We had shivered in the cold. We had been awakened by the siren at 3 a.m. And the day had finally come.

Before 3:30 pm

My alarm rang at 8:15 am.

I woke up but remained in bed for a while, staring at the ceiling, unable to believe that this was the game day — until I hopped on a bus full of blue-clad students, until I saw that the path from the West Campus bus stop to K-Ville was all blue and boisterous.

Although my group was put on the waitlist for dirty black tenting, we managed to get the last spot for white tenting . So I went ahead to get my wristband and asked people how they felt at the moment.

“This is the best day of my Duke experience so far,” sophomore Salil Mitra said. “It’s just fun for everyone to come together and celebrate it. GTHC!” Mitra was dressed in a Cameron Crayola costume but hadn’t put on the finishing-touch hat yet.

Patrick Wilson has been a Duke fan since 1986 and moved down to Chapel Hill just to be closer to Duke basketball. He told me that the importance of this game to him is difficult to measure. Meanwhile, his daughter Skyla, raised as a Duke fan, was holding a poster and loudly declared that her favorite player is Grayson Allen.

Graduate students were not absent from the scene, either.

“I personally did not know about [this game] until I came to Duke, but since the day I came to Duke, everyone’s been talking about it,” said Chand Chintakunta, a student in the Master of Engineering Management program. “So we’ve all been looking forward to the game since August.” 

I got on a bus back to East Campus and ran into Nugget in front of Marketplace. Even she was exceptionally spirited, as she probably smelled the excitement suffused in the air.

3:30 pm

I was 50 meters away from K-Ville and could not believe my eyes. People dancing and blasting music on piles of pallets. Flapping fraternity flags marking their territory. Torn-down tents. Laughing, chatting, clinking, photo-taking. 

There were Duke Smurfs everywhere. A sea of blues.

I wondered, What exactly does this game mean to Duke students?

Some of my tent-mates had also painted themselves blue. Our captain, first-year Thomas Williford decided to be a little creative and dress up as Santa Claus. He is also the best and most dedicated Duke fan that I know. 

“My idea of a crowd is that the crowd isn’t there to have fun or have a good time, the crowd is there to help the team win,” Williford said. “And by helping the team win and giving the other team hell, you’ll have a good time. But you’re there to make an impact on the game!”

The other members of his family are UNC fans, and he only became a Duke fan under the influence of his babysitter. His mom had already given him a hard time after the last loss at UNC.

When we were about to enter Cameron after an hour-long, cold and windy lineup, he had to pause a little because he was almost afraid to go inside. The wait had been so long and exciting that we almost didn’t want the day to finally come.

During the game

I had not been raised as a Duke fan like Skyla; nor was I as dedicated a fan right now as Thomas. During the game, I was squeezed to the very right side of the student section where it was sometimes hard even to see the court clearly. My feet were shouting pain due to the four hours of standing. My lips burned with thirst, my stomach complained of hunger and my ears screamed about the loudness of the crowd. I also got pushed off the bench quite often.

But it was an extraordinary feeling. The routine chanting of “We want six.” Hands in the air for free throws. The “Let’s go Duke,” the “Let’s go Devils.”

My voice was getting hoarse. I’d been telling people that I wanted our guys to win because I’d sacrificed so much to go to this game. But in Cameron, all that and all the calculating about how expensive a ticket I had earned by sleeping in a tent for two weeks were gone. I came to understand what Thomas described to me as “the duty of the crowd.”

We weren’t just watching. We were participating. All of Cameron was one voice, one spirit. I’d never seen or felt anything like it. 

During the bench-burning that followed, I thought, this school might be crazy, but I love it.