best-selling author, Tom Wolfe can be appreciated as a field anthropologist of contemporary America. Whether documenting the culture of drug-driven hippies in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the gumption of the early astronauts in The Right Stuff, the frenzied profit-seeking of bond traders in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or--most recently--the muscularity of the New South in A Man in Full, he has explored and explained the trends of our times. As one critic noted, what makes him so good is his ability "to get under the skin of a phenomenon and transmit its metabolic rhythm." He does, after all, have a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale.
At the height of the basketball season, Wolfe --whose daughter attends Duke--expressed interest in observing a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Cameron certainly constitutes a campus phenomenon with its own peculiar rhythm. The magazine brought him into that raw and rarified setting in mid-February, for the home game against Wake Forest. Several weeks later, Wolfe was interviewed back in New York, which was enjoying its own infusion of energy from the St. Patrick's Day parade. He delved into disparate themes of basketball, sports fanaticism, heroism, and collective life forms. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
Each of us has seen a space launch--for you, while researching The Right Stuff--and it's a spectacular show of physical and emotional intensity. How does that experience compare with Cameron?
The big difference is that with a space launch, you can't get closer than a mile-and-a-half to the players. In Cameron, you're right on top of the players.
So what happens when the distance is bridged between player and fan?
Here's the best college team in America; they are better than many professional teams. But they are not the show. As good as they are, they play second-fiddle to the crowd. You know the biological term colonial animal? It's an animal made up of independent organisms all attached to one another. Most colonial animals are in the water. And that's what the crowd is like --it's like one great colonial animal that has immediate responses to whatever is going on.
What was remarkable about the Cameron colonial animal?
I happened to have gone to a fabulous exhibition of inspired torment. Before the game, while the teams were warming up, a Wake Forest player tried to dunk the ball and missed. Somehow you can be seven-four and miss your dunk. And the crowd got on his case immediately. So he came around again to dunk the ball, and he was so rattled by the crowd that he missed a second time. He came around a third time: He dunked the ball successfully, and he jumped and hung onto the rim as players sometimes do after a fabulous dunk shot. And the backboard shattered. The colonial animal began to chant, "You break it, you pay for it, you break it, you pay for it." And I think it was at that point that Wake Forest lost the game. The game hadn't started yet, but they were shadowed by the great colonial animal.
As the game got under way, how did the colonial animal express itself?
The first twenty rows were filled with students in blue shirts. If you're an opposing player not used to this, you were surrounded by this wall of blue; somehow you were enclosed in the fiendish organism. There are cheerleaders, but I don't think they had to signal the crowd to chant at any given moment. And there were more jeers than cheers from the crowd, which is something I had never seen before. As the opposing player goes to the foul line, everyone leans at a forty-five-degree angle; as he goes for the shot, he's trying to square away, and they're all trying to throw him off. It's like a learned reflex.
Is there a correlation between student creativity in the stands and student achievement in the classroom?
It's high-class choreography. There are also elements of ballet about it, and of ancient religious choreography in particular. Rhythmic dance started when people who believed in magic were facing a drought. They would all get together and start swaying to imitate the motion of wind against wheat. The ancient folk thought that when the wheat danced, the rain would come.
Duke students camp out for days, sometimes for weeks, in order to secure a spot in the stands. Does this reflect their passion as sports spectators or is it basic to the culture of the campus?
My impression is the game must be anti-climactic if you've been camping out that long. I think of it as a sort of Academic Outward Bound. I personally have always detested camping out; I went to summer camp for three years and liked it a lot, except for the camp's insistence on camping out. I guess those students at least have cookouts to look forward to.
Actually, they call out for pizza delivery, which they charge against their campus debit cards.
Academic Outward Bound is a little different from regular Outward Bound. Yesterday, someone was making a movie right outside my building in New York. They had a complete buffet spread on the sidewalk for the crew. The chef had a little gas stove, and he would fix any eggs you wanted. That's just a suggestion for the students.
Duke students have been drawn to the idea of celebrating basketball victories with a bonfire. What significance do you, as author of Bonfire of the Vanities, attach to the idea of the bonfire--something that consumes even as it dazzles?
The original bonfires of the vanities in Florence were great public events. I suppose a bonfire is a demonstration of how much you've got. In Florence, they were throwing in valuable things, like clothing and expensive paintings. For any bonfire, there's a lot of conspicuous consumption.
Of course, the thing that's conspicuously consumed in student bonfires are the house benches that students themselves build and then sacrifice.
Maybe there's something religious about it. In Kyoto, Japan, there's a famous Buddhist shrine that is burned every twenty years and then rebuilt exactly the way it was. Maybe there's a point of entry for Buddhism at Duke.
What's the relationship between a school's standing in the public mind and its sports accomplishments?
During research for A Man in Full, I learned about the history of the University of Georgia-Georgia Tech football rivalry. It started in the late nineteenth century. And from the very beginning, each university was accusing the other of bringing in ringers and adding boys to the student rolls just so they could go out and play football. So this is nothing new that we're looking at. If you look back to the history of any of the well-known universities in America, you'd be amazed at how much of that history is told in terms of sports and the passions the students attached to sports. Washington & Lee, where I went to school, is next door to V.M.I.--one campus goes right into the other. At a certain point early in the century, they had to end all sports competition; the two student bodies had become so emotional about it that mutual vandalism was a problem.
