January 29, 2008

Trying to Hold Back Emotions in Cameron Indoor Stadium

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Watching a Duke basketball game at Cameron Indoor Arena is just one of those things that every true sports fan should do before they die. Much like watching the antics of Papi and Manny at Fenway, observing the Knicks’ futility at Madison Square Garden or marveling at Brett Favre’s seemingly endless career at Lambeau Field, the excitement and ambiance that accompanies sports’ greatest venues is almost indescribable. No one’s account can really do the experience justice; you just have to see it for yourself.
I was lucky enough to attend the Duke-Cornell basketball game over Winter Break with four of my friends, and there is no doubt in my mind that the experience was worth 16 hours of driving. Although I have already written the formal recap of the game, here is the real story of what transpired in Durham, N.C. on Jan. 6, 2008.
As soon as I walked into the arena just after tipoff, I felt bombarded by noise and heat. Cameron Indoor only houses about 10,000 fans, but, much like Fenway Park, they all seem to be right on top of the court. All I remember thinking was, “Why the hell are there so many people here for a Cornell game?” Despite the fact that Duke University was still not in session and the No. 8 team in the nation was playing an Ivy League squad, there was not an empty seat in the house, and it felt and sounded more like the Super Bowl than a college basketball game. That kind of devotion to collegiate athletics is something I envy and, as I mentioned in a previous column, it is painfully absent here at Cornell.
Getting to the actual game, just eight seconds after tipoff, senior Demarcus Nelson drilled a three-pointer and sent the arena into a frenzy. After taking in the scenery for a few minutes thereafter, an usher showed me to my courtside seat on press row during the first timeout. The score was only 7-6 in favor of the Blue Devils and, even more encouraging, the Cornell starting five seemed to be playing with more confidence than Duke. After all Duke had just come back from a 17-day layoff, and the Cornell players had nothing to lose. I quickly scribbled on my notepad, “Why not us? Why not now?”
Several minutes later, Duke jumped out to a 16-8 lead and center Brian Zoubek threw down an explosive dunk, eliciting “Zouuuu” chants from the Cameron Crazies. Then I remembered the answer to my rhetorical question — because Duke is much more talented. The squad just couldn’t match up with Duke’s athleticism inside. Yet, in the back of my mind I knew that if Cornell turned the game into a shooting contest (with Ryan Wittman and Adam Gore getting hot from deep), the Red would have a shot.
When coach Donahue called his first timeout, the Duke band erupted into a fight song, approximately 20 cheerleaders jumped onto the court and the odd-looking Blue Devil Mascot with an enormous head and questionable facial hair wandered towards press row. For a moment, I felt like tackling “the Blue Devil,” landing a few blows to his oversized head and making that night’s edition of SportsCenter. But I controlled myself; Jeremy Hartigan (Director of Cornell’s Athletic Communications) would be proud.
About five minutes later, the Cameron Crazies (who were literally two feet behind me) really started to bother me. Listen guys, I love your enthusiasm and all but do you have to yell, chant and bounce every play? When Alex Tyler took a huge charge I seized the opportunity to silence them; I jumped out of my seat, turned around and yelled “Sit down.” Granted, it was probably not the best line I could have come up with, but in the heat of battle, it would have to do. Fortunately, I also knew that the Cameron Crazies were not going to retaliate. On TV they look pretty legit, but up close and personal, it seemed like they all got lost on their way to a World of Warcraft convention (no offense Max).
I know that as a member of the media I am obligated to maintain a certain level of objectivity when covering a game, but to tell you the truth, I just wasn’t willing to do that. It was a once in a lifetime experience to sit courtside at a Duke basketball game, and I was determined to make the most of it.
As if on cue, the Cornell players responded to my inappropriate enthusiasm. Jeff Foote (who played an outstanding game by the way) knocked a basket down from the paint while Wittman poured in two treys, highlighting Cornell’s exhilarating 13-4 run to claim its first lead of the game, 24-22. After a Duke field goal, Wittman stroked yet another shot from long range, sending the Cornell bench and cheering section into an absolute frenzy. And yes, me included.
With 6:25 left to play in the first half, Cornell was leading Duke 27-24. It seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, a rather portly gentleman sitting two seats to my left decided to rain on my parade. “Excuse me son,” he said. “You’re on press row, take it easy.”
Of course my first impulse was to say, “No, I’m good sir,” and if I had a few beers in me, I certainly may have. But once again I decided to restrain myself and respectfully apologized. Instead I took my aggression out on the paper and proceeded to write “F— being objective, I’m going all out.”
My spirits were lifted shortly thereafter, however, when I overheard the conversation of two Duke fans behind me. “What’s going on out there,” one asked. “I don’t know man, we’re so off right now,” the other responded. The thought of two Duke fans getting nervous over our basketball team made me smile.
Then our beloved Big Red started to unravel. Several Cornell turnovers followed by quick Duke baskets (including an unbelievable alley-oop from Greg Paulus to Gerald Henderson) bloated the Blue Devil lead to 41-31 with 1.7 seconds left to play in the first half. Foote proceeded to hit one free throw out of two to send his team into halftime trailing 41-32.
Ryan Wittman told me after the game that Duke’s run to end the first half was “where the game was lost.” I couldn’t agree more with him, although the outcome was still in doubt well into the second half.
Duke’s coaching staff looked like a stampede of navy blue suits heading into the tunnel. Coach K led the way while walking at a brisk pace. I’m not going to lie, I was a little star struck. He was followed by former Duke greats such as Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins as well as several other coaches.
Upon returning to my seat to start the second half, one of the Cameron Crazies (no doubt indentifying me by my bright Red Cornell shirt) yelled, “Go home man, Cornell sucks.”
I smiled, jawed back “Good one,” and mentally prepared myself for the biggest upset in Cornell basketball history. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
Despite five quick Cornell points to start the second half, cutting the Duke lead to four (41-37), the Blue Devils’ talent and to four (41-37), the Blue Devils’ talent and strength began to overwhelm the Red. Freshman sensation Kyle Singler dazzled the crowd with his athleticism while Duke responded with an 11-2 run that increased their lead to a game-high 13 points.
During the run, coach Donahue caught my eye as he instructed his players to pick up the pace and run with the Blue Devils. Now I am no coach, but why would you want to play an up-and-down game with a team that is blatantly more athletic than yours is? Why not just start launching three’s and see what happens? But I digress.
Although Cornell was never completely out of the game until the waning minutes, the team also never managed to pull closer than eight for the remainder of the half. As a result, I want to run through some of Cornell’s second half highlights:
1) Seven-footer Jeff Foote pulling off a behind-the-back pass for an easy layup and a huge slam in back-to-back possessions. I think he was trying to audition for the AND1 Mixtape tour.
2) The Cornell fan section (which was packed and rowdy) taunting the Cameron Crazies after they chanted, “Safety School, Safety School.” I would love to tell you all what some of them said, but we just can’t print it. Use your imagination.
3) Going to the post-game press conference and the Duke locker-room after the game. O.K. this one might not be related to basketball, but for a small-time journalist, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Plus, Coach K is a legend and he had nothing but praise for Cornell’s talent and effort.
Although in the end, the Red didn’t manage to pull it out, it turned out to be one of the most entertaining sporting events that I have ever witnessed. And as someone who has been to the Super Bowl before, that is saying something. Granted, I was forced to leave early, but that is a story for another day. For all of you true college basketball fans, there is no legitimate excuse for not checking out Cameron before you die. And when you finally make it down there, do me a favor, tackle that damn Blue Devil.