Commentary

Krzyzewskiville embodies school spirit

And Duke campus' soul resides in the hoops cathedral that is Cameron Indoor Stadium

Updated: March 7, 2011, 5:37 PM ET
By Doug Ward | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Cameron Indoor StadiumPhoto courtesy Duke Sports InformationThere's nothing quite like the adventure of attending a game at hallowed Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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Duke's mission statement, among other things, pledges to "engage the mind, elevate the spirit and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the university." For the living embodiment of that ideal, we present Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The school's signature building is the stunning Duke Chapel with gothic spires that pierce the heart of the campus in Durham, N.C. But the campus' soul resides inside its 71-year-old basketball cathedral.

When the Blue Devils take the floor inside Cameron, something mystical happens to the university's grounds, inspiring its inhabitants to reach new heights.

Before Cameron's doors swing open, the surrounding area feels more like it's home to a library than a basketball madhouse.

For big games, the Dukies set up Krzyzewskiville, the tent city with a population of up to 1,200 that was named for the coach who inspired it. There, undergrads peacefully coexist in a city within a university, subsisting on pizza that's delivered in 30 minutes or fewer and passion that lasts a lifetime. Campers at K-Ville pass the time by reading textbooks and doing homework assignments on iPads.

But something happens once those prodigal sons and daughters cross the threshold of the timeless hoops mecca that is Cameron Indoor Stadium. Privileged preppies turn into Cameron Crazies faster than Natalie Portman goes from white swan to black swan.

"In the several hours before the tip, the building is so silent, it's almost eerie," said Zach White, a 2010 Duke graduate. "Once the game starts, the Crazies do everything to let the team know they have their back. It's an atmosphere like no other."

Indeed, it's tough to know whether it's the high-powered Duke basketball team that affects the crowd or the antics of the student body that fuel the basketball team. Either way, the hoops squad and the Cameron Crazies make for a perfect, if unlikely, pair.

The Crazies, who paint their faces and bodies, jump up and down tirelessly and get under the skin of opposing players, come by their name honestly. But don't be fooled. With this year's freshman class boasting a middle-50 percent range composite ACT score of 30 to 34 (36 is perfect), these fans are crazy like a fox.

And they're not just smart; they're clever (possibly too clever), as well. When North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles arrived in Durham after being arrested on a charge of stealing pizza, the Dukies flung pizza boxes all over the joint. Wake Forest's Muggsy Bogues, who was 5-foot-3, was referred to as "Webster." Of course, this being Duke, just about every opposing school is in jeopardy of being serenaded with the "safety school" chant.

The Dukies don't have to go all negative to be engaging. When Grant Hill's parents, Calvin and Janet, showed up to watch their son's final game as a Blue Devil, the Crazies begged them for "one more kid."

The Blue Devils are routinely ranked in the top 10 of the coaches' poll and are the defending national champs (coach Mike Krzyzewski has brought four NCAA titles home to Durham since his tenure at the helm of Duke's hoops began in 1980), but no one at Duke takes his school's basketball excellence for granted. Visits to hallowed Cameron Indoor Stadium by outsiders are treated like once-in-a-lifetime events, pilgrimages to a basketball Valhalla.

The building's exterior stone comes from the Duke quarry in nearby Hillsborough, N.C., but it's not the brick and mortar that defines Cameron Indoor Stadium so much as the flesh and blood on the inside.

The students who give the place its pulse come from far and wide, with all 50 states and more than 100 countries represented in Duke's enrollment of about 6,500. Sure, Duke gave the world Charlie Rose and Dan Abrams. But the place made real news by inventing the "air ball" taunt. At Duke, brevity truly is the soul of wit.

"Short, simple and spontaneous," White said. "It starts with one or two people saying something. Then it spreads, and before you know it, everybody is saying it."

For the record, "air ball" was given birth in 1979, in a contest against archrival North Carolina. After a shot by the Tar Heels' Rich Yonaker missed everything, the fans coined the melodic "air ball" taunt.

Duke's West Campus home to Cameron is fairly isolated. But Washington Duke Inn's Bull Durham Bar -- across Cameron Boulevard (Highway 751), on the southwest edge of campus -- is a good place for an upscale pregame or postgame meal. With its golf-course views and rich interiors, the place offers a taste of the good life that is stereotypically synonymous with a Duke education.

Every seat for every game at Cameron Indoor Stadium dating back to November 1990 has been sold, so if you can't get inside, downtown Durham's Satisfaction is smart alternative to watch the game. Satisfaction serves up pizza and pitchers of beer in a classic college bar setting of exposed brick and wood-paneled walls.

For comfort food, Elmo's Diner serves breakfast all day and offers up Southern favorites like shrimp and grits in a casual setting that typically is patronized by Duke undergrads and their visiting parents.

Cameron holds just 9,314, and Duke probably could sell twice as many tickets if it built a new building. But Coach K says that will never happen on his watch.

Krzyzewski is the perfect tenant: The only change he has made to Cameron since he inherited it more than three decades ago is the addition of the national championship banners that hang from the rafters.

That chapel in the middle of Duke's campus boasts the largest congregation of any university church in the country. All comers are welcome for the Sunday morning worship, which begins at 11 a.m. The rest of the week, of course, Duke's place of worship is Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"Hardwood Havens" is a series of vignettes that looks at campus experiences on basketball weekends across the country. Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.

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