan. 6, 1940, about 8,000 people walked through the doors of Duke Indoor Stadium, situated about 40 feet from Card Gymnasium, for the inaugural game in the new arena. The stadium was hailed as the largest basketball venue south of Philadelphia’s Palestra, and it was described by the University in the game program, given out free of charge to all spectators, as “one of the most modern and complete physical education buildings in the country.” The president of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, Marion Fowler, called it “so colossal and so wonderful it leaves me speechless.” The crowd was thought to be the biggest ever for a basketball contest in the South.
Originally sketched on a book of matches by Wallace Wade and Eddie Cameron in 1935—as legend would have it, anyway—Duke Indoor Stadium had transformed, in about five years, into something tangible and magnificent. For the three years of planning, officials from the University had toured the country, admiring architectural designs and engineering structures. The funding for the new building came, ironically, when the 1939 football team, nicknamed the Iron Dukes, returned to Durham from the Rose Bowl with enough money to kick off construction, which started three months later. The Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, Architect—the same one that designed a New York townhome for James Buchanan Duke and built Duke’s campus in 1924—won the bid, and Julian Abele, one of the first black architects in the United States, drew the plans. The exterior brick was to be taken from the Duke quarry near Hillsborough, the source of the stone for the academic edifices on the other side of West Campus. They sketched a domed building with 5,000 seats, which was considered extravagant by Trumbauer’s standards. “For your information Yale has in its new gymnasium a basketball court with sittings for 1,600,” Trumbauer wrote to President William Few. “I think the sittings for 8,000 people is rather liberal. The palestra at the University of Pennsylvania seats 9,000.”
Eventually, when Trumbauer lost the argument against decadence and the design for the stadium was finalized, the stone was laid in warm weather to avoid freezing the mortar. It took nine months and $400,000—adjusted for inflation, about $17 million today—to finish the construction, and it was fully financed in 1945, when, again, the Duke football team won the Sugar Bowl. Duke Indoor Stadium measured 262 feet by 175 feet, with nine steel frames at 26-foot intervals. The capacity of 8,800 spectators included room for 3,500 folding chairs—exclusively for use by undergraduates, then as now. The stadium itself had space for three full-sized courts, narrowed down to one when temporary seats were installed.
At the formal opening and dedication of the arena, the pep band kicked off the pre-game affair, followed by presentations and speeches from Dean William Wannamaker and Few, both of whom marveled at the physical beauty of the building. From there, a number of dignitaries—including the head coach of Princeton, the opponent—were introduced before Robert House, a dean at the University of North Carolina, addressed the crowd. House was not the public official meant to give the final remarks before the game’s tip; the University had planned for N.C. Gov. Clyde Hoey to be the keynote speaker. Earlier that week, however, Hoey had sent a Western Union telegram to Henry Dwire, a University vice president, informing him that “it will be impossible for me to attend meeting Saturday night. Am very sorry.” So the remarks fell to House, who doubled as a representative of the Southern Conference.
“I am a Methodist, I aspire to religion, I endorse erudition and I use both tobacco and water,” he began, with three microphones amplifying his words. “I should like to be a scholar and a gentleman. Hence, I claim to have good personal grounds for being a friend and well-wisher to Duke University.” The crowd must have laughed, and House continued, congratulating Duke on the latest addition to its “supremely beautiful plant,” before philosophizing on the meaning of the building—which, 70 years later, is now known as Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Here will be on parade not only Duke University, but also in sportsmanlike rivalry, other colleges and universities through their teams and supporters. Youth will be on parade here. Education will be on parade here. And here the values of a great and democratic people will be on parade in that most dramatic of modern exercises—the tension of communal rivalries transcending itself in terms of courtesy and sportsmanship. Herein lies the beautiful possibility we celebrate. For modern intercollegiate athletics, despite its many unsolved problems, is transcendent in dynamic appeal to the brain and character of youth, the skill of teachers and the response of the public, which rises unfailingly to fine examples. Modern games preserve for us the athletic glory of Greece, the executive efficiency of Rome, the courtesy of the age of chivalry, and in terms of sportsmanship and effective teaching, they add dramatic psychological and moral values of their own. It is fitting to rejoice in this flowering of this whole phase of education and to rejoice in its adequate and beautiful temple which here we dedicate to youth and to democracy.”
