It had been more than ten years since the last time I visited Cameron Indoor Stadium in the fall of 2008 for a rather meaningless November game between Duke and the Montana Grizzlies. Until this Tuesday, it was the only time I had ever seen a game at Duke. The game that Sunday afternoon was the end of an East Coast visit my dad and I took to visit some family, as well as his beloved Durham alma mater.
My dad, a 1981 alum of Duke, is as passionate and knowledgeable a Duke basketball fan as you will meet. Like I did in the past for the Old Gold & Black, my dad served as the Sports Editor of the Duke Chronicle during his years as a Blue Devil, which meant he spent dozens of nights seated in the press row seats I was lucky enough to have last night. His great claim to fame is that he wrote the Chronicle article when Mike Krzyzewski was hired as Duke’s head coach nearly 40 years ago in 1980. Needless to say, he raised me to be a die-hard Duke fan like himself.
Yet as high school trudged along and my SAT scores never approached Duke’s demanding averages, it became increasingly clear I would never follow in his footsteps to Durham. Instead, I came a bit down Tobacco Road to an ACC foe in Mother So Dear.
It’s hard to believe that in my four years at Wake Forest it took me, a born-and-raised Duke fan turned Demon Deacon convert, this long to revisit Cameron Indoor for a game. I, of course, had been to the Wake Forest-Duke games at Lawrence Veterans Joel Memorial Coliseum, but never to any in the famed Cameron Indoor. Games between the Deacs and the Devils at the Joel had been fun in years past, especially when Wake Forest narrowly lost to Duke two years ago when Luke Kennard had 30 second half points. Nothing, however, compared to the atmosphere in Durham on Tuesday night.
The energy inside that arena is unlike anything else in sports. At just over 9,000 seats, Cameron makes for an intense environment. Although I had been to a game there a decade ago, I had lost sight of how truly tiny Cameron is. Watching Duke games on TV really doesn’t do the arena justice. With so many people packed into such tight quarters, the sound reverberates from wall to wall. Sitting on the sideline in press row, the student section is directly on top of you, actively screaming, breathing and spitting down your neck.
The game itself was phenomenal. The Deacs were 25.5-point road underdogs to No. 4 Duke, but delivered one of their best all-around games in my four years. Wake Forest went toe-to-toe all night with arguably the nation’s most talented team — albeit without its mountainous star Zion Williamson. The crowd was locked in all night, as the gym rocked with noise. In his post-game comments, Coach K made comment of how influential the crowd was in winning Duke the game.
The Deacs hit Duke hard with suffocating and opportunistic defense all game and went into the half down a single point, 35-34. Chaundee Brown and Brandon Childress were excellent in the second half, and Ikenna Smart had the game of his career filling in for Olivier Sarr, and after Wake Forest got out to a 10-point lead early in the half, Duke clawed its way back into the game and led by five with three minutes left. Wake Forest would not go down without a fight, however, and the game came down to the final possession as Brown narrowly missed a would-be game-winning shot at the buzzer that sat on the rim for what felt like an hour. The collective sigh let out by the Duke faithful as Brown’s shot rattled out could be felt throughout the building.
The overall experience of seeing my beloved Deacs play an incredibly well-fought, back-and-forth game against my formerly beloved Blue Devils at Cameron was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in sports. During my time at Wake Forest, my love for Duke and its basketball team has undoubtedly evolved, but the draw and magnetism of this year’s Duke team has been undeniable in comparison to years past, especially when Williamson and R.J. Barrett have shared the court. The experience of Cameron — its history, the passion, the noise, the tight quarters — make it a singularly unique atmosphere in sports. And the fact that Wake Forest not only pushed Duke but gave them a true test and probably should have won made my return to college sports’ most iconic venue and a place my dad called home that much more special.