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I was about four years old the first time I went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and Duke was awful.
Duke took a lot of beatings in those years but we had compensations and the primary compensation was Cameron.
When Duke was truly bad, Cameron was incredible. There was a rebelliousness then that doesn't really exist now. It was like everyone figured, well, we’re not going to beat teams like State, Maryland or UNC, so might as well torment them anyway.
Things could get amazing. When Duke did upset Maryland one year, when the Terps were a Top Five team, the top almost came off the gym. The Blue Devil climbed the backboard and sat in the rim (he didn’t have the big head then).
The whole environment infuriated Dean Smith, who for years was greeted with signs that read “Dean Smith eats yellow snow.”
Why? I have no idea. But it went on for years (of course Duke fans probably didn’t fully understand how much that sort of thing fueled Smith).
Lefty Driesell saw kids with bald masks and fuel gauges drawn on that were on empty.
Norm Sloan got taunted with all sorts of things - he was sort of the template for Gary Williams - people even made fun of his wife who often sang the national anthem for the Pack. Only Jim Valvano embraced the carnival, and Cameron loved him for it.
Point is, even when Duke was losing, it was fun. Losing wasn’t, but the environment? The passion? The crowd?
That was fun.
Current students understandably get tired of hearing it, but Cameron was different. It was more ragtag then, more anarchic, and the cheers were not really coordinated. They sprang up organically.
There was a group called BOG (Bunch of Guys) that was later pressured to disband, that sort of had some organization we think but not a lot and whatever there was was undermined by alcohol.
There’s probably a book to be written about the influence of alcohol on the development of the Cameron Crazies.
Before Coach K came, Duke had briefly risen from the depression of the early ‘70s all the way to the NCAA finals in 1978.
Of all of Duke’s Final Four runs, none were sweeter because it came out of nowhere. Duke had talent, but more importantly it had chemistry and that team had some special chemistry.
It was fragile though and didn’t last and Bill Foster left Durham for South Carolina in 1980.
Coach K took over and after one NIT season, Duke hit the skids again as the talent ran out.
You have to remember that all he was to most people then was a guy with a funny name. He had coached at Army and had no reputation outside of a small circle which understood his potential.
So while Duke slipped back to awful for two seasons, Cameron was surly and magnificent. And as Duke’s rise began, the anarchic crowd and the disciplined program converged.
And it soon became clear that neither could stay the same.
In a game against Maryland, which had a controversy with forward Herman Veal who had been accused of sexual assault, Duke students infuriated the Maryland fans and media by taunting Veal.
Duke President Terry Sanford issued his famous avuncular letter urging better behavior and Duke responded by putting on tin foil halos and kindly welcoming UNC to Cameron for the next home game (didn’t impress Smith, who sniped that it didn’t make up for past behavior).
That was the point of transition though. Erratic Duke, with its highly unpredictable fans, was gone.
In its place was a New Model program, tightly disciplined and ambitious and on TV constantly.
Duke continued to discourage anarchy in the stands and gradually the Crazies began to reflect the program. It became highly organized and disciplined. Tent checks and cheer sheets replaced beer and BOG.
Was it different? Absolutely. Was it still a blast? Completely. Winning was fun. Winning big was a revelation.
We know Kansas fans have an argument for Allen Fieldhouse and Kentucky fans have a unique environment. There are places around the country that have beautiful basketball environments. We love New Mexico’s Pit, Xavier’s fun, and some of the smaller gyms are wonderfully claustrophobic (for the opponents that is).
But there’s nothing like Cameron. There’s nowhere else where the on-court excellence and the carnival in the stands merge so successfully.
It’s impossible to explain the intensity of a UNC game or a big-game environment like when the Fab Five or Shaquille O’ Neal came. It’s a joyous anarchy which surrounds the on-court brilliance Coach K has maintained since the 1980s.
There’s simply nothing like it anywhere else and that’s the reason I’m a Duke fan.
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