NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti is on the road, taking in seven games among nine teams throughout the heart of ACC country.
DURHAM, N.C. –This was going to be a big night in the building on 115 Whitford Drive.
You might know it better as Cameron Indoor Stadium.
We are here at the place that is one part Forum and one part Colosseum for the Krzyzewski Empire.
Duke has won 247 of its past 250 non-conference games in this Gothic creation. The sun coming up in the East barely has a better winning percentage than that.
It’s special to be here, never more so than on special nights. Wednesday was one of those. The first night Mike Krzyzewski came home as a 1,000-game winner. So let’s spend an evening in the life of Cameron, and the program that has made it sacred ground.
4 p.m.: Time to look around before the crowds hit. Cameron’s modest size gives no hint of its shadow on college basketball. At three stories, it is not even the tallest building on its block, and you need only 226 steps to walk around the structure from the student tents of Krzyzewskiville in the back to the Edmond McCullough Cameron bust in the front.
Just across the street are 11 rose bushes and a plaque near the entrance to Wallace Wade Stadium. They commemorate the 1942 Rose Bowl, moved there in the scary weeks after Pearl Harbor out of fear the Japanese might bomb the game in Pasadena. Wade coached the Duke team that lost the Rose Bowl to Oregon 20-16, then promptly joined the Army to fight in World War II. There’s an Army man coaching right now at Cameron, too.
4:30 p.m.: Bob Harris has arrived for work. Not many people can say they’ve been around Cameron longer than Krzyzewski, but he can. This is his 39th year calling Duke games on the radio.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘It’s old hat to you, you’ve been doing this so long.’ But it doesn’t matter if I come out here in July to pick up something or the last game of the season against Carolina, I have the same feeling,” he said. “When I don’t have that feeling, I’ll stop coming.”
Asked to pick the loudest game he’s ever heard in Cameron, he settled on Senior Day in 1981, when Gene Banks scored over North Carolina’s Sam Perkins in the last seconds to win for a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski.
Harris has spent a lifetime broadcasting from the same catwalk. Hundreds of Krzyzewski victories, hundreds of trips upstairs. “I’ve been climbing that ladder for 39 years,” he said. “This is the fourth ladder. I’ve worn out three others.
“At times it’s hard to describe what this place actually means to other people. I know what it means to me. I couldn’t have ever dreamed that I’d have this career. Never. I grew up in a town of 12,500 people [Albemarle, North Carolina]. I grew up on a cotton mill hill.”
One last question. Does he ever feel sorry for the visiting teams that have to come in here and play at a place where Krzyzewski has lost 59 games in 35 seasons?
“Some of them, I do. Not ACC schools. They know what they’re getting into when they come in the door.”
5 p.m.: A quick check of Krzyzewskiville finds a vast array of tents. One of them has its own mailbox. The North Carolina game is only two weeks away, and some of the campers have been here a month, guaranteeing their place in line for the best seats. This is a land with rules. For example, campers are given grace to leave if the temperature gets below 25 degrees or the snowfall accumulates more than two inches.
5:30 p.m.: Doors open to students who have been waiting in line, and the race is on for the front rows at midcourt. Handouts are distributed with pertinent — and not so pertinent — information on the visitors, including the name of Georgia Tech leading scorer Marcus Georges-Hunt’s girlfriend.
6:45 p.m.: Gametime nears, and one of the leaders of the student section walks along with a chalkboard informing the masses that tonight’s referees are named Mike, Bryan and Joe, for future reference. “Which one is which?” a student in the first row asks a friend. “Doesn’t matter,” her friend answers. “Just yell at them all.”
7 p.m.: The Blue Devil mascot struts by just before tipoff. His verdict on the visiting Yellow Jackets is taped just below his horns: All buzz, no bite.
7:40 p.m.: Coach K ain’t happy about the sloppy play. He jerks off his coat and gives it an angry toss. “That’s usually not a good sign,” guard Tyus Jones would say after the game in the locker room. “We try to play so he can keep his coat on.”
7:50 p.m.: Duke leads only 38-34 at halftime and the level of its defense could be gleaned from Georgia Tech’s 54-percent shooting. Kryzezwski marches toward the locker room like a bull charging toward a red cape. Probably won’t be pretty in there. Most of the media heads for the press room, and the Duke students flood into the seats on press row for a brief rest, as is custom; the only time they will sit all night.
8:10 p.m.: Second half starts. Coach K has his coat back on.
8:20 p.m.: Cameron is still, as Jahlil Okafor readies to shoot a free throw. Suddenly, a clear voice from the vastly outnumbered Georgia Tech section: “You’re a bum, Jahlil!” Uh-oh. Big mistake. The reaction from the Duke student section is quick and pointed. “Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!”
9 p.m.: Georgia Tech might be 10-12 and tied for last in the conference, but it hangs tough before losing 72-66. This is a hard-luck bunch that has dropped eight games by five or fewer points, or in overtime. In the unrelenting ACC, that’s like getting continually hit with a jackhammer. “That’s what this league is all about right now,’’ coach Brian Gregory says.
9:20 p.m.: Normally Cameron would be emptying by now. But chairs have been put on the floor for the Krzyzewski family — wife, daughters, grandchildren. This is Duke’s first home game since its coach hit 1,000 wins, and a heartfelt ceremony is in order. Even if it comes after win No. 1,002.
The places rocks as if someone just dunked on North Carolina when Krzyzewski takes the microphone. He thanks lots of people. Gives a personal glimpse or two — “I never knew how cool it would be to have grandkids.” Jokes a bit — “I coach every game at Duke like it’s my first one. A few of you in the stands are saying, the way we ended it the first half, it looked like it.”
But he was serious at the end when he said, “Nobody loves Duke more than me.”
9:40 p.m.: Krzyzewski meets the press and repeats his feelings of gratitude for the presidents and athletic directors he has served.
“I’ve never had a day in 40 years where I’ve had to worry about my back. They’ve had my back, my front. Not many people in any work place, especially in sport, would have that, and have that for 40 years.’’
His team just went through a draining week with No. 1,000 in New York against St. John’s, a loss at Notre Dame, a late rally to win at Virginia. Maybe the emotional fuel level was a little low against Georgia Tech. “That’s human nature,” he said. “If you want to be really good all the time, human nature is your biggest opponent.”
Probably a good thing Duke was home Wednesday.
9:50 p.m.: In the locker room, the Blue Devils are talking.
Quinn Cook mentions how Duke can always count on getting an opponent’s best shot. “It doesn’t matter what a team’s record is. They’re here for a reason. This is their day in the sun.”
Jones is discussing the value of Cameron, and all its eternal fervor, to a weary team. Duke hasn’t had a non-sellout since 1990, or 385 home games ago. “The crowd shows up every game with energy through the roof. That’s something we can’t rely on — we have to create our own energy — but at the same time, they push us over the top. If you’re tired, they help you get through it.”
Amile Jefferson, who was about two decades from being born when Krzyzewski coached his first college victory, is trying to wrap his arms around a thousand wins. “How many people he’s coached, how many interactions he’s had, how many friends he’s had, how many big games he’s been in, how many times he’s slapped the floor. You just start thinking about those things. How many.”
10:15 p.m.: One last look at a now-empty and silent Cameron Indoor Stadium. It has is modern tweaks, but as Harris said hours earlier, “You can still feel the same heartbeat that you could in 1975, when I walked into this place.”
Outside, Krzyzewskiville is quiet. Somewhere, Kryzyzewski is probably already thinking about Notre Dame on Saturday. Another memorable day for him, and the iconic rectangle of stone he calls home, is over.