I grew up in North Carolina.
That sentence applies to many folks and means different things to those folks. For many natives of a certain age (say, 40) it means that you grew up in a sports world where the terms "Big Four" and "Dixie Classic" still meant something. It also meant that you probably spent more than a few weekend afternoons watching and listening to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.
Remember those broadcasts?
They were, indeed, much like the ACC fare that we have today on the local channels. However, there were less distractions back then: no Internet, no smart phones, no bigger, better offers. I had two options when it came to my ACC basketball. I could listen to Gene Overby call Wake Forest games over Winston-Salem's WSJS-600 AM station, and I could watch the ACC action on the local CBS affiliate on the weekends (and on weeknights, if it wasn't too late).
I did both. With fervor.
Turning on the television on a Winter Saturday meant Jim Thacker and a young(er) Billy Packer and those wonderful plaid jackets. It also meant seeing that wonderful Natural Light commercial, the one where happy throngs are preparing sumptuous feasts, the memory of which still makes my mouth water. I watched so much basketball that I didn't know what kind of business Jefferson Pilot was in until I was older. I thought they were just the "basketball guys."
It also meant that, more often than not, my television would be showing a basketball court trimmed in one of two shades of blue. We would occasionally get games from venerable Reynolds Coliseum or Cole Field house, but more than likely you were looking live at Durham or Chapel Hill. If you were a fan of the Blue Devils or Tar Heels, you were a happy fan.
If you were not, well, you now understand why so many of us turned out to be bitter, angry old men.
Not because of the air time the Blue Bloods garnered, mind you. The anger comes from the fact that not only was the game emanating from somewhere off Highway 15-501, but also the likelihood one of the two Blue Behemoths was beating the daylights of YOUR team was quite high. Quite frankly, there were no more feared places to play in the ACC than Cameron Indoor Stadium and Carmichael Auditorium. I dismissed both venues as Houses of Ill Repute.
A funny thing happens on the way to 40, though. While our love of the game doesn't dissipate, it is (hopefully) tempered some by marriage, fatherhood, or at the very least a little maturity. I found myself longing for the days of old, where big-time basketball was contested in dark band-boxes holding less than 15,000 people. There is something lost while watching games in a dome or a shining 22,000-seat arena (although the selection of snacks today is commendable). I am one of a lucky generation which understands that the "Old" Greensboro Coliseum (remember the escalator?) was the greatest place in the world to watch anything. Where else could AC/DC, ACC basketball and the Four Horsemen all sell out the same place -- in the same week?
Eventually my eternal frustration with Duke and North Carolina finally gave way to acceptance, which at some point morphed into respect and a wistful return to (my) days of yore. I now came to view both buildings as basketball cathedrals, where the game was (and is) played with the beauty and rhythm that attracted me as a child. I found myself over the last few years lamenting the fact that I'd never actually been to Cameron, and had only briefly stepped into Carmichael back before my 21st birthday.
I finally got the chance to correct that oversight. I grabbed Dana Warren from DEWshots and we set off on an adventure. Dana is from Big Ten country, having attended Purdue, so I figured he understood the point of this outing. As it turns out, I was surprised at both venues but for different reasons.
Rah, Rah, Carolina
Carmichael Auditorium opened in 1965 as the larger, modern replacement for Woollen Gymnasium. Before the men's basketball team left in the mid-Eighties, the building's 10,180 seats would be filled for every game with fans cheering the likes of Phil Ford,
Billy Cunningham, James Worthy and some kid named Jordan. Despite the basketball team's relocation to the Dean E. Smith Center, women's basketball kept it's home at Carmichael. The building has undergone a massive renovation and now is a modern facility that holds just over six thousand fans.
North Carolina managed to renovate this basketball landmark without losing the charm of the old building. Walking down Raleigh Street as the sun set, Dana and I felt pulled towards Carmichael (now Carmichael Arena) like we were in a tractor beam. We were welcomed into the press area of the building (complete with a Bojangles buffet: kind of like heaven) and then, like children, scurried down the flight of stairs which led to the arena floor. Like every other athletic building on campus, "that damn blue" was everywhere. It was great. The arena felt decidedly important and old-school and I'll admit feeling a bit like I was in a secret room at a museum.
I made my way down the scorer's table to meet Gary Petit, Wake Forest's omniscient media wrangler without whom this trip never happens in the first place. My attention was diverted by the activity on the Wake bench, where coach Jen Hoover was amiably chatting with Sylvia Hatchell. Coach Hatchell had just won her 900th and 901st games and, as it turns out, was just saying hello.
