Monday, March 04, 2013

A Cameron Farewell

Tonight, Duke takes on Virginia Tech in the last home game of the season. It's senior night, and also a very special one for me. I am finishing my PhD this month and after four years of undergrad (2002-2006) and six years of grad school (2007-2013) I will unfortunately bid farewell to Duke in May. Therefore, tonight's game will be my 116th and final game in the student section at Cameron.

I thought I'd take the opportunity (and break from writing my dissertation) to reflect on the ten seasons I've been fortunate to witness. There has been a lot of greatness: six ACC championships, two Final Fours, and a National Championship. In fact, in those 115 games so far, Duke is 108-7. Here's the entire list of losses I've personally witnessed in Cameron:

Georgia Tech 2004; UNC 2006; UNC 2008; UNC 2009; Florida State 2012; Miami 2012; UNC 2012.

1. Curse you, Tyler Hansbrough. 2. The loss to FSU was also my first time witnessing a buzzer beater loss. I took it about as well as Austin Rivers did. 3. The UNC game last year is definitely the quietest I've ever heard Cameron during a game.

I realize there is quite a bit of luck involved in that record-- not only Duke's great fortune to have such a sterling record at home. My year between undergrad and graduate school also happened to be Duke's worst season since 1995 ("worst" still meaning third in the ACC and a #3 seed in the tournament). In 2005, I was studying at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort during the spring semester. I intended to make it to as many weekend games as possible, beginning with the Virginia game in January. As I pulled into the Blue Zone parking lot that day, my 1993 Ford Taurus began smoking uncontrollably. It was pronounced dead soon after, hampering my ability to attend games such as the loss to Maryland a few weeks later. I did manage to make it up for one final game that semester, which you'll read about a little later.

I was not actually much of a college basketball fan in high school, preferring baseball and football, although I did watch the NCAA tournament. I did not even attend the first regular season game in Cameron, against Army in 2002. My friends convinced me to go to the Michigan game a week later, and I was hooked. It's interesting-- looking back, what I remember from my undergrad days are "moments," like the last seconds against UNC in 2005 or Sean Dockery's buzzer beater, or the time my friend emotionally ruined some poor Penn player for no reason (my friend was a vicious one-man version of "you let the whole team down" for the entire first half. The player, later included in a 2009 ESPN poll on the best Penn players of the decade, eventually came out of the game and didn't return.).

What I remember from grad school are "games," and I think this reflects my evolution as a basketball fan. I feel much more cerebral about basketball, (relatively) less likely to live and die by the wins and losses, and really appreciating the game. (If you do live and die by wins and losses, especially road losses, do yourself a favor and read this.) Of course, the passion is obviously still there, as anyone standing near me at the game on Saturday night can attest. So to commemorate my final hurrah, and to show the world what it's like to be a Cameron Crazy for a decade, here are the ten greatest games I've seen in Cameron!

I wanted to put a memorable non-conference, non-ACC/B1G challenge game in here, and this one takes it over the Belmont game from last year. Jimmy Baron, the son of the URI coach, hit eight of his first nine three-point attempts, and the crowd was completely bewildered. It looked as though the upset was on, three games into the season. With a minute left and URI up by two, Baron took a shot from just inside the arc that was partially blocked by Dave McClure. He passed ahead to Kyle Singler, who was fouled hard, and made both shots to tie the game. With time running out and URI down by 2, Coach K called on Singler, who fought through several screens to put pressure on Baron's final shot attempt, which clanged off the rim and out of bounds. Cameron exploded, and Duke went on to win. I managed to high-five Baron as he walked off the court past the grad student section, so I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Duke has not lost a non-conference game at home since February 22, 2000.

The first overtime game I saw in Cameron was late in my senior year. I remember my friends and I decided to make this the game we went "all out" for, and we were front-row, center court. JJ Redick was typically proficient, dropping in 36 points from all over the court. We thought we had yet another easy conference win until FSU guard Tom Calloway hit a running, off balanced 3 as time expired in regulation. I briefly thought that this had given me an actual heart attack, and a friend's mom actually texted my friend asking "Why isn't Matt jumping up and down like the rest of you?" A hearty slap on the back from another friend got me back into it. Shelden Williams gave FSU another chance by missing two free throws late in OT, but then made a stop at the other end to seal the victory. After the game, the narrative was the familiar "Duke gets all the calls" nonsense, with even the AP reporter weighing in in the recap. This particular AP writer must have never been to Cameron before, because the writeup notes "Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout in the first half simply to yell at his players, hoping to motivate them after a sluggish start" as if that isn't a thing that happens every game.

8. 1/24/2009 #2 Duke 85, Maryland 44 

Lots of players like to talk smack before coming to play in Cameron. After leading Maryland to an upset victory in Cameron in 2007, Greivis Vasquez thought he had the place figured out. In that game, he mocked the Cameron Crazies with a "cupped hand to the ear" motion that got him in trouble with the refs. Two years later, on the eve of the 2009 game, he told reporters he thought Cameron was a "second home" to him, and "I think I can find my self back there, I can't wait."