That night, Duke beat Princeton, 36-27.
The first time I sneaked into Cameron, in 2004, the stadium looked different from the way it did in 1940.
In more than 60 years, the building itself had witnessed two major renovations, separated by about 10 years. The first substantial tuneup arrived in the late 1970s, prodded by a stern letter from then-head coach Vic Bubas to Tom Butters, the school’s longtime athletic director. The stadium needed a fresh coat of paint. The old, original floor had been decimated by more than 30 years of play, and it was replaced by a new court, resting on 30,000 hand-laid slats of wood over 1/16th of an inch of cement and thick foam padding. New seats awaited the students, and new baskets were suspended from the roof. The renovations, all told, cost $650,000 then, and they effectively brought about a new era of the arena.
The change that preceded this first renovation, were perhaps even more significant to the modern manifestation of the building. In 1972, a new nameplate adorned the campus-side stone entrance. With eight lines of raised text, Duke Indoor Stadium became Cameron Indoor Stadium, dedicated by the Board of Trustees in honor of Edmund McCullough Cameron, Duke’s head basketball coach from 1939 until 1942, its head football coach from 1942 until 1945 and its athletic director in that period and then again from 1951 until 1972. On the day of the dedication, Cameron posed for photos with Terry Sanford, the University’s president, and Carl James, his replacement as athletic director. The other administrators wore dark suits, while Cameron, whose hair had grayed on the edges, sported a tan checkered coat. “Eddie was almost shocked when they told him that they were going to name it for him,” recalled Bill Brill, a 1952 graduate, longtime sports writer and namesake of Cameron’s media room. Ever since, Cameron’s name has been synonymous with the building, transcending generations. The Cameron Crazies are, of course, indirectly named in his honor, and when students refer to the basketball stadium in conversation, it’s never as Cameron Indoor Stadium, but just Cameron.
The first renovations to the newly christened stadium held for about 10 more years, by which point it had become clear, yet again, that the old gymnasium needed more than just fresh paint. In February of 1986, for a Sunday game between Duke and Georgia Tech, the famed sportscaster Dick Enberg came to Cameron for the NBC telecast. After extolling the building’s charm, he proceeded to speak of imminent changes to Cameron—the second of such upheavals. “They’re not going to raise the roof,” Enberg said. “They’re going to spend money to renovate it, complete with brass railings and stained glass windows. They’re going to make a real sports antique out of it, and I salute them for it.” Cameron, indeed, was about to be embellished with decorative wood paneling and brass railings, a new scoreboard and a new sound system, stripping the upper bowl of the sound buffers it had sported since 1940. The athletic department planned to install 750 new student seats, bumping the arena’s capacity to that famed 9,314 figure. The lobbies were to be refurbished, the restrooms spruced up.
Basketball in Cameron is a kind of religion, practiced by the worshipping masses of Cameron Crazies. They bow to Mike Krzyzewski when he walks on the floor, and one could even interpret their incessant bouncing as a kind of prayerful meditation. Even for a university founded on Methodism, however, the installation of stained glass windows never was part of the renovation plan. Cameron’s status as a pseudo-cathedral, rather than a literal shrine, would have to suffice. Enberg had simply misinterpreted a conversation with an athletics official. So when Butters walked into his office the next morning, only to be greeted by phone messages from multiple stained-glass window companies looking for business, he had to tell them he wasn’t interested.
