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Column: Covering a live college basketball game during a pandemic

Duke defeated Notre Dame 75-65 last Wednesday in the team's ACC opener and first road game of the season.
Duke defeated Notre Dame 75-65 last Wednesday in the team's ACC opener and first road game of the season.

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of covering a Duke basketball game in person.

Now, for something that is sure to be a rare occurrence this season, I knew I probably should write something documenting my experience. But to be honest, I didn’t really know what I’d write about. 

I figured I’d already seen the effect no fans has on the game through the lens of my television at home, and that there wasn’t that much more to it. 

We’ve all witnessed the impact it has in Cameron Indoor Stadium, with late-game Duke comeback attempts against both Michigan State and Illinois unable to gain steam inside an empty arena. And Wednesday, the Blue Devils experienced the other side of it. Notre Dame pulled within five points on two separate occasions during the second half, but seemed to lack the energy to fully get over the hump inside a near-empty Purcell Pavilion filled with mostly Fighting Irish players and coaches’ families.

Whether this new game-day atmosphere is actually changing the outcome of any of these contests is another story (the answer is unlikely), but it remains a significant change compared to years past.

Now, was being inside that near-empty stadium weird, especially during the timeouts that were usually occupied by commercials? Sure, but I already expected that. Watching plays such as Texas’ Matt Coleman’s buzzer-beater against North Carolina and Duke’s very own DJ Steward’s emphatic dunk against Bellarmine with no crowd reaction had already prepared me.

What television hadn’t prepared me for, however, was the lack of buzz leading up to the game. And covering Wednesday’s contest in person reminded me that there’s a lot that goes into a college basketball environment besides what we see once ESPN cuts to tip-off.

Normally, a matchup against the Blue Devils is one of the biggest games on an opponent’s schedule. Fans will pay hundreds of dollars while students wait for hours to see their team take on Duke, whether it be for a top-10 matchup or a chance at a season-defining upset. Yes, this year’s Blue Devil squad isn’t as strong as years past, but Duke is still Duke.

However, that buzz was nowhere to be found Wednesday. Of course, the fact that Notre Dame students had already gone home for break—making the surrounding campus a virtual ghost town—didn’t help matters, but there’s no doubt a home game against Duke during normal times would be one of the most coveted tickets of the year.

Admittedly, I’ve never been to a home Notre Dame basketball game, so I have nothing specific to compare Wednesday’s environment to. I have been to numerous matchups in Cameron Indoor Stadium, though, and my experience in South Bend, Ind., was a stark reminder of how weird game days will feel once I return to Durham in the spring.

It won’t even just be the empty Krzyzewskiville, void of both the students and tents that normally populate it between January and March. It’ll also be the restaurants, from Krafthouse to The Loop, that typically act as campus hot spots during road games. And what about burning the benches after a (potential) win against North Carolina?

So, yes, these early-season games have prepared us for the oddities of no fans in the stands. But what I learned Wednesday is that no matter what we think we’ve been prepared for, there are still a lot more oddities yet to be uncovered this season.

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