DURHAM, NC — Before we get to the score, you should — no, you have to — know what it was like at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night. It’s the only way to appreciate what happened.
The occasion was the last game in which Mike Krzyzewski, winner of the most Division I men’s basketball games in history, would patrol Cameron’s sideline as Duke’s maestro. Saturday was the appointed time for worshipers to shout or croak all they could through the din.
What happened was an expulsion of emotions into surround sound, passions built up over 42 seasons that produced some of the best college basketball ever seen. For a Krzyzewski-fuelled final Saturday night at Cameron, the lineup once again tore apart: grief and joy, shock and ecstasy, all measurable in decibels.
Cameron, you see, is a claustrophobic cathedral of stone, brass, wood, percussion and menace – especially when the University of North Carolina comes to play – with a listed capacity of 9,314 and, on Saturdays, maybe an equal number of prayers that the fire marshal wasn’t a Tar Heel fan.
There were a few North Carolina supporters, but very few. Calling a full Duke family reunion Saturday, however, might be too much because it’s hard to have a family reunion when ticket prices exceed Super Bowl prