Sitting on the baseline at Cameron Indoor Stadium during a Duke University Men’s Basketball game gives one a whole new perspective on the historic venue. And it begs the question, Is there a venue in sports with as much energy and tradition as Cameron Indoor Stadium? Maybe Madison Square Garden could be considered the North Carolina to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Arriving for game day on Duke’s campus I wondered if seeing Cameron Indoor for the first time would send chills down my spine the same way I always imagined. After years of hearing everyone from Dick Vitale to my own sister, who’s seen her share of games at Duke, praise the virtues of a game at Cameron, I was given the opportunity to see Duke play the Clemson Tigers, my alma mater.
My first impression of the place comes 5 hours before tipoff when I make the essential visit to Krzyzewskiville. Unfortunately, Krzyzewskiville is in the early stages of construction and only a few tents are complete. We did, however, have an opportunity to interact with a few tenants and have our picture taken with the “Krzyzewskville” sign. Constructing this community is all in the name of getting the best possible seats for the North Carolina game, a contest that still is weeks away.
Cameron, which was named for former Duke basketball coach Eddie Cameron, underwent a makeover in the late 1980’s. Still, give or take a few corporate signs the place looks pretty much like it did when Enberg and Billy Packer were calling games featuring Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks back in the ’70s. It probably looks no different from 1964, when Jeff Mullins led Duke to its first NCAA Finals appearance, a game it lost to John Wooden and UCLA.
The aura of Cameron comes from an architectural design that stuffs 9,314 fans – many of them the fabled Cameron Crazies – into a Gothic gymnasium that enhances their power by placing them right on top of the action. While many athletics officials claim they need larger facilities to remain competitive in the big-time world of college sports, Duke overwhelms opponents with its size by purposely staying small. That creates a claustrophobic environment for visitors who already are intimidated by the retired jerseys and national title banners hanging from the rafters.
The Cameron Crazies are renowned for their clever chants, but, like a good comedy stand-up act, their effectiveness is about delivery and timing as much as it is about content.
They hold up a baby doll, and chant “O-Baby.” When an opposing player misses a dunk, they chide him with, “You can’t dunk!” Some fans wear chef’s hats in homage to Krzyzewski. The raucous crowd has an effect on almost everybody. “The louder they cheer,” one media member seated on press row says, “the more I want to get up and cheer right along with them.”
And they are loud. With hands cupping his mouth and the veins in his neck popping, Krzyzewski appears to spend much of the game screaming. Even though I’m seated a mere 100 feet from him, the commotion prevents me from hearing a word that comes out of Coach K’s mouth.
The Dukies are dauntless, too. When the Blue Devils break out, they’re loud; when Duke coughs up that lead and trails by six points late in the second half, they’re louder still. Much has been made of the Cameron crowd’s craziness, but this is the South so they’re also impeccably well mannered. During the singing of the national anthem, all the Duke players, and the vast majority of the fans in attendance, place their right hands over their hearts while standing at attention. As he takes his seat on the bench, Coach K is introduced as “Mr. Mike Krzyzewski.”
None of the above would have been possible had Cameron Indoor Stadium faltered. Many colleges today believe that the newer the buildings and gymnasiums on campus, the better. Well in Durham, N.C., history has reigned supreme and will continue to do so in the future.
The history and atmosphere of Cameron has separated it from all other gymnasiums in college basketball. The small arena makes for loud noise, fans closer to the action, and therefore one of the toughest environments to play in all of basketball.
Every person who steps into Cameron Indoor Stadium can feel the energy that is released from one of the most prominent landmarks in America.
When I first entered the stadium on that January afternoon, I know that I felt the excitement rush up my spine, the intensity of the game in front of my eyes. Attending a basketball game at Cameron is to be part of a living, breathing body. One that affects the outcome of any game much the same way our brain moves our finger tips.
Graduation, marriage, babies, these are life changing events. But even the most diehard Duke fan would agree, you’ll never forget your first.