|For some reason—abiding curiosity about the mix between academics and athletics?—I made my way to Perkins Library the night of the basketball championship game. A sign announced that the library would be closing in about a half hour, at nine o’clock, “in preparation for post-game festivities.” A half-dozen students were in avid communication with the online catalogue. A lone reference librarian, asked if reference business was slow, responded, with a forlorn nod, “Very.”|
In Cameron for the championship-game broadcast, the eyes focused on the string of retired jerseys hanging from the rafters, and just in front of that array, the eighteen-by-twenty-four-foot, cinema-sized screen. A student sitting just in front of me, wearing a baseball cap stylishly backward, was reading an issue of The Economist. He was concentrating on a story whose substance I could not make out but whose headline seemed perfect for the evening: “Let the huddled masses in.” The student masses, if not exactly huddled, were flowing onto the floor and into the stands.
There was something about the Cameron dynamics that night that made it a postmodern spectacle—fluid identities, the breaking down of boundaries, the merging of the real and the unreal, and all that. Just before game time, students clustered around a Cameron camera crew for a live WRAL TV broadcast; the Cameron masses watched themselves on the huge-screen TV and dutifully screamed with enthusiasm at the image of their screaming with enthusiasm.
The Blue Devils found momentum four minutes or so into the second half, and the roar of the crowd seemed intense enough to rattle those hanging jerseys. People leapt up, and largely stayed up. Sitting seemed too effortless in the face of a team effort. As the TV showed a commercial for Enterprise car rentals, enterprising students sparked an all-encompassing crowd “wave.” The wave rippled through the floor, through the stands, and somehow it traveled the distance to Minneapolis as an unstoppable force.
At 11:11, the Cameron scoreboard read “2001 National Champions,” and a News & Observer broadsheet with Duke-blue inking and a “National Champs” headline—more enterprise at work—was making its way through Cameron. A student sitting behind me gave an exuberant hug to everyone around him. A Duke colleague, happy if not out of control, found it too huge a hug: It dislodged one of his contact lenses.
Back in the fall of 1997, one particular student, later a religion major—a fine place, one must think, for exploring issues of enlightenment—had written his eagerness and his anxieties into his freshman-year journal (which was excerpted in the pages of this magazine). “As I stand in the corner of Cameron watching everybody file into the gym, I have so many questions and so many hopes,” he said. And he wondered: “Am I ready? Has my work paid off? Will college basketball be everything it is hyped up to be and possibly more?” Shane Battier, the best player in the nation this season and a three-time academic All-American, now had his answers.
As the crowd made its way to the bonfire, I spotted a former student intern. He was reveling in the victory, and in the news that he had received a summer congressional internship. Success has many faces. Two young women hailed a TV crew from Channel 12. “Sir, we’re Duke students, do you want to talk to us?” they inquired earnestly. One of them pronounced the night “so awesome.” A student streaker wielding a branch—pagans at play, indeed—struck an insouciant pose by a dorm door as he waited for someone to let him in with a DukeCard.
Early the next morning, I sleepily made my way back to the quad. There was an unidentified burned object remaining from the fire, perhaps a steel bed frame. I asked a camera-bearing (of course) student if she could figure out what it was; aiming the camera, she said, “It’s scary to imagine.” One of the quad-attending groundskeepers declared this a more “civilized” celebration than in 1991 and 1992, the past championship years; he recalled the aftermath of those celebrations as being defined by “layers and layers” of debris.
Beyond the generic “Duke 2001 National Champions,” T-shirt-wearers could proclaim “And Then There Was One,” “They Just Keep Coming, We Just Keep Winning,” “Only the Strong Survive,” and, of course, “I Was on the Quad April 2, 2001.” Having been faithful both to Cameron and the quad the previous night, I went for three of latter variety. Post-purchases, I was told that my image had briefly appeared on a local station’s celebration coverage. With that knowledge and my three new T-shirts, I felt doubly—quadruply?—recognized as a witness to history.
There’s power and meaning in shared space, shared rituals, and shared celebration. But Duke basketball, which just keeps on winning, is not just about being part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s about the notion that hard work can bring rewarding results. And isn’t that a validation of education?
Would the more traditional classes be cancelled the day after the game? Provost Peter Lange fielded lots of questions to that effect. He said it would hardly be a fitting tribute to a basketball program that sees itself as an expression of the work ethic. Classes went on as usual, though one suspects some melting of numbers on Tuesday. Tuesday was the welcome-back ceremony for the team, whose coach made it clear that any proper celebration required the presence of “the sixth man.” Or as Jason Williams put it, “I’m just glad we brought the championship back where it needs to be.”
Basketball may close down Perkins Library for a few hours, but it doesn’t overwhelm Duke. It does help define Duke, though, as a place of exuberance and accomplishment. Loyalty to The Economist and loyalty to basketball can coexist. They may both be pursuits on the path to enlightenment.