Championship 4.0

On April 5, Cameron Indoor Stadium—reserved for a student crowd—was a rollicking, anxiety-inducing stand-in for Indianapolis.
June 1, 2010
Chaos in Cameron: As the shot clock expires, the reality of a national title takes hold.

Chaos in Cameron: As the shot clock expires, the reality of a national title takes hold. Credit: Megan Morr

Coach Mike Krzyzewski's thirtieth season with the Blue Devils. The preseason NIT championship. Two wins over UNC. The ACC regular-season championship. The ACC Tournament championship. Reaching the Final Four and sending West Virginia reeling.

That was the context. Then the culmination: the contest for the NCAA championship, beamed into Cameron Indoor Statdium, a students-only setting for the occasion.

Veteran campus-sports observer Alex Fanaroff '07, a former Chronicle sports managing editor and third-year Duke medical student, had reached this conclusion in a guest column: "Tonight, win or lose against Butler, whether we're hanging a National Championship banner or 'just' a Final Four banner next season, it will have been enough for us."

Enough, maybe, but those three national-championship banners sure had been looking eager for company. On April 5, Cameron would be Duke's student center and a more-than-adequate stand-in for Indianapolis.

One of the first people I encountered the day of the championship game was a retired physics professor. He expressed relief that a key department lecture was scheduled for the night after—not of—the championship game. It would be a lecture on quantum mechanics, according to the announcement, exploring the idea that "no definite outcome of an experiment occurs until the act of observation."

Okay, as one knowledgeable Duke postdoc explained to me, basketballs on the court don't tend to jump around like electrons in an experiment. But isn't taking in a college basketball game a step into the quantum universe? A swish from the free-throw line. A grab after a rebound. A couple of missed shots in the closing seconds of play. All seemingly random events that come together for a clear—and clearly unpredictable—outcome.

We are the champions: team claims trophy.

We are the champions: team claims trophy. Credit: Jon Gardiner

That Monday night in Cameron—usually the explosive center of the basketball universe—the championship game would be shown on the giant scoreboard-mounted screen. It was bound to be the most engaged audience among the 23.9 million TV viewers tuning in.

And, it was bound to be a long night, so first I diverted myself to the library's von der Heyden Pavilion. A caffeine-rich, tall mocha latte, iced, was just the thing. (On this evening in early April, the same week as climate-change guru Al Gore's visit to Duke, it was more than 70 degrees.) I looked over the first display case of a library exhibition of satirical journals; it was showing an illustration from one of them, referring to a financial scandal in the early 1930s, with the title translated from the French: "The game has begun. No more bets."

My own betting was that the library would not see an action-packed game night. A reference librarian, with his inviting “Save Time—Ask Me” badge, told me, "This desk will be open until 2. But I'm sure it will be quiet." A couple of students wearing “Duke 30 jerseys—identifying with Jon Scheyer's uniform number—walked by the circulation desk. I asked a student at the desk if she had volunteered to work through the night. "I'm getting off at 9," she explained, with a look that suggested, "dumb question."

Along the West Campus Plaza, more T-shirts; self-labeled "Cameron Crazies" were pervasive. Inside, at the neighboring Armadillo Grill and McDonald's, students' cell-phone scripts more or less followed this pattern: "What's up, dude? Where are you going to watch the game?" An adult couple from Smithfield, North Carolina, were shooting digital photos by the Office of Student Activities and Facilities. All along the office's outside walls were newspaper clippings from the season and good-luck messages scrawled by students: "We're awesome!" and "Go Duke!" and "GTHC—or just go to the NIT" (the last message, in case translation is required, advising Carolina to go to hell and dismissing its appearance in a lesser tournament).

The student fans began filing into Cameron more than an hour before game time. Outside, John Dailey seemed nonplussed in his role as Duke's chief of police. "I've seen it before," he said, referring to three Duke basketball championships. The possibility of postgame exuberance was more concerning than the scene in Cameron. Pregame, cell phones were exercised in the interest of Cameron navigation: "Are you in the upper part or the lower part? I'll try to find you when I get in."

A half-dozen students in blue face paint and Duke headbands flocked to a News 14 Carolina camera crew. "We're pumped," said one of the students, her voice appropriately pumped up. "We've been waiting nine years for this," said another, though it wasn't clear that her Duke affiliation stretched back to her preteens.

