My first visit to Duke as a prospective student wasn't a long, organized ordeal. There were no guided tours around campus or scenic walks through the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. No, my first visit was a quickie, a simple overnight trip that included just two integral stops: the Office of Admissions and Cameron Indoor Stadium.
As I tugged on the handle of a student-entrance door to Cameron, I remember thinking the doors to Duke basketball's cathedral would certainly be locked to outsiders. But it opened smoothly, if a bit heavily, inviting me in. I stepped in, half expecting some armed guard to pop out and ask me what business I had coming in there. But no, the stadium was quiet-as still as I'd ever see it.
The bleachers were pushed in and the baskets pulled back, and I remember thinking it was a lot smaller than I had imagined. But when I attended my first game, the place felt huge. Thousands of people squished into this finite space-you could probably touch 20 people from wherever you stood-and the rumble of a thousand conversations soon turned into a unified voice.
The starting lineups were announced over the PA system: "Starting at guard for some school that's about to get owned because this is a meaningless exhibition game. Joe Schmo."
"Hi, Joe!" we all yelled, waving like characters on a Saturday morning cartoon.
I thought it was the perfect way to start a game-an exaggerated politeness that flirted with condescension. Classic Duke. And for two-plus hours, I escaped into a world where I was just a face in the crowd but felt like much more.
Now, I can't say I was a fantastic Cameron Crazy during my days at Duke. I usually had a warm seat on press row, which kept me from committing to a tent. And I just wanted to see the game; it didn't very much matter to me which side of the court I was on or how close I could get. But a few years removed from the life as a Duke fan, I've come to realize just how special Cameron Indoor Stadium really is.
I've taken in my fair share of games in a number of stadiums and arenas over the last few years, but the more I see, the more I realize that none can really compare to the energy in Durham. It's not at every stadium that you can see white-haired men and dainty ladies throw up their hands and whoosh with every sunken free throw. It's almost unheard of to watch a game that has an unceasing soundtrack of "uhhhhhhhhhs" and "It's all your fault!"s and "boing, boing, boing, whooooa, pass!"
If you leave Cameron without a scratchy voice, you've played an implicit part in the team's undoing. And now, how does that make you feel?
See, watching a game in Cameron is unlike any other. I remember covering my first Duke-UNC game for The Chronicle. Squeezed into that small space between the court and a sea of screaming blue bodies, the noise around me was deafening-not just for tipoff, not just when we went on a 10-2 run, but sustained to the final buzzer. It was so loud that trying to speak over the din was a pointless endeavor. The other reporter and I communicated solely through scribbled notes in the margins of our reporters' pads.
It's really loud, I write. Yes, it is, he writes back.
At the half, while I enjoyed the fantastic cookies they serve in the media room, I found chips of blue paint on my shirt and a moist layer of spit had accumulated on top of my head. Disgusting? Yes, but hey, passion ain't always pretty.
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There's only one other place I've been that could possibly match the decibel level in Cameron on a good night, and that's Madison Square Garden, what they like to call "the world's most famous arena." During Rangers playoff games (and I'd draw a parallel with the Knicks here, but I mean, Knicks? Playoffs? Come on.), when the red light goes off and they cue up the goal song, the stadium does erupt in cheers and shake with a kind of elation that reminds me of Cameron. But there's one big difference on display there. As quickly as fans at MSG will praise your name for doing something good, by goodness they will curse you to the high heavens if you mess something up. They're a fickle bunch, ready to turn on a dime.
But Duke fans, by and large, are loyal to the last drop. We don't boo our team for losing, for missing free throws or dragging their feet. We stand by them, even when they underachieve. We find the silver lining and figure out why losing will make us better in the long run. Blind faith? Maybe. But when you're standing there, hopping up and down on those rickety bleachers, no hope is lost. Because hey, you've witnessed magic here before-Jeff Capel's long shot, Sean Dockery's even longer shot. No hope is lost because Jason Williams once beat Maryland single-handedly in a minute and Christian Laettner caught a Hail Mary pass and nailed a buzzer-beating two.
No hope is lost because the Blue Devils have put together enough miracles to make you think heaven's gates are painted in Duke blue.
To experience a game in Cameron is one of the greatest privileges of a Duke education. To partake in the cultish behavior is something most people don't-and frankly can't-understand. (We like to think we're intimidating. And come on, who isn't afraid of a cult?)
And like everything else, it's all in the details. The fact that you never finish a game in the exact spot you started it; we've all done the coat-scan in the bleachers after cold winter night games, always a little surprised that we've moved three feet in one direction or another. And the fact that you look out for Vicky, the guard at the student entrance who waves kids in every time the fire marshal turns his back. And over the course of four years, you have somehow learned every choreographed move of the Rock Lobster dance, which, by the way, I miss so dearly. (Somebody, please post it on YouTube.)
People outside of Duke can talk all they want about other stadiums, other arenas and say that they can top the atmosphere of Cameron. But there really is no competition. There is no other place where sitting down isn't even an option. There is no other place where standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people next to you would be considered rather roomy. There's no other place that feels as electric all the time, no matter the opponent, no matter the score, no matter the time of day or day of the week.
There's no place like Cameron. There's no place like home.