1. This place is different.
For a sports cathedral, you realize, it hardly makes a show of itself.
It takes a few seconds to register that the unassuming brown brick building you gaze upon is indeed Cameron Indoor Stadium, mausoleum for the hopes of countless vanquished foes. One of America’s iconic sports locales, the Duke arena’s exterior looks more like a history department than a college basketball Mecca.
A faint apprehension permeates the crisp winter air at “K-Ville,” the grassy field adjacent to the stadium where students grill and enjoy cheap American beers in the hours before Virginia’s men’s team tips off with Duke. The Blue Devils have dropped two of their first three ACC games to Notre Dame and Clemson, with freshman phenom Jabari Parker starting to cool after a sizzling start and coach Mike Krzyzewski fiddling with his starting lineup like a high school junior fiddling with his bow tie at prom. Meanwhile, you surmise, the surging Cavaliers represent the Duke students’ least favorite type of opponent: unglamorous to defeat, but good enough to make things difficult.
When you walk through the doors and glimpse the famous blue court, however, any notion that this game will lack Duke’s famous mystique quickly evaporates. As you carve out a spot in the middle of the blue-clad student body just feet away from the court, you reckon that this little nondescript building is a temple of college basketball.
Even with a slightly anxious Duke fanbase, you can’t help but feel the supernatural at work while watching the players warm-up. You can’t help but feel a little smaller.
2. They have mastered the art of effective exasperation.
Though awestruck, soon enough you are also annoyed. And that’s the infuriating genius of Cameron.
You glanced at the school’s “dirt” sheet, and object not to its existence but to its quality. In addition to taking a few potshots at the University’s quirky terminology so bland they would embarrass even Dane Cook, the “dirt” it spills — including pictures of senior forward Thomas Rogers’ girlfriend — seems more weird than damaging. You’re still intimidated, but you seethe at the complacency of it.
Then the game finally starts, and the Cameron Crazies begin what Duke’s athletic website euphemizes as “creative harassment.” Their synchronized chants and intrusive armpits never cease to harass referees and Virginia players alike. You can see the players’ eyes widen, and sense the hopes for a Cavalier victory dwindle in a disorienting blur.
Through the haze, however, you see that the Cavaliers seem to be losing primarily for basketball-related reasons. They pound the paint against Duke’s undersized interior defenders, but miss open shots. They limit Parker’s offensive game to passive jumpshot-vomit, but allow Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson to morph into Jay and Shelden Williams. And though the players are clearly doing their best to tune the crowd out, the atmosphere is weighing on them. One player in particular.
When senior forward Akil Mitchell’s emphatic two-handed slam is disrupted only by Rodney Hood’s vicious undercutting foul with 13:36 to go, the deafening “You Can’t Dunk!” chants represent the height of injustice and ignorance. But Mitchell’s eyes turn into saucers. He clanks his two free throws. On his next trip to the line, he leaves his second foul shot about 5 feet short, meaning a gleeful and uproarious “Air-Ball” chant fills everyone’s ears whenever he touches the ball. That it was objectively dumb to criticize Mitchell for missing the dunk in the first place hardly mattered.
Like any other fanbase, the Cameron Crazies can be unfunny or unfair or insulting. But their relentless capacity to annoy — as well as their sheer proximity to the court — ensures that they get under your skin. By the time you have to tell yourself to ignore them, they usually have already won.
3. Sports work when they don’t make sense.
Then, with six or so minutes left in what is sure to be another easy Duke victory at Cameron, the world turns upside down.
Since you can barely hear yourself think, anyway, you can only watch transfixed as Virginia mounts a crowd-silencing 22-8 run. A glimmer of hope emerges when Justin Anderson hits a 3-pointer and an absurd “and-one” tip-in to close the gap.
When Joe Harris swipes the ball and lays it in at the other end to cut the lead to three, the smattering of Virginia fans in attendance erupt, pent-up frustration melting into unbridled giddiness.
Finally, after Malcolm Brogdon coolly sinks two free throws to grant the Cavaliers a 65-64 lead with 37 seconds to play, you can do nothing but shake your head in amazement while 9,000 others do the same in disbelief. You know you will always remember the childlike look on the Virginia players’ faces saying, “Wow, we might have really pulled this off!”
You marvel at the resolve of the Cavaliers in a situation where you, and nearly everyone else, would have conceded defeat. You’re grateful that even in Cameron Indoor, things can get this wacky. Most of all, as you watch Sulaimon’s game-winning attempt bounce off the rim, seemingly off the mark, you think to yourself that college basketball is a beautiful thing.
4. You just lost your perspective — and enjoyed it.
The dream ends abruptly. Sulaimon’s ball bounces up but right back into the net, completing a brilliant 21-point outburst from the reserve guard and sending the Cameron Crazies into a tizzy. On the next possession, a rushed Mitchell pass leads to a fatal turnover. You watch Jefferson ice the game with two more free-throws.
As fans file out, the fantasy that enveloped you for the last two hours dissipates. Minutes after a basketball game seemed like the only thing happening in the world, you place the game back in its proper context. It is a frustrating loss for Virginia, but just one loss, and one indicative of a team that can thrive in the ACC.
You talk and laugh with the same Duke kids who seemed so villainous a few minutes ago, and remember that JPJ boasts a frenetic, hostile atmosphere of its own.
Later, you read a story from David Teel of the Daily-Press about Coach K, the face of the “enemy,” coping with the recent loss of his beloved brother. You chill out a bit, and worry about things more worrisome than the outcome of a game.
You acknowledge that basketball is not really a religion, Cameron Indoor not really a church, your experience not really supernatural.
But for a couple hours, you were fooled. And you can’t wait until sports fool you again.