My name is Chris Howell. Or at least that is what I told the ushers at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium last Sunday.
Using a borrowed student ID, I was able to sneak into the student section of one of the most revered venues in all of sports. I had prime courtside seats to a marquee matchup between the top-ranked team in the country, the Duke Blue Devils, and the then-No.7 Virginia Cavaliers. For a day, I was one of the Cameron Crazies, the large contingent of Duke students famous for their enthusiasm and fanaticism (usually shown by their constant, incessant bouncing during games).
The whole experience, from beginning to end, was unforgettable. We headed to the game around 4 p.m., which I considered insanely early given the 8:15 tip-off time. But as I soon found out, things are done a bit differently at Duke. By the time we arrived at Cameron, the line was already hundreds of people long.
And this wasn’t any ordinary line. It snaked from the entrance of Cameron (which is across the street from the westernmost residential dorms on Duke’s West Campus) around some other athletic buildings, doubled back on itself, and ended up running along the outdoor tennis court complex.
Students brought lawn chairs, books, cards, food and some kid even had a TV. Then again, I really couldn’t think this display was crazy because I could still see a few tents out on the lawn (named “Krzyzewskiville,” in honor of Duke’s legendary head coach). The tents, it should be noted, were left over from the Maryland game, when students camped out for days for the chance at a choice courtside seat.
Once inside, I was amazed by Cameron’s small size. On TV, the court seems huge and the wall of students and fans appears even bigger. This illusion is probably owed to the fact that the main TV camera is perched several stories above the court. Even realizing this, though, the impact of Cameron's cozy confines can’t be overstated.
This feeling of awe probably orginiates from my experiences at Harvard games. Lavietes Pavilion, our 2,195-seat facility, would barely be able to hold just the student section of Cameron. In addition to that, there is an upper level of 7,000 more seats of alums and locals who shell out big bucks to watch amateur kids half their age play basketball for free.
We settled into our seats in the student section, which is comprised of ten long wooden planks that run along the length of the court (recently renamed “Coach K Court,” again in honor of the one and only Mike Krzyzewski). It was ninety minutes before game time, but the student section was almost packed. I looked up at the championship banners and the retired numbers in the rafters and had to pinch myself.
As the players came out for warm-ups, I was again probably smiling moronically like kid during his first visit to Toys ‘R’ Us or like a guy watching his very first life-altering episode of “Baywatch”.
My stream of consciousness thinking went something like this: Holy crap, that’s Carlos Boozer…wow, he looks huge even compared to the other players…hey look, it’s Mike Dunleavy…I could have sworn he was lankier in real-life…oh well, he still looks goofy…who is that, number 30…must be Dahntay Jones…he’s damn smooth with his J, but looks a little too disinterested to really root for…hey, it’s Chris Duhon…didn’t he graduate last year?
And then there was Jason Williams, the consensus All-American and almost assuredly this season’s National Player of the Year. Next year, he will make more money in one season of NBA play than I will in my lifetime. But I don’t say this begrudgingly; Williams is actually one of the few who genuinely deserve it.
After warm-ups and right before the tip-off, the entire student section got on its feet and remained standing all throughout the game (halftime is the only time it is appropriate to sit).
Right before the ball is tipped, the famed bouncing begins. Now, I will admit that it took a little getting used to as I initially lost my balance and nearly jumped into the row in front of me. But once you get the hang of it, bouncing around with 2,000 of your closest friends on a wooden plank never felt more natural.
The game itself was intense and showcased everything I could have hope for. The first half was tight, with Virgina holding the Blue Devils to 35 percent shooting from the field. It even looked like the Cavs might give Duke a scare, fighting to a 42-42 halftime tie.
But the second half was an entirely different story. Duke blew up from the field, draining 67 percent of its shots, and capitalized on Virginia’s foul troubles to outscore the Cavs 51-29 in the second half. The final score, 94-81, didn’t accurately reflect the thrashing that had been unleashed by the Blue Devils.
And boy were there huge plays along the way. Williams was Jordan-esque in the first half as he elevated from just inside the free-throw line and threw down a halacious dunk. Boozer also sent the crowd into a frenzy with both of his rim-rocking efforts.
Despite the impressive displays of athleticism, it was really the experience of being one of the Cameron Crazies that I will remember best. The bouncing was one thing, but learning the cheers and not feeling weird doing them was another.
My favorite cheer was probably the one involving an old alum who frequents Duke home games. There’s this guy (he’s probably in his 50s) who brings a white towel to every game and sits directly opposite and in plain view of the student section. At certain times, the students will break out with chants of “CRA-ZY TOWEL-GUY (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) CRA-ZY TOWEL-GUY” to which he responds by popping out of his seat and going crazy with his towel. It is a thing of beauty, really.
In all, everything about the game literally left me speechless. I guess covering men’s basketball here at Harvard has slanted my view of what college basketball and college fans should be. After all, here at Harvard a student need only go to a game seconds before it begins, flash an ID and have his pick of any number of good seats instead of waiting for hours outside in the cold.
One could argue, though, that Harvard basketball has its big moments, such as Penn-Princeton weekend when the home games are sold out. While those games certainly are fun to watch and cover, I have to scoff a little bit at the idea that the Penn-Princeton weekend constitutes a great sports atmosphere. Come on, half the fans are from the other school and even at its most fevered pitch, the crowd can’t even hold a candle to the intensity of the Cameron Crazies.
In fact, all aspects of the Cameron experience left me, as a sports fan, insanely jealous of Duke students who can go to these spectacles nine or ten times a year. That opportunity, coupled with the prospect of girls actually walking around in mini-skirts for most of the year, was almost enough to make me call the Registrar’s Office and ask about a transfer application.
Then again, I’m not stupid. Harvard really is a great place even if it can’t compare to Duke on the hardcourt. I just wish that our student body was a little more energized about the sports we have and the athletes who are, in many cases, legitimately stellar in their respective pursuits.
Honestly, people, our teams are fun to watch and you should try it more often. Come on down tomorrow to watch the men’s basketball team take on the Brown Bears in an important Ivy League showdown (it will be televised on DirecTV on Channel 631) and I will personally teach you some of the Dukies’ better cheers.
As I close this long column, I freely admit that despite my amazing time at Cameron Stadium, my favorite part of visiting Duke was experiencing the warmth and friendship of the students who go there. Duke was, as the brochures promise, the epitome of Southern hospitality.
So, I just wanted to take this chance to thank all of those strangers-turned-friends who made my visit to Blue Devil Country so memorable. Thanks Kate, Jen, Jon, Davis, and everyone else who contributed to my fantastic stay.
And, of course, a hearty thank you is in order for my alter ego, Chris, without whose ID I surely would not have been able to live out a dream. Chris, if you’re ever in the Boston area, you are more than welcome to drop by Lavietes Pavilion and take in a Harvard basketball game as “Dan Fernandez.” I know the Crimson Crazies experience can never come close to the Cameron Crazies experience, but hey—at least you’ll get to be me for a day.
And if that isn’t enough to make you bounce up and down, I don’t know what is.
-- Staff Writer Dan Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org