The next day, Duke handed Maryland their worst loss since 1963, going up 40-15 in the first half. Duke did not relent after the break, and came out on an 16-5 run. Then, this happened: Jon Scheyer (defensive rebound) shoots it ahead to Gerald Henderson, who immediately finds Kyle Singler beating the only guy back on defense for a dunk. Singler then steals the ball on the very next possesion, gets it ahead to Scheyer, who makes a crazy pass to Nolan Smith (probably while making a face like this). Smith simply dumps it back to Gerald Henderson, whose layup makes it 60-20 and blows the roof off the building. When Duke's got its transition game working, Cameron Indoor Stadium is indescribably loud. The Crazies followed that up with several rounds of chanting: "Nuestra casa!"

7. 2/13/2010 #7 Duke 77, Maryland 56 

Yes it is true that Maryland is not our rival. This game is here not for the opponent, but for the breakout performance that defined the future national champions. Seemingly out of nowhere, Brian Zoubek figured out that he is seven feet tall and maybe he should use that to get some rebounds. Seventeen points and sixteen rebounds later, and a college basketball legend was born. Many of my most memorable moments in Cameron are when a crowd favorite has the game of his life, and the crowd is at once confused, elated, and yelling their heads off. Duke's offense would be reinvented on the power of the offensive rebound and kick-out to three elite shooters.  Duke's fans would forever reflexively form a Z with their hands whenever they see the tallest (former) pastry shop owner in history. ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

6. 3/6/2010 #4 Duke 82, UNC 50

Despite the reinvention of offense, the national title run still had some stumbling blocks. The last one was a disappointing loss at Maryland in early March, yet another road loss that caused many Duke skeptics to affirm their belief that Duke was soft. I had a different perspective, seen here in one of my very first tweets: "Luckily, Duke plays no more road games."

I've had the pleasure and fortune to see ten Duke-UNC games in Cameron, and this was by far the most cathartic. Duke made a statement with this blowout victory over UNC, erasing four years of pent up frustration over having never beaten Tyler Hansbrough in Cameron. Fueled by schadenfruede a-plenty, Duke did not lose again, cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. I think most of the credit goes to my prescient tweet-- you're welcome, Duke fans.

5. 2/9/2005 #8 Duke 71, #2 UNC 70 

By all accounts, this was one of the most competitive games I've ever attended in Cameron. UNC would go on to win the national championship. Six of the players who started in the game have had multi-year NBA careers, led by Ray Felton and JJ Redick. The game was close the entire time, and featured a last second comeback attempt similar to the one a few days ago against Miami. To be honest, I don't really remember this game for the game itself, or at least the first 39 minutes of actual game play.

I remember it for my own personal experience with this game. As mentioned, I was at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, and my car had been donated to the American Society for the Blind. I convinced a couple friends to drive up for the game, and the Marine Lab administration told us they would arrange with Duke Athletics to get us into the game. Importantly, this is despite the fact that we all had an invertebrate zoology exam the next morning at 9 AM. We arrived just as they were beginning to let students in, and the head line monitor had no idea we were coming. After trying unsuccessfully to convince him we weren't full of it, things looked bleak. With about 10 minutes remaining before tipoff, he got distracted by some film crew that was following him around, and we ran into Dean Sue Wasiolek, who was so excited that we made it all the way from Beaufort that she let us in! We were crushed into the back corner of Section 17 (behind UNC's bench), and could only see about 2/3 of the court.

So when JJ Redick recognized a certain play UNC was running, down one point in the closing seconds, we couldn't see what happened. We didn't see Redick contain and trap David Noel near the UNC bench. We didn't see Noel dribble the ball off his foot, out of bounds with less than a second left. We didn't see Redick quickly inbound the ball and win the game. We did see, hear, and feel the crowd explode, and the students rushed not onto the court (as erroneously stated in the recap), but out into the quad to light so very many things on fire.

We got back to Beaufort a little after 3 AM. I got an A on the exam.

As a sports fan, there are going to be times when you see an athlete at the beginning of their careers, and you have no idea what they are going to become. For example, I had no idea in 2004 that when I got Chris Paul to break focus and laugh by getting my fellow Cameron Crazies to chant "Two First Names" at him, I was messing with a future NBA All-Star. In the moment, you usually never know which of those moments are "I saw Player X When...."

I saw Kyrie Irving when he did magical things with a basketball. In the front of the graduate section, at the baseline near the visiting team's bench, Irving led Duke's offense straight at me in the first half. He made a top ten team look absolutely helpless against him. There were times when my eyes were like a NFL cameraman being faked by an effective play action. On a fast-break, Kyrie would disappear, only to reappear with the ball at the rim and a defender at his heels. The defense would try to adapt via a strategy akin to six-year-olds playing "swarm ball" soccer. Kyrie responded by bending space-time to find Nolan Smith in the corner, wide open. I was only able to see him play in four games at Cameron, and this was his masterpiece. (I make a brief cameo, along with a couple hundred of my closest friends, at 1:24 in that video)

Kyrie Irving, who dominated the NBA All-Star game this year at 21, would otherwise be a Junior at Duke.

