Tarheels at Duke: always a great game

The hardest ticket in sports?

Some say a home game at Lambeau Field with the Packers. Others posit The Masters golf championship. While others claim the Kentucky Derby. All are tough to get into. They are committed deeply into generations of family traditions, are famously part of divorce settlements and routinely have a finite number of seats. Yet, the hardest ticket in sports?

It’s a ticket to the North Carolina-Duke basketball game inside Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

It is a heated, fan-driven, historic rivalry with the school campuses separated by just nine miles, aka “Tobacco Road.” Overall, the University of North Carolina leads the series, 133-104. But since coach Mike Krzyzewski took over the Duke program in 1980, the Blue Devils are 442-58 (.884) at home. (Coach K has won four national titles at Duke and 14 ACC championships.) Early on in residency in North Carolina, you are asked: do you “pull for” Carolina or Duke? Or North Carolina State in nearby Raleigh? (We lived there 12 years in the 1980s-1990s.) It takes years of gentle politics, good deeds done, and over-the-fence cajoling to score the occasional pair of Duke tickets for yourself and a son. Duke and Carolina tickets? Forget about it. Unless you’re family, or in tight with a generous alum or have at reach considerable inheritance, those tickets are virtually impossible. One example: the “Cameron Crazies,” members of the Duke University student body, camp out for weeks in a tent city, aka “Krzyzewskiville.” hoping to get inside Cameron Indoor for this one game. Cameron is part of the story.

Cameron Indoor Stadium was built in 1940 without air conditioning and not much comfort therein. There are just 9,314 precious seats for one of the historically best college basketball programs. Cameron epitomizes the term: “cracker box.” No bad seats, a home gym vibe, stifling heat from a sold out crowd, three hours of pure energy.

Fans have to pick their way carefully along the sidelines to get to their seats, trying to avoid running into players like Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Shane Battier, J.J. Redick and others as they run their warm-up drills. In comparison, the Tar Heels’ home court, named after its legendary coach Dean Smith, seats almost 22,000 and was designed for concerts and other multi-use options. It opened in 1986. The Smith Center is certainly hallowed ground, but its acoustics lends a sterile feeling. The seats are comfortable, the climate controlled. Florida State player Sam Cassell called the Tarheel faithful “the wine and cheese” crowd because they preferred refreshments delivered to their seats instead of the raucous rhythm of a big game. UNC has almost 30,000 students; Duke, about 6,400.

The third part of the Duke attraction — besides good basketball and a great place to play within — is the student body, aka the Cameron Crazies. They are a clever bunch with just the right amount of brio to taunt the Tarheels team. For example:

• Once a Carolina player had been caught shoplifting. He was suspended from the team for a few games, but upon his return, he faced Duke and its student body. Whenever he fouled or mishandled a ball, the student body, wearing cheesy black bank-robber masks and some in orange jail jumpsuits would yell: “He stole it!”

• Son William and I once caught a game with the U. of Oklahoma when Billy Tubbs was the Sooners coach. Tubbs was balding, but had this huge, sweeping comb-over hairstyle. Every time Tubbs made a coaching gesture or chewed on the refs, the students pulled out pocket combs and combed their hair. Tubbs usually coached with a hot temper but on this occasion, he grinned (some) when the students did the comb-over. After the game, Tubbs complimented the student mimicry.

• William is a photojournalist in Colorado and has covered several games at Duke, usually finding a place on the floor, sitting on top of the ‘K’ under the one of the baskets. A few years ago, coach Gary Williams and the University of Maryland Terrapins rolled in and it was a warm night in February. Cameron was sweltering inside and neither coach pulled off his suit jacket. Williams had a propensity to sweat and by the end of the first 10 minutes of play, his suit jacket was soaked. Whenever Williams would challenge a ref’s call, the Crazies would yell and point at him: “Perspiration!” Whenever coach K gestured, they would point and yell: “Inspiration!”

The Tarheels and the Blue Devils, both 23-7 on the season, will square off again Saturday evening. At Duke.

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