Let's clear some easy ones out of the way first. No, I did not attend nor was I accepted as a student at Duke University..though I am sure I could have heard the laughter clear as day if they ever saw my high school grades in the Admissions Office. I had no family or friends (at the time) who attended the school. I had never been and knew no one affiliated. One little character quirk about me is that I don't tend to follow the rest of the kids when it comes to sports team allegiance...so, when it comes to college hoops fandom in northern New York, your job is to be a fan of Syracuse, UVM, Cornell, Ithaca, Albany or some other random NY or northeastern school. So, I am a supporter of these teams - but I am Duke Blue, through and through.
When Duke hoops went mainstream in '91 and '92 with their two titles, I saw something there that I gravitated to. Talented players who were still intelligent enough to be students at a very prestigious university, coached by a man who seemed to embody strong character, poise and professionalism. Plus, Blue has always been my favorite color - and I mean a STRONG, pronounced blue...not some 'baby' blue you'd see 12 miles south of Duke! I just liked this small school in NC and started to keep tabs on them. It seems though that this run of titles began to polarize this school on a national level as well.
My first true 'tie' to the college came along in the mid-90's when a local athlete was recruited to attend. Malone star Missy West was chosen and decided to attend Duke as a member of the Women's Blue Devils squad...and she was very much a part of the significant improvement of the program. She was also a very popular player and stayed at the school for five years having spent time there injured and unable to play. When I got word that she was attending, I squealed with joy...I finally had someone I could attach myself onto to justify my fandom. Poor Missy!
Now, here's where the story gets most personal - and guarantees my life-time allegiance. For those who may not know, Duke's basketball home is called Cameron Indoor Stadium and is almost 70 years old...meaning it is 'small' compared to the giant arenas other schools play in. Because of the building's charm, history and the unique home court advantage it provides, the school has chosen not to replace it with a new, enormous building. So, due to the limited number of seats available for casual fans (1/3 of the over 9,000 seats are reserved for students only - part of the advantage!) and the fact that Duke Alums are pazillionaires and give loads of scratch back to the school and get seats in return, the average fan can not and will never get to see a game at Cameron Indoor. You would have to also have a pazillion dollars or know someone who knows someone who knows someone who MIGHT not be using their tickets one particular game. Or, it MIGHT help to know God, too! One day, as it turns out, I discovered I did in fact know someone who knows someone...
It was my Mom that fielded the phone call in the winter of 2000...
"Hello Ceil, This Is 'God!'"
A family friend, Jay Halprin, had been living in North Carolina for many years and had developed some great friendships there. Having been an athlete and sports buff his entire life (and a Syracuse alum), he met some movers and shakers on the Carolina sports scene. Turns out, he found out that one of his new friends was a season ticket holder for Duke Blue Devils basketball as he proceeded to share the story of this kid up north who 'loved the Blue Devils.' Jay left the bug in his friend's ear that, if the situation ever presented itself that the seats were available, he'd gladly fill them! Well, it turns out those seats did free up in January of 2000. And the call was made!
Here's the rub - when it comes to season ticket holders, they don't generally miss a game except for emergencies and unchangeable events - so there's a small window of advanced knowledge of open seats. So, when "God" called to alert us to the pair of tickets that were available, the call was made on Thursday night for a game that was to be played on the following Tuesday. Whoa! Mom, knowing there was NO WAY I would turn them down, said "Yes" without even asking me. Once Mom did tell me about the tickets Jay had, I woke up from passing out and decided I had to make a plan to get there...with very little advance notice. I hadn't any time to save extra bucks, so this would have to be a road trip - and a quick one at that!
So, the plan in infancy was - drive down, watch the game, visit with The Halprin family and head back. Oh, ANOTHER IDEA - let's see if we can watch Missy play too. So, we put in a call to Missy's folks who then called her, and she left some tickets for us to watch her game two nights later. This was a solid road trip! Also, let it be noted that most of my immediate family and friends are Duke fans, mostly because I have spent my entire life leaning on them and programming their brains to be. And Mom, being Mom, loved the Blue Devils because...well...I did. So she was all giddy too! And you had to know there wasn't anyone else I had planned to take along except Mom. It all made sense.
So, at the crack of dawn on Monday morning (shortly after 6AM), I picked up Mom in the legendary Geo Metro, and we headed south to Durham, North Carolina. Let us also note for the record that my Mom was one of the best passengers ever - never barked about needing to use the bathroom or being hungry or stretching her legs...she was along for the ride, to see the sites, and get to the destination with no intent to impede on my travel plans! She was a great companion to chat with and keep me awake on this marathon trip. It is important to note that my 'hick' card was about to be throw out the window on this trip...it took me until my late 20's to realize that there was more to the world than Northern New York. That North Carolina, six states south of us, was just a simple day trip away.