If Carmichael is a basketball castle, Hatchell is its Queen. I was surprised to see her greeting coaches, staffers and fans like she was welcoming everyone to the church fellowship hall. She is decidedly Southern, which means she is overtly friendly to everyone. I proffered my hand to offer congratulations before the game and she greeted me as warmly as everyone else. Those expecting an air of conceit, for whatever reason, would be surprised. Later in our trip I asked a member of the media if she was the real deal, and I got laughed at. Yes, what you see is what you get.
The game itself was a complete let-down, although I did get a front-row seat to witness a team I had dismissed as a tad fraudulent for their high ranking. That went away in the first two minutes as the Tar Heels struck first and the Deacons fell quickly, 76-56. Postgame, Petit led Hoover into the press conference looking as weary as I'd ever seen the first-year coach. She looked like a woman who had tired of preaching toughness. I wondered how her the team would respond in a few days at Duke.
Coach Hatchell then arrived with two of her players and then held court for a little while; expressing gratitude for the various tributes she received during and after the game and occasionally scolding her team for letting up on the gas. Now, had the Deacs pulled an upset, I'm sure that I would not have seen this side of the coach but it was very endearing.
In all, I loved covering a game at Carmichael. My favorite nuance to the building is the steps leading down to the arena floor from the media center. Each time I descended, it felt like I was walking towards something important. I'm not sure how much I love the lack of seating behind the benches, but the arena is still something to behold. I left Chapel Hill the same way I always do: wishing I'd worked harder in high school and with a craving for Pepper's pizza.
My Blue Heaven
Cameron Indoor Stadium opened in January 1940 and was, at the time, one of the largest indoor stadiums in the East. After renovations in the mid-Eighties the seating capacity increased to its current level of 9,314. Wood bleachers stained with blue body paint line the wall opposite the team benches. It is here that the Cameron Crazies call home. Perhaps for lack of space, or maybe even as a joke, press row spans the front row of the undergraduate bleachers. Whether it's the Crazies or families watching the women's games, media members are sandwiched tightly between the playing floor and fans.
From the outside, the building looks something like a church replete with stone and stained glass windows. Inside, the building looks like basketball heaven. Dana and I grabbed our credentials and were pointed down a hallway, eventually ended up in a smallish but nicely appointed media center. After settling in, I grabbed my notebook and walked out of the room and into the arena proper. I stopped short as I walked in, and a security guard looked at my pass and asked if he could help me.
"I'm sorry. I've never been here before."
"Well, take it all in. Enjoy yourself."
Yes, they are very proud of their gym at Duke and I understand why. It's almost like visiting Wrigley Field or Indy for the first time and marveling at the fact that something so grand could be nestled in quaint neighborhoods. Here, amidst the Gothic architecture and foliage that mark Duke's campus is the ultimate in basketball destinations. The seats for the paying customers and guests are appointed in Duke blue and sit behind railings made of brass. Everything but the benches, media and Crazies sit above and on top of the floor. Crowd noise rains down onto the floor while public address announcements fizzle into the ether.
Oh, the noise.
There were over 5,000 fans in attendance for the women's game against Wake Forest, and when things got tight in the second half it sounded like a sold-out championship game. I could only imagine what it must have sounded like a few nights earlier when the Duke men finally took the lead over North Carolina in the second half. Alas, the women's game only brings out the Crazies for games over rivals or nationally ranked foes. Wake Forest played like a champion, tying the game late in the second half before eventually falling, 81-70.
I headed home that Sunday reflecting on my two pilgrimages that week. I expected to enjoy myself, but I didn't expect the reactions that I had. For instance, while Carmichael Arena evoked a sense of history and basketball lore for me, I found that the entire experience spoke more about the school itself. Everything was just a reflection of how North Carolina is. Love them or hate them, there's a damn good reason why 99 percent of the alumni base love their school more than life itself. Going to Carmichael not only made me want to come back, but it made me remember what makes the University itself so special.
At no point in my trip to Duke did I think one second about Duke University. Not once.
As you can see in one of the pictures, I spent most of the first hour in Cameron with my hand covering my mouth, eyes wide open. I loved Cameron the moment I set foot on its floor. I didn't think about Coach K (or Coach P), although I did find the spot where Jeff Capel once sent a game into overtime. I thought about basketball. I thought that I was in one of a few places (Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the Palestra, for example) that basketball was meant to be played. It was, and is, the best gym I've ever walked into.
For close to 40 years, I've had a love affair with college basketball. The opportunity to visit two of its historic crown jewels is not one I take very likely. I appreciate the hospitality of both Duke and North Carolina in allowing Dana and myself to come visit. How did Dana like it? He damn near wore out a new camera. As for me, I feel lucky to have experienced a small part of my basketball upbringing, and I'm grateful that the game still allows me to feel the way I used to feel back when I was 10 years old.