Nearly 37 percent of San Jose resi-dents over 15 years of age are foreign born. Thirty-six percent of army troops are opposed to the presence of gay men in the military. Eighty-four percent of the United Kingdom population is concentrated in England. One hundred percent of dogs are mammals, but only 15 percent of Duke students are not obsessed with basketball.
Statistics might not mean much—I hear 40 percent of stats are made-up anyway—but at least they’re some indication of where you stand in society. How much company you have. Who you represent. How similar you are to your peers, or in my case, just how different.
I matriculated at Duke University fully aware that I was going to be part of a conspicuous, basketball-indifferent minority. I’d heard that Durham, North Carolina—despite other inadequacies—was some sort of b-ball mecca; acquaintances kept asking if I was going to Duke for the basketball. “Do you know what their ACC ranking is?” “How’s Cameron Stadium?” Some asked about Krzyzewskiville, the city of tents named for Coach Mike Krzyzewski that is erected every year so that students can get in line for the big games literally months in advance. I alternately feigned ignorance and excitement when questioned, reassured myself that the promotional poster promised 15 percent of students would share my disinterest. You can’t blame me for worrying though. The fact that such a statistic even existed was a point of concern.
I didn’t hear much about basketball when I first got to Duke. The season hadn’t started; the names of players weren’t bandied about in the daily paper. Sure, I turned my head in the dining hall when one of the seven-footers walked by with his (or her) entourage, but fan clubs hadn’t formed yet and the volleyball players, too, were huge. I remained complacently oblivious during the blue-white scrimmage, vaguely aware of something called “Midnight Madness” and an evening of Nike Elite. I came home for Thanksgiving having ignored seven games and doggedly dodged questions regarding my shoddy school spirit. Maybe I was proud of my elite status as basketball-indifferent. Maybe embarrassed that I didn’t know a personal foul from a player foul (and let’s face it, still don’t). Whatever the reasons—sanctimony or nescience—I cherished my status as basketball virgin.
And then Duke played Wake Forest. And everything changed.
Ok, maybe not everything, but it’s hard not to dramatize my initiation into the world of college basketball. You know what they say about your first time, and mine was certainly one to remember. A friend’s girlfriend was in town; he wanted to take her to a game. Duke was to play Wake Forest on January 17. I said I’d go along. A group of us woke early Saturday morning and waited in line about four hours to get into the afternoon’s game—free, of course, but on a first-come-first-served basis. It was cold. I felt ridiculous practicing the Lobster dance (one of many institutionalized cheers and dances performed at Cameron Indoor Stadium) as we waited in line behind a group of older guys pounding down Bud Lites at 10 in the morning. As line monitors passed out instruction sheets for the fans, however, I couldn’t help but get excited. “This looks to be one of the best games of the young season,” the flyers read. “Be intense, be loud, be crazy. If you haven’t lost your voice by halftime, you are too quiet.”
How can I describe the intensity, the volume, the craziness that filled Cameron that afternoon? I was about ready to pass out at halftime from all the jumping, making a sound like “uhhhhhhh” whenever the opposing team had possession of the ball and jumping up and down—while literally standing like a packed sardine in the bleachers, at an angle so that more fans could get in—standing, dancing, fist pumping, chanting, cheering in unison with thousands of fans all arranged in a sea of blue, white, and gray around the court and surrounded, up top, by paying fans like the Crazy Towel Guy, who responded to our communal, robotic calling of his name during an official time-out by leaping from his seat and waving a white towel around his head like a lasso.
After the game, I knew I’d had a religious experience. The synthesis of the Cameron Crazies—the appropriate pet name given Duke fans—seemed like something between a mass of pilgrims during Haj and Hitler’s automatons at a Nazi rally. It was exhilarating but scary to watch as scores of individually talented young men and women united in screaming “Du-du-du-hon” as senior Chris Duhon slapped the stadium floor with open palms. I felt oddly proud to have been in classes with three basketball players and enjoyed a few moments of celebrity as I mentioned actually sitting next to Luol Deng, the best freshman player in the country. For the first time since orientation last semester, I felt like a Duke student, and not just a student at Duke University.
This Duke student has had to acknowledge the problems associated with the basketball mecca, however, not just the fun and the game. We as an institution—though not unique in our bias—pay far more attention to the men’s teams than the women’s, despite that our female basketball players are some of the best in the country. The university seems to take fans for granted as well. The single time this semester that Cameron Stadium wasn’t full (for a game during midterm week, mind you), undergraduates were chastised by Coach Krzyzewski and denied a certain number of seats at the next game. I would hope that other colleges, though clearly interested in emulating the spirit of the Cameron Crazies, do not perpetuate the mistakes that some have made in the name of the game.
What is it about basketball that drives college students wild? That impels us to tent in the snow and slush for days—weeks sometimes—just to sit a bit closer to the center, on the television side, our faces painted blue, throats already raw from premature cheering and hard lemonade? I don’t know what it is but I too have fallen prey to its charm. I have relinquished my status as part of that elite contingent (or marginalized minority, I now believe) of basketball-indifferent and claimed my spot alongside friends in tent #58.
I—in all my self-important, cerebral glory—am a Cameron Convert. Not quite Cameron-Crazy status yet, but I’ve got three more years to get there.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a freshman and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.