Thursday, February 14, 2013

In the Cauldron of Cameron

Mason Plumlee, practicing telekinesis

So.

Duke-Carolina tickets.

I did not attend Duke. I did not attend North Carolina. My rooting interest in the ACC, such as it is, lies with Boston College, a school whose unseemly departure from the Big East I still find annoying and who, despite being closer to the actual Atlantic Coast than any other school in the conference, still gets crap for not belonging. (Dear Georgia Tech: It's a long drive from Atlanta to the beach. Trust me on this one.)

I won the tickets in a charity raffle. "You gonna sell them?" my coworkers asked. "They're going for six hundred a piece on StubHub."

I thought about it. I may be a writer, but I can do math, and that's a lot of money.

But it was Duke-Carolina. I've been living in the Triangle for thirteen and a half years. During that entire time, the sports conversation has almost entirely been dominated by Duke-Carolina. Carolina-Duke. Zellers and Montrosses and Duhons and Stricklands and Hensons and, God help us all, the occasional Zoubek. State, yeah, sure, it was there, but really only so people could chant "Herb Must Go" ironically or otherwise. No, it was the War of the Blues, something that seemed transcendent.

I'm never getting to a Super Bowl. I have no interest in the BCS championship game, or the Masters'. The AAA Championship Game I'd taken my nephew to was a rain-soaked flogging. The World Series seems an impossible dream, and the Olympics, well, I'd been in Atlanta in 1996 and they were largely a traffic nightmare.

But Duke-Carolina. To go, to take my father - who had never been to a college basketball game. That would be something.

Dad was feeling up to it. That decided me. We'd go.

***

Walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Carolina game as a stranger, and you will be lost. This is a place of ritual, of carefully prepared chants and behaviors, of fluttering championship banners like shrouds for hapless opponents, of ritual call and response. Everyone who belongs there knows the proper answers. Everyone who belongs there knows the times and the places and the words to say. And you realize after a while, that this is not a basketball game. It is a sacrifice, with Coach K as high priest and a liturgy of thunderous catcalls, and Carolina is on the altar.

Right about then is when, if you don't have a dog in the fight, you start rooting for Carolina. Because it's always nice to see the underdog survive.

***

Duke's tactics are simple: wear you down. Make you run through pick after pick after pick. Play hard, physical defense (and offense), and push up to the line of what the refs will call. If that line budges an inch, push that inch further. Of the five guys on the floor for Duke in the last minute tonight, four had four fouls.

That's what happened to UNC tonight. They got tired. They got worn down. The jumpers that they were popping free for in the first half started falling a little bit short. Enough Mason Plumlee elbows in the solar plexus and it starts affecting your shooting stroke. And when those jumpers stopped going in, then Duke picked up the game and ran away with it.

The final differential was 5. It really wasn't that close, not in the end.

***

Mason Plumlee is Shaq moves in a Brad Miller body. His best play is to get the ball down low, then repeatedly drop his shoulder and square his elbow into the gut of the man guarding him. Watch carefully and you'll see him practicing his "I've been fouled!" face even when no one's within five feet of him. You can't blame the kid; it works, especially when he's up against a pipe cleaner like James Michael McAdoo.

When he gets to the NBA and tries that move, though, Dwight Howard is going to turn him into a pretzel.

***

The hardest working people at the Duke-Carolina game are the Duke cheerleaders. They are out there every time out, handspringing their way up and down the court with fearless and reckless abandon. One young lady managed thirteen consecutive during a television time out; I can only assume that if she hadn't had her way blocked by one of the baskets, she would have just kept on going.

***

Sound is a physical thing at Cameron. It comes at you in waves, roaring around the building again and again. It starts in the Crazies, wells up in the student section and whips around and around until it rises to the upper deck, populated by middle-aged men in tan slacks and their sons and wives. It hits the walls hard enough to bruise, bounces off the ceiling and comes crashing down on itself. The chants get muddied until it's all one wild roar, hammering your eardrums and making your sternum throb in time.

I know there's words in the chanting. They hand out carefully prepared cheat sheets to the Cameron Crazies. But by the time the sound has finish boiling itself into a maelstrom, it all sounds like "WAAAUUURRRRGGHGHHH". It's a unified "WAAAAUUURRRGGHGGG", but it's a "WAAAAUUURRRGGHGGG".

***

Attending a game at Cameron Indoor forces you to become a jerk. At every Duke basket, the crowd surges to its feet, and stays standing until the resolution of the next Carolina possession. If you do not stand, your view of the game looks suspiciously like the back of someone's knockoff Seth Curry jersey. If you do stand, congratulations, you've become a jerk by blocking the view of the people behind you. Who will now stand in order to see, which will block the view of the people behind them. And so on and so forth, up until you get to the very last row, and you bang your head on the rafters.

I saw the game with my father, who is not necessarily built for standing for a couple of hours on end. Nor is he set up for a synagogue-style up, down, up, down. So he sat. So I sat with him. As a result, large portions of Duke's decisive run early in the second half looked a lot like the back of someone's shirt.


***

Duke won by 5. They made a run about ten minutes into the second half, and when it was over they were up by 6 and Carolina's jumpers were clanging off the rim. The Heels shot two airballs in the second half, clear signs that these guys were just exhausted, but this year Coach Roy doesn't have the horses, and the big guns had to stay out there. Duke pushed the lead to 8, and that's pretty much where it stayed down the stretch. The game ended (after a little debate over a particular basket counted), and the fans streamed forth into the night, cheerful and exhilarated. Downstairs, the student section erupted out towards a rumored bonfire; the Cameron staff was friendly and polite and their shuttle service down to the handicapped lot where we'd parked was ridiculously efficient. As we rode down, a chopper flew overhead. "Probably looking for the bonfire", the driver cracked. Everybody laughed.

***

Love is blind.

The guy sitting in front of me is one of those fans who believes the next foul his team commits will be its first. Every Duke possession, he's up and shouting "Aww, come on!" at the refs while making the universal symbol for "hack" - right hand chopping down just above left wrist - so often I start wondering if he's actually David Byrne.

But that's fandom, which is love. The object of your affection is beautiful and perfect. All those who strive against it are twisted and corrupt.

And love, like the refs, is blind.






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