Over the next 20 years, Cameron was the subject of more change—the constructions of the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center next door and the adjacent Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence were major capital projects; adding air conditioning in 2001 was less costly, but just as necessary—but it was the arena transformed in the late 1980s that I, like so many others, saw when I first walked into Cameron.
The summer day I came to tour the campus as a prospective student was sunny and sticky. We started at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, sweating our way up Chapel Drive, looking for some shade that never surfaced. We turned right at the Chapel, stopping in large semi-circles on the academic side of the quad before finding air-conditioned refuge in the Perkins lobby, near a von der Heyden Pavilion that was still under construction. My father and I saw another high schooler and his father, about five feet away, whispering in each other’s ears. Soon enough, they had walked away from the group leader, prattling on about the collected total of books in the libraries. The tour wended through West Campus before ending, finally, by Towerview Road, across the street from Cameron. The guide told us she wasn’t going to escort us into the stadium, but we should feel free to cross the street and find our way in. My father and I walked, quickly, through the parking lot, past the Krzyzewskiville sign and the student-side entrance, and we hit the graduate-student-side lobby. The doors to the court were locked, so we climbed the stairs and ducked under obstacles guarding the ramps from visitors. He let me go first. I half-expected to see Coach K look up and scold me for watching practice, but instead, the court was being re-lacquered. The gym seemed no bigger than my high school’s, the air more musty. It was beautiful.
We walked back down the steps, after about five minutes of admiration, and there, looking around the lobby, were the father-son duo that had left the tour. They had been in Cameron the entire time.
In November of 1986, just several months before Mike Krzyzewski was to win his first national coaching honor, Tom Butters, Duke’s athletic director, began a study to examine the feasibility of expanding Cameron Indoor Stadium. The study resulted in a proposal to add 6,000 seats to Cameron at a hefty $15 million price tag. A 15,000-seat stadium would bring in almost $1 million extra in ticket revenue each year, plus another estimated $1 million in contributions from boosters; even at $15 million, adding to Cameron would have been less pricey than building an entirely new stadium for an estimated $25 million. The charm of the building would have been lost, destroyed in favor of the need to keep up.
High-level University administrators—the Board of Trustees, President Keith Brodie and, most important, Butters himself—nixed the plan, choosing instead to tweak Cameron subtly, maintaining its quaint charm. In a three-page memorandum dated Nov. 1, 1987, Butters offered an explanation of the strategic process before validating the University’s eventual decision. “In exchange for 6,000 additional seats, we would sacrifice the intimacy of Cameron Indoor Stadium and perhaps alter forever its unique character,” he wrote. “Certainly it is one of the most intimate basketball arenas in the nation. Additionally, the building has as much national acclaim as any arena associated with a university. Wrigley Field is not The Astrodome—but then—does it need to be? Given those feelings, we continued our conversations with the administration and recommended strongly that for the long foreseeable future, Duke University basketball be played in Cameron Indoor Stadium.”
On the same day, Krzyzewski also wrote a letter addressed to fans of Duke Basketball. The young coach, still just 40 years old and a few months removed from his first Final Four, was still building his now-legendary career at Duke. His primary office was still in an auxiliary hall of Cameron, blocked by an ornate door that didn’t quite fit the decor of the cinderblocked hallway. (Even then, an athletics official told me, Krzyzewski was a believer in something he calls the Blob Theory: decorate the door, and the rest of the area will follow in grandeur.)
Krzyzewski’s note was markedly shorter than Butters’. Typewritten and dotted with the coach’s loopy signature, the letter consisted of just two paragraphs. He began by expressing his support to renovate rather than expand, proclaiming that it would have been a “mistake” for Duke to get caught up in the pressure to build instead of perfect.
“I have played and coached in many facilities but for atmosphere, tradition and home-court excitement, none can match Cameron,” he wrote. “It is one of the most famous basketball arenas in the country and one of the most feared by opposing teams. Why, then, should we change it? The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t change it.”