"Scream for Duke!" requested one of the TV people. The group happily complied. With that, one of the students announced, to no one in particular, "We just got interviewed!"

For the Cameron crowd, it was, strictly speaking, a TV event; there would be no sensation of the players' sneakers squeaking on the Cameron floor, only the constant (and hard-to-hear) patter of the sports analysts in Indianapolis. But the fact that the game was unfolding on a screen seemed to make little difference. The event seemed less vicarious than visceral, and the game action was all right here. Students stomped on the stands, waved in unison, and cheered and booed. And when a Duke player was at the free-throw line, they threw their arms in the air, as if to guide the ball right into the basket. When the free-throw shot was awarded to a Butler player, the noise level went up several notches, as if to ruin that moment of concentration.

During an early timeout, I watched a student who said she was texting her parents in Dallas as they watched the game; she was sharing pictures of the Cameron scene. Directly across from her was a student with a certain celebrity status, Paul Harraka, who races cars professionally, travels extensively for that pursuit, and has his own distinctions to boast of—including the All-American Speedway NASCAR Rookie of the Year. Harraka, a sophomore, was wearing a Cameron Crazie (misspelling forgiven) T-shirt and Duke basketball shorts. He was busily tweeting his friends—with impressive speed, naturally—the basic observation, "It's absolutely insane in here!" It was even louder tonight, he told me, than for a typical Duke game.   

A bit higher in those stands, I noticed four gray-shirted Duke EMS students and just behind them, a student wearing blinking blue horns. She was Sarah Finn, a first-year graduate student at the Nicholas School. Before graduate school, she went to Ohio Wesleyan—not a huge basketball place, she pointed out. She'd employed the blinking horns earlier, for Halloween, when she dressed as the devil with a blue dress. "It would have been great to be in Indianapolis," she told me. Then, after a brief pause: "Actually, this is just as good.”

At halftime, an undergraduate asked me to photograph her and a cluster of friends with the scoreboard as the backdrop. Duke was leading precariously, 33-32.

One student sparkled notably: Kyle Ord, a freshman, whose chest, back, and face were covered with what appeared to be handprints painted in blue, white, yellow, green, orange, and silver, along with harder-to-classify colors. Ord explained that after he and some dozen friends painted "Go Duke!" on the East Campus bridge earlier that day, they continued their painterly ways on him—each friend choosing one color, either via spray paint or acrylics.

Fortuitously enough, the championship game coincided with Blue Devil Days, when the university seeks to show off its best (blue) face to newly admitted students. Close by the colorful Ord was one of those Dukies-to-be, the appropriately named Cameron Crawford. Crawford, for whom this was the initiation into Duke basketball, said, "This is an incredible experience. I'm absolutely coming here." Listening in, Ord advised his soon-to-be fellow fan, "Wait till you see them on the court. That's when the fun comes." He mentioned that he was a bit worried about washing off the spray paint, then added, "but you put your love before yourself."

The last two minutes of the game were truly a test for the faithful. Harraka was tweeting, "Don't call me tomorrow. I will have no voice." Students clutched their hands to their head. "We're not panicking," someone declared, presumably with sincere confidence. "Oh my God!" said another. "Duke may lose! What's happening?”

Everything seemed to ride on that last Butler shot. Just a couple of seconds—the longest exercise of collective breath-holding imaginable. First a collective pause, then collective pandemonium. It was Duke's game. True to every sports cliché, the students rushed the floor and leapt into each other's arms. The anxiety shifted to uninhibited joy.

An instantly printed souvenir was grabbed up—a mock Raleigh News & Observer front page with photos from the championship game—and the students filed out into the warm night, shouting, "We are champions of the world!" and, perhaps with more precision, "Zoubek came through!"

It was bonfire time on the quad. One student said into his cell phone, "This is a big deal, as Joe Biden would say"—inserting the appropriate adjective between "big" and "deal." Students hugged friends (or friendly looking fellow celebrants), ritually dragged a series of dorm benches into the bonfire (while they tossed in toilet-paper rolls somewhat more effortlessly), and, in a seeming throwback, passed around victory cigars. One of two celebrating sisters—a senior and a freshman—shouted, "This is the happiest day of our lives! We're number one!" The younger sister added, "The last sixty seconds…I almost had a heart attack."

