|Cameron Indoor is still one of the toughest places to play, but it's not what it once was. (Getty Images)|
I remember my first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that's saying something. I don't remember what clothes I wore yesterday -- hell, without looking down, I can't remember what's on right now -- but I remember my first look at Cameron.
And it was almost 15 years ago.
It was December 1997. It was Villanova. And Duke. Duke won, of course. I don't remember how big Duke won, but it was big. That's the only detail from the game I remember.
The details from Cameron? Those, I remember. The students chanting mean chants and making silly sound effects. The band playing Devil With a Blue Dress On and Rock Lobster. The crazy towel guy waving his crazy towel.
|More on Duke, college basketball|
Parity rules so far this season, and that's not a good thing
|More college hoops coverage|
That was my first game at Cameron. It was also my second game at Cameron. And third. Over the years I covered close to 100 games at Cameron, and you know what? That was every game at Cameron.
Same chants and silly sound effects. Same songs. Same towel guy. Same. Same. Same.
No wonder Duke can't get students to go to the game anymore.
That's my theory, anyway, and it's a pretty good one. It's nothing I've ever wanted to write -- Hey, did you know Cameron Indoor gets boring after awhile? -- but it seems relevant this week, after Duke's student newspaper broke the news that Duke students don't go to games anymore.
Shocking, but true. The Cameron Crazies can't be bothered to go to Cameron anymore, even though their tickets are free and Duke has been ranked in the top 10 all season. And it's not like Duke asks its students to fill the 9,314 seat arena. Duke students are allotted just 1,200 tickets in Section 17, which sounds painfully small until you consider this: Duke can't give away much more than half of them.
The Duke Chronicle reports that 650 undergrads are attending games on average, and while many theories were espoused -- competition from the fraternity rush for some games, weak opponents in others, the ease of watching games on TV or online, even the wait students fear they'd have to endure to score one of those 1,200 free seats -- I have my own theory about Duke students, and why they're turning down what used to be the hottest ticket in town:
They've been there. They've done that. And they're bored by it.
Crazy but true: A game at Cameron could be considered boring to someone who has attended 40 or 50 games there.
The first time you go? Nothing compares, I'm telling you. I urge every last one of you to get to Cameron for a game, if you have the time and resources to make it happen. It won't disappoint. Promise.
The atmosphere is magical, starting with the drive down Duke University Road, under the oak trees that are beautiful by day but ominous by night -- reaching over the road, blotting out the moonlight. Park your car and walk up to Cameron Indoor Stadium, which you'll find by heading for the castle and making a left at the ... no, wait. That's not a castle. That gothic brick structure is Cameron. Doesn't look like a gym from the outside.
Doesn't look like a gym on the inside, either. Not any gym I've ever seen. The stained-glass windows, rich-wood bleachers, brass railings -- it's a cathedral, and the congregation speaks in tongues. They taunt the other team from Section 17 by calling out its play-by-play, including a "boink" for every dribble and a panicked "ahhh" when the ball stops moving. I can still hear them taunting Villanova on Dec. 10, 1997:
Always, applause -- or some other kind of noise. Cameron is so loud, your ears don't start to ache until the game ends. Only then, after the two hours of noise is gone, do your ears rebel. It must be what deep-sea divers feel when they rise too quickly, torturing their bodies by suddenly depriving them of water pressure. That's what happens to your ears at Cameron, when the noise suddenly goes away. Your head rings. Mine always did, and I loved it.
The first several times, I loved everything about Cameron. The students in Section 17 chanting "Cra-zy Towel Guy" to summon an older gentleman across the arena, who rises to whistle and flail his towel. The band playing throwback songs from 1979 like Rock Lobster, or going back to 1964 for Devil With a Blue Dress On. Band members in their blue-and-white rugby shirts, running onto the court during a timeout, lying down in a row and then turning in unison, allowing the Duke mascot on his surfboard to glide over their bodies. The crowd chanting spontaneously, 9,314 people sounding like the voice of God. The noise. The nonstop, nonsensical, beautiful noise.
The years come and go, and so does the magic. It dawns on you that the noise at Cameron never changes. Same boinks. Same chants. The day I discovered a wadded-up piece of paper on press row and unfolded it, only to realize the students weren't somehow managing to chant spontaneously -- it was a list of chants to be used that night -- was like finding out there was no Santa Claus. The spontaneity? It isn't real?
These days when Rock Lobster or Devil With a Blue Dress On hits my radio, I hit another station. I can't hear those songs anymore. I've heard them too many times, just as I've heard the chants, driven under the oaks and watched Crazy Towel Guy too many times.
Over time, everything gets old. That's Cameron Indoor, and that's why -- if you ask me -- Duke students aren't going to games anymore. The atmosphere at Cameron is a great song, but it no longer feels like classical music. It's Top 40. And after a while, Top 40 gets on your nerves.