Last Christmas Eve, Kevin White, Duke’s second-year athletic director, went for a run in Melbourne, Fla., where his family has a vacation home. “They have all these beautiful cars down there, these yesteryear cars,” White recently recalled, “and I’m jogging so slow I’m almost going backward. I go down a sidestreet, and there’s an MGB—candy-apple red with a tan interior, and the hood was down. It was a beautiful day. I just looked at it, and it looked, to me, like it was late 50s, early 60s. I actually stopped and looked at the car. I’m gazing at it, and I’m thinking, Holy God, it’s beautiful. It could be in a showroom. It’s, like, 50 years old, and it’s unbelievable.”
White resumed running soon after stopping, and it wasn’t long after that when a thought hit him: That’s what we need to do to Cameron.
White and I talked in his new digs on the third floor of the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center; the office of his predecessor, Joe Alleva, had been nestled in a side office of Cameron. Since White arrived in May 2008 from Notre Dame, Cameron has already undergone several changes—both to preserve the authenticity of the arena and to enhance the actual game experience. A new suspended scoreboard, complete with a video board to show video montages and delayed highlights, was the major addition of White’s first hoops season in Durham. This year brought more facelifts. The gray walls of the upper bowl endured a powerwashing, and the seats, once an off-white, were painted dark blue. The media saw an installation of a new press row—with aisles!—and a long, horizontal LED screen on one side of the court complements the traditional CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM lettering on the scorer’s table. Even the student seating, long a hallmark and priority of the stadium, saw minor adjustments, with graduate students trading their seats in the back corners of the undergraduate section to a prime location next to the band, under an end zone. That shifted boosters to newly installed padded seats behind the scorer’s table, displacing a handful of rogue undergraduates. “We don’t want to change the feel of what makes the Cameron experience,” said Mike Cragg, whose duties as an associate athletic director and director of the Legacy Fund include facility planning. “We had a major change from this time a year ago to now—a lot has happened. And outside of Michael Buffer as the P.A. announcer, no one’s complained. Cameron looks better, and it feels better.”
In 10 years, it’s almost certain that Cameron won’t look the way it does now, nor will the changes of the past two years feel like anything more than prologue to a more thorough Cameron operation. For the last several months, the athletic department has worked on its master facilities plan, which could be presented to the Board of Trustees as early as the Board’s May meeting. The cornerstone of the plan is a joint renovation of Cameron and Wallace Wade Stadium—that is, the two venues that can drive and generate revenue. “One is a facelift plus amenities, and the other’s a reconstruction,” White said. “We’re putting the conceptualization of all that under one umbrella and looking at it as a singular project to enhance revenue-generating sports, because as those sports go, generally speaking, so goes the financial health of the department.” PricewaterhouseCoopers is on board to collect data about the demographics of Cameron spectators, and ISP Sports, the athletic department’s Web partner, is studying the value of naming rights for certain amenities in both venues. HNTB Corporation, an architectural firm in Raleigh, was hired to draw phase-based blueprints for the new buildings. Meanwhile, White and Cragg have remained in constant contact with officials from the Allen Building, in addition to a Roy Bostock-led nine-person external consulting committee, which has met twice in person.
None of these potential changes would be as dramatic as, say, knocking down Cameron and building over it. They would probably take place in the immediate and in the long term, based on urgency, but some of the ideas being thrown around for the basketball stadium include an expanded lobby, a team store in the stadium and suites in the upper deck, which could be installed without lifting Cameron’s roof by possibly removing the top two rows of seats and building outward, primarily. If anything, the changes that are likely to be proposed would decrease the number of seats in the arena. Mostly, the renovations to Cameron would involve building around Cameron, not inside of it. There’s not much to do in the bowls themselves, after all.