Well, at 16 hours - not so 'simple!' Needless to say, without much incident other than being caught in Washington, DC Beltway traffic at precisely 5PM, we made it to Durham. Of course, being the blazing Duke Dork that I am I couldn't stop and find a room and rest...I HAD to find the campus! MUST. FIND. DUKE! So, we stopped, asked directions, and pulled up along side Cameron Indoor Stadium just before 11PM. WHOA!
Mom remained patient the entire time, and we found a hotel close by the college where we could stay. Phew! Mom slept comfortably, I was a little too nervous/excited to get much sleep...for tomorrow was GAME DAY!
Tuesday we arose, headed to campus to wander about and take my first tour of the hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Home of Duke Basketball - this is a hoops cathedral! As I entered, I walked cautiously so as not to disturb the Duke magic within. Wide-eyed and pensive, I approached a Security Guard to ask if it might be possible to peek inside the gym. I feared that an entire team of law enforcement type would descend upon me at the mere mention of stepping onto Coach K Court. Please, Sir - may I see the Holy Haven of Hoops? PLEASE?!?!
"Um, yeah - go ahead...as long as no one's practicing. It's just a gym."
Don't crap on my Cameron fantasies Mr. Rent-A-Cop!
So, I opened the door to see the gleaming, shining home of Blue Devil Basketball. Cameron Indoor. I did take photos (I will scan and post when I can find them). I did touch the floor. I inspected the retired numbers on the ceiling. I did NOT see Coach K, but I felt his aura! Okay, I am going off the deep end here. Sufficed to say, it was a pretty special moment - and Mom was right there to witness the whole thing with the widest smile on her face. Game time was coming.
That evening, we made our way into the arena for the game. As mentioned, the arena is pretty small compared to most and there was simply not a bad seat in the house. Better still, ours were exactly at center court just a few rows into the main seating area. All general seating overlooks the 3,000 seat bleachers of the student section...home of the renowned "Cameron Crazies." The reason Duke has such a home court advantage is that 3,000 students surround the floor, always on their feet, chanting from beginning to end some of the most intelligent and original cheers and taunts that have ever been uttered. Very true - these students do research ahead of time on the opposing teams and players so they know exactly the types of things to taunt them about! Cameron Crazies are so original, they are the fans who originated the "air ball" chant in the 70's. Just to watch the Crazies work for the entire night would be entertainment enough. But there was a game!!!
I finally got to watch MY Duke Blue Devils, in person, LIVE, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. I got to see my favorite player, Shane Battier. Got to experience another quirk of Cameron - it's lack of air conditioning or circulation...so while it was 50 outside, it was 100 in the gym! We struck up a nice conversation with all of the richie-rich folk around us as they were curious to know how we were affiliated with the actual ticket holder, It was a blast. Truth be told, I am not even sure about the details of who they played, what the score was...it doesn't matter. I was there!
The experience was all I had hoped it would be and so much more. As an interesting side bar, after the game we were standing outside and I had a chance, albeit briefly, to speak with the Women's coach, Gail Goestenkors. We mentioned how we were from Missy's home town and came to watch her play...and I am convinced that this conversation led to Coach making Missy a starter in the game Thursday night! Missy had been injured and replaced by another player as a started, so she usually came into the game later as a substitute. But, not the night we saw her.
As a bit of bonus joy, we attended Missy's game the following Thursday. Sure enough, Missy was inserted into the starting line up - and we got goose bumps when her name was called.
"At Guard, from Malone, New York - Number 25, Missy West!!"
Missy played one of her best games that night, tying a school record for most three-pointers made in a single game. Her teammates kept feeding her the ball to see if she could break the record, but the last one just wouldn't fall! She played an outstanding game and we couldn't have been prouder! We got a chance to thank her after the game for leaving tickets for us...and the fans just swarmed around her because she was such a popular player and person at Duke. It made us even prouder still.
In between it all, Mom and I had a chance to catch up with the Halprin family, visit Charlotte Motor Speedway and Hendrick Motorsports, have some great meals and full laughs with our friends and get a look at the North Carolina landscapes. I grew an attachment to the area from this trip, and there were times I threatened to move there. This trip, inside of it's small window, was one of the best I've ever had.
Then it was time to come home. Once again, we made the 16-hour trek, this time back home. We had amassed such great memories of the trip and the sights and experiences. We could not have asked for a better time and this trip solidified my Blue Devil loyalties. Mom's too! In fact, if a Christmas went by when she didn't get a Duke gift of some kind, I was in SERIOUS trouble. After she passed, I made sure to keep the Duke shirts I had gotten for her over the years. She wore them with pride, and spoke often of that trip.
Post script to this story - we actually went back one year later to see another game. Unfortunately, this second trip was riddled with mayhem and insanity from the get-go. That's a story for another day. The second time we went was in January 2001...and though our trip was one serious mess, the Blue Devil season ended just right. I watched that Championship Game at Doc Roc's Z-Bar in Malone with a few other patrons...my friend Rocco Pepin was dressed head to toe in Arizona garb, and I was covered with my Duke uniform. When the game was over, Duke won another Title.
And the first person I called was Mom.