The bonfire was finally doused around 2 o'clock in the morning. One administrator on the scene thought it was relatively restrained, at least within sight of the flames—perhaps reflecting, he speculated, the age of Facebook and YouTube: Students know their moments of indelicate behavior could be forever embedded in cyberspace.

Around 8:30 the next morning, I walked through a West Campus residential quad, quiet except for the fleeting footsteps of some track-team members. Four groundskeepers in lime-green vests were raking the bonfire remains into an amorphous ashen heap. Barely identifiable were Busch Light cans, plastic Evian water containers, and a spray-streamer can. Seeing my notebook, a custodian asked whether I was from The Chronicle. Satisfied that I had some publication affiliation, he escorted me into one of the Craven Quad dorms. We looked at the aftereffects of a raucous night, including tiles torn from a lounge ceiling. One of his colleagues said it wasn't nearly as bad as the spring semester's dreaded tradition, LDOC (Last Day of Classes). Still, Tommy's, a West Campus eatery, reported $10,000 in damages from the previous night.

In the Bryan Center, Duke Stores was just opening; there was already a line of about 200 people outside the glass doors. One of the first at the register was Steve Nowicki, vice provost for undergraduate education, who was clutching two extra-large and two small T-shirts. They were gifts, he explained, for his family. "I'm sure I'll be back to buy more," he said.

I also ran into Jim Wilkerson, director of Duke Stores operations, nattily dressed in a gray suit and a Duke-blue tie with the letter "D" as its motif. Wilkerson said his staff had been on the scene since 5:30 that morning. He had brought on twenty-five or thirty extra clerks to meet the demand; they were all dressed in bright yellow T-shirts that said "Duke National Champion Staff 2010." He told me that Duke Stores had ordered T-shirts in twenty different styles—20,000 so far, with a shipment of another 60,000 to 70,000 expected later in the week. Lots of the shirts had variations on the message "2010 NCAA National Champions." I picked out a couple that read, in bold blue print on a white background, "I was on the Quad April 5, 2010."

Early that afternoon, the Cameron crowd assembled for a welcome-back reception for the team. Since this was, after all, a school day, the crowd had somewhat different attributes from the night before—an undergraduate hauling a hefty textbook titled Fundamentals of Electric Circuits, for example. There were several blue-wigged babies, lots of students posing for photos holding the front page of the day's Chronicle ("Un-Four-Gettable"), and a TV monitor showing the progress from the Raleigh-Durham airport of the three buses bearing the team, as viewed from the "Sky 5 Live" helicopter. Strong lights illuminated the three previous championship banners, from 1991, 1992, and 2001. A newer banner declared, "Welcome Home NCAA Champs!!!" The scoreboard showed the final Duke-Butler score, 61-59.

Coach K noted that he told his players at various points in the season that they were a good team or a good team with great character. Last night, he said, they were a great team. Then he told the crowd, "And you are part of that great team."

On game day, Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, had sent students an e-mail message: "I'm pleased to report that classes will be in session. Repeat: All classes tomorrow will be held at their regularly scheduled time … Duke excels as an academic and athletic institution and that we can celebrate our achievements both on the courts (and fields) and in the classrooms simultaneously is something of which we're all very proud."

But the balancing act can be tough. The reception began more than an hour late, which meant that a lot of students ended up sacrificing their afternoon classes. Ted Ryan, who teaches management and leadership at the Fuqua School, decided to cancel class. (He did make himself available to meet with students, and several came by.) Throughout the semester, Ryan had been using the basketball team as a case study of "creating ethical cultures with high-performing organizations." In an e-mail message to his class, he wrote, "There are some special, joyful occasions in life. Having our fellow students win a national championship and celebrating their accomplishment are two such special occasions."

That day-after celebration was all the sweeter, of course, because victory had been far from a sure thing. In quantum experiments, the act of observation changes the outcome. On some occasions, the act of observation can have a certain effect on the observers. For the exuberant observers who formed the Cameron crowd on game night, there was no mistaking the feeling: They were part of something big.