The most significant shift—for the time being, at least—is philosophical rather than tangible. White likes to tell people that the best thing about the two athletic facilities is their proximity to each other, and the worst thing about the two athletic facilities is their proximity to each other. One of the entrances to Cameron has a fairly decent view into Wallace Wade; if the windows in Cameron’s upper bowl were transparent, the panorama into the football stadium might be even better than it is for basketball. It’s not surprising, then, that the two stadiums, erected long ago, are going to evolve together. Athletic officials envision pre-game and post-game basketball receptions in the suites above Wallace Wade, which, unlike Cameron, needs something more than a lift. “We need to build our football business,” White said, “and to do that, we need to reinvent the whole Wallace Wade scene, because antiquated is the nicest thing I can say about it. It’s 50 years out of date.”
The athletic department, as Cragg put it, is a kind of custodian for Cameron, protecting its authenticity and aura but also putting the stadium in a position to sustain itself for its next era. The University itself has more than 70 years’ worth of return out of its initial investment, but the need to modernize Cameron has never not been urgent. “There’s always something that needs to get done, and we’ve always got to have the money to be able to do it,” Cragg told me.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I visited Cameron for the interlude between a rare doubleheader. The women’s basketball team knocked off Maryland at 1 p.m., and the men were hours away from topping Virginia Tech in a vital ACC showdown at 7:45 p.m. Five minutes after the women’s game had ended, a maintenance staff emerged from the stadium’s bowels, prepared to turn over the arena and make it new again.
EventOne staffers, wearing painfully bright yellow jackets and standing with their hands clasped behind their backs, rolled out spools of rope to protect the court from curious spectators. The cleaners—the stadium’s actual custodians—went to work in the upper bowl. They walked lethargically, some horizontally and others vertically, through the seats, picking up trash by hand and stuffing it into oversized black trash bags, most of which seemed light. They carried spare garbage bags in the back pockets of their jeans. A few carried their haul over their shoulder, like Santa Claus lugging a bag of toys, while one let it drag behind him. They kicked up the chairs as they passed them, allowing the men’s ticketholders the visceral pleasure of setting the seats back down in front of them.
Some of the staffers finished with their assignments and moved to cleaning Sections 17 and 19, the bleachers sandwiching the width of the court. They paced through the nine rows of 108 seats on the undergraduate side, bagging water bottles, popcorn buckets, soda cups, Chick-fil-A wrappers, crumpled programs, straws, band sheets, Gatorade cups, skittles, copies of that day’s Herald-Sun and, by the tips of their fingers, solitary crusts of Domino’s. One of the EventOne staffers, reasonably confident, by that point, that no one was going to walk over his part of the court, asked me to pass him a copy of the Sunday paper behind the visitor’s bench. A janitor was sweeping the floor with a three-foot broom, shaking out the lint in the end zones. The din of quietness was distinct, and yet there was an echo of cacophonous voices, as if the people jabbering were much farther away than they actually were. Peace laid in this sense of place.
At that moment—standing in the corner of the wooden bleachers, waiting to be asked to exit the stadium—I thought back to a memo from the alumni office I had read, dated 1940. It was most likely written by Dwire, the official whom Governor Hoey had contacted to express his regret for not attending the opening ceremony. “On behalf of the General Alumni Association and the Alumni Office, I desire to express appreciation of the enlarged facilities for the program of physical education and athletics made possible by this building,” he started. “It will be a source of constant satisfaction, I am sure, to the alumni when they return to the campus for athletic and other occasions.”
Just more than 10 years later, when Brill worked for Eddie Cameron on the men’s basketball staff, he was tasked with overseeing one such occasion. On Saturday nights, prompted by the legendary two-sport star Dick Groat, the players would play pickup in Cameron. Brill sometimes was responsible for leaving a door or a window slightly ajar, making room for the players to sneak in around midnight. They made their own arrangements to activate the arena’s lights, leaving themselves just enough to see. Campus police must have seen them, Brill reckons now, but back then, no one paid notice. The players would start at midnight, fooling around in the gym that must have felt so new and mammoth and wonderful, but Brill still doesn’t know when they stopped. He never did see any of those games end.