Where to rank this game was a tough choice; if I was ranking my top ten "moments" in Cameron, then Sean Dockery's buzzer beater would be the clear #1. But in honesty, 39.97 minutes of the game were not really that good. Duke frittered away an 11 point lead with four minutes left, the supposed final dagger a tip-in basket with 1.7 seconds left. The game should have been well in hand from the #1 team in the country, at home, in a random December conference game. But that last 0.03 does carry it here to the top three. Here's what I remember:

Near the end of Duke's final timeout, both teams wandered out to take their positions for the last play. The referees were still trying to determine the exact amount of time left, and Josh McRoberts was standing on the baseline, hands on his hips. Virginia Tech was essentially already in its defensive formation, and standing right in front of where I was in the undergrad section was a completely unguarded Sean Dockery. The game recap notes that the play was supposed to go to Shelden Williams, but I watched a silent exchange between assistant coach Johnny Dawkins and McRoberts who nodded at Dockery. The pass took the Hokies by surprise, and Dockery completed the only buzzer beater win I've seen.

It was also the only time in 116 games that Duke "rushed the court" following a win. Not everybody did, and it was definitely more about joining the team in mobbing Dockery than anything about beating Virginia Tech. I was sure that this meant Duke was now destined win a national championship in my senior year. I was wrong.

2. 3/2/2013 #3 Duke 79, #5 Miami 76 3/2/2013

The buzz around the internets and talk radio shows was planted somewhere between sarcastic and serious, when they suggested that Ryan Kelly's return would be the key to Duke's season. I knew, as a stats-oriented guy, that Ryan Kelly leads Duke in Kenpom's Offense Player Rating this season, just as he did in 2012. I knew it would be a big morale boost for Ryan Kelly to return to the lineup following another disappointing road loss, to integrate into the lineup before the postseason. I did not know that Ryan Kelly would, for one night, become Larry Bird.

My phone did-- I snapped this photo when Kelly emerged from the locker room to screeching pre-game applause. Everything is a blur, except Ryan Kelly, who is so clear, it looks photoshopped. It turned out to be a metaphor for the game, another of those in which the crowd had absolutely no idea how to react. Here's an approximation of me, sometime during the second half. In addition to the stratospheric ("outrageous... ridiculous..." ~Miami coach Jim Larranaga) performance of Kelly, the level of play in the game was extremely high, especially in the first half. I'm not sure I can remember a game that was so fun to watch as a fan not just of Duke but of basketball. By the end of the game, when Ryan Kelly hit his eighth three pointer, he could only run back down the court shaking his head. I was doing the same-- simply unbelievable. As always, Duke Blue Planet put it together perfectly.

I hope it doesn't seem entirely saccharine that I list my penultimate game in Cameron as the second best I've seen. But I feel comfortable that years from now, I'll look back at the time I was lucky enough to have in a sports Mecca, and I'll close my eyes and smile. I'll be seeing waves of students with hands spread wide, undulating in unison. Showing their praise for the White Raven.


1. #5 Duke 79, #21 UNC 73 2/9/2011

There is a specific sequence of plays that absolutely ignites the crowd in Cameron. It's really difficult to describe, especially because the level of intensity is so much higher for Duke-UNC games to begin with. You've got probably more than 11,000 fans squeezed into an arena built for 9,314 (shh, don't tell the fire marshall), and half of them are students, crowded right next to the court. A hated rival jumps out to a gigantic lead, deflating the crowd just before halftime. But then there is a rally-- there usually is the Patented Duke Run™, bringing the team back into the game in the second half. The crowd is building, cheering louder after every basket, louder after every miscue by the opponent. And then there's that sequence:

10:51 UNC 54-Duke 47-- Seth Curry makes Three Point Jumper
10:18 UNC 54-Duke 50-- Justin Knox misses layup
10:10 UNC 54-Duke 50-- Seth Curry makes Jumper
9:55 UNC 54-Duke 52-- Justin Knox turnover
9:48 UNC 54-Duke 52-- Seth Curry makes Jumper

And just like that, the game is tied. Being in the student section, it no longer feels like the crowd is functioning as a set of people being entertained by a sporting event. It feels like you are part of a gigantic living organism that is absolutely losing its mind.

After Kendall Marshall hit a free throw on the next UNC possession, Nolan Smith found Ryan Kelly wide open in the corner for a three, which just may be the loudest I've ever heard it in Cameron. Duke never trailed again after that.

This game was so good that afterwards, after the bonfire we all went to a bar, paint still on our faces, and watched the entire game again.


DWI said...

That was an awesome read! Those are some amazing memories.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Matt, best wishes going forward and congrats on finishing your phd! Go Duke!

Anonymous said...

A. great view of being a Duke fan. There maybe a few more remembrances left in 2013

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