In The Right Stuff, you celebrate the fraternity of flyers. Is it easier to root for a college team, whose athletes are, in a broad sense, members of the student fraternity, than for a team of free-agent professionals?
I can no longer maintain a fan's attachment to a professional team for that very reason. It's a revolving door. Washington & Lee decided for a time to get into big-time sports. We managed to get to the Gator Bowl one year. And there was on campus this cadre of extremely big people. You could say, "Hey, Rocky," and about fourteen guys would turn their heads. It was interesting that you were constantly close to these guys: You got a chance to meet them and to talk to them, and they did become fellow students in your mind.
What explains the fan's exuberance for athletics?
There are two areas of psychology that I don't comprehend. One has to do with the field that I'm in. I don't know why people like stories so much. Just think: Every night in this country, a vast proportion of the population is watching stories. And in the days before television, they read stories constantly, in Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post. The other mystery is, why do citizens who are not themselves athletes work up such fervor for the athletes that represent their town, their university, their high school? How are people able to transfer their own yearnings, ambitions, hostilities, primal emotions of various sorts to a group of athletes who represent them in competition?
The best example is New York City. The Rangers, the ice-hockey team, were in contention for the Stanley Cup title, and they were coming up against the Montreal Canadiens. In a television interview, one of the top Rangers players was asked what he thought the chances were against the heavily-favored Canadiens. He says, "Well, most of the Canadiens are from eastern Canada and from Quebec itself, whereas most of our guys are from the Vancouver area, and we really have it in for the eastern Canada bunch." And I just had to break out laughing. Here's New York, full of fans absolutely fervid about their Rangers, and their Rangers are coming from Vancouver.
How would you characterize your own athletic loyalties?
I'm not immune; I've been caught up in this kind of thing, too. For some reason, my favorite baseball team has always been the Detroit Tigers. I have been to Detroit just once. Yet I could really get emotional about them.
What kind of primal appeal would you speculate is at work?
It's like single-combat warfare, as when Goliath and David fought. Each side would send out its champion before the battle, and they would fight.
In A Man in Full, you have former NBA star Blaq Fleet explaining how life is like a basketball game: "Maybe that's why so many folks like basketball. The lessons are right there in front of you. It's a team sport." Is that you or your character speaking?
That's what a politician would say. I think the definition of a good coach, particularly in basketball, is one who can force a team effort and won't let it be anything else. That's not a matter of players being seized by the team spirit, but of the coach having moral authority. From my own days of struggling to be a sports star, I can tell you that teamwork has nothing to do with it. You may need teamwork in order to excel, but I don't think that teamwork is what is motivating you. Glory is what motivates you.
So in college basketball, do we value the single-combat warrior as much as we value the team?
Bill Bradley was a great star at Princeton, then he was a Rhodes Scholar. Then he signed on with the New York Knicks. And I remember saying to myself, what a fool. He's throwing away his life: He could have started out with Morgan Stanley and really made a career for himself. And now he'll be a nobody. But how wrong I was. After a few seasons of professional basketball, he was a New Jersey single-combat warrior, and he was elected to the Senate. It was the greatest career move anybody ever made.
Has the sports icon become the authentic American hero?
Yes, but that's a very good thing, because national heroes almost always come out of war. If there are no heroes, one of the things that indicates is that there is no great national danger. John Glenn was a hero because everybody thought that he was standing up to the Russians. It's wasn't about exploring space, it was standing up to the Russians. And when he returned, he was treated like a hero. His ticker-tape parade in New York was on a very cold February day. Millions turned out, and there were archetypal New York policemen in the middle of intersections with tears streaming down their faces as Glenn went by in his motorcade. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he was not received as a hero. He was admired for his bravery, certainly. But it was an amazing technical feat, almost a stunt. So he got respect and not worship; he was not seen as a protector.
Scion of the Wolfes: father Tom and daughter Alexandra in Cameron Indoor Stadium
Photo: Bruce Feely
Your Man in Full protagonist, Charlie Croker, ruminates on football and declares that at least in the Georgia context, football is "an obsession no one can resist." As a former sports star, is he another single-combat warrior?
Charlie Croker in the book gets his start from the fact that he was a star for Georgia Tech. Even though he comes from some of the worst rural background--he's a real cracker--he was a football player. That makes him attractive to a socially-connected young woman from Richmond, where social means really social, and she falls for him and marries him. And she helps give him the cachet to become a very successful developer. Sports can do that for people.
How does your own abbreviated sports career reflect a search for celebrity status?
There is a real sports mania in this culture which only gets bigger and bigger each year. I was certainly caught up in it myself. I played baseball in high school and college. I played for two years after college. I was always thinking, this year, some pro scout is going to discover me. It turned out I was in no danger of being discovered. If I had been offered a professional sports contract, I'm sure I would have gladly done that. Who cares about writing? Nobody cheers you for writing.
Who has been a sports hero to you?
One of my heroes was Ken Buchanan. He was the lightweight champion of the world at one time. He was rail-thin, with hardly a muscle on his body, and he had enormous speed. I saw him fight and I said, I could do this, too. I wasn't completely agog over him. But I followed him. He was the lone Scotsman in New York in the fight game, and some of my ancestors were, I think, from Scotland.
Do sports also give rise to the anti-hero, like Dennis Rodman?
That began with Joe Namath; I think he was the first bad-boy. And since then, there have been others, in tennis and everywhere else in sports. That's not heroism; it's the appeal of the rake, the rebel. Namath was marvelous. He had to go back to the University of Alabama to complete his four years of study, and the press was invited back for his last semester. And he loved to pose in class with a book upside-down for the benefit of photographers.
What do you think of the Duke basketball uniforms? Would you prefer pure white to blue-and-white?
The thing that I don't like about the basketball uniforms is the baggy pants. I don't get it; they're not elegant, they're goofy. But they're very much in style. Maybe one day they'll wear Lycra, and the players will all look like Spiderman.
Standing in line for halftime pizza during Saturday's Michigan State game--one of the Final Four games that would involve Duke's men's and women's teams, and that was transmitted to a giant screen in Cameron Indoor Stadium--I was asked a question by a confused Durham Herald-Sun reporter: "Why did you come here to watch the game tonight?" "Why not?" was the first thing that came to my mind. But wanting to be more memorably represented in print, I repeated a friend's earlier conclusion: "It's like the world's biggest living room."
For much of the game, that's what it felt like. More refined fans lined the upper level of Cameron like so many couch-inhabiting aunts and uncles after Thanksgiving dinner, while the craziest of the Crazies took the floor like little kids. Some 6,000 eyes honed in on that 432-square-foot TV set. Yeah, it would be fair to call the atmosphere familial.
But whoever said that television reduces attention span needs to pay us a visit. The weekend's four Final Four games began, as every Cameron match-up does, with a rhythmic, synchronized jumping up and down, each ascent accompanied by a beat of the bass drum and several thousand high-pitched "WHOO!"s. Michigan State possessions brought with them loud chants of "dee-fense," or "boink, boink, pass." Timeouts brought pep band renditions of "Fight, Fight, Blue Devils." Spartan foulings-out brought thousands of hands waving goodbye. And when TV cameras, which had come to Duke for the strange purpose
of watching us watch the game, pierced the darkness with their high-intensity lights, the shouts and gestures of the fifty closest fans quadrupled in intensity.
It was no different from a Saturday afternoon in Cameron during the regular season.
The energy and excitement during the concluding minutes of Friday's and Saturday's semifinals were as poignant as the crippling sadness of the five minutes that followed Sunday's and Monday's final buzzers. I remember at the outset of Sunday's game glancing at the 1991 and 1992 championship banners. They hung directly opposite the screen, as if to say "come on, where are you going to put up another two of us?" That was the question on every spectator's mind. We expected those banners.
With 5.7 seconds left in the final Blue Devil game of the season, we were still convinced that someone would be mounting a ladder with a hanging rod a few days later. Only the final buzzer, and the CBS shot of our ecstatic counterparts in Connecticut's arena, could make the defeat real.
Dejected fan turned to dejected fan in search of an understanding face. Not finding
it, the eyes of Cameron moved from the screen to the rear exit signs, and then to the floor.
The lights came up, and the projector went down. The doors clogged. Paper plates and plastic cups littered the floor. Some shocked students couldn't muster the energy to move from their game-watching spots. The brassy "Alma Mater," and a few students jeering it, were the only sounds in the once noisy room. The silence was more deafening than the loudest cheer. This was not how it was supposed to end.
The same reporter found me again on Monday; he asked for a reassessment of what drew such a massive crowd to Cameron. I gave him three more answers. First, the teams are insistent that rabid fan support is one reason for their victories, so maybe it's reassuring to Trajan Langdon, as he prepares to shoot a game-deciding three, to know that his fan base is sending cheers from Durham. Regardless of its influence on the team, our reputation as the nation's best basketball fans goes on the line with every game. It's a reputation we're awfully proud of, and one that we'd surely lose without an impressive Final Four assembly.
Then there's the achievement explanation. We watch this place achieve at the national level every day. Walking down the quad, I'm just as likely to see a Rhodes, Marshall, or Truman Scholar as I am to see Shane Battier or Michelle VanGorp. One good friend's classmate, a classics graduate student, had just returned from the Oscars, where one of her documentaries had been nominated. These are all incredible achievements. Basketball is the one that fits on a screen. The dynamics of the game--its ups and downs, absolute physical and mental demands, and changes in tempo--dramatically replicate the thought processes of Duke students as we strive to accomplish our own goals. If basketball is what we're going to use to celebrate achievement at Duke in a broader context, let's cheer louder.
Finally, partaking of such a spectacle is quite simply a lot of fun. Nothing intellectual, nothing metaphysical; just a really good time. When else do you and a few thousand of your closest friends get to scream at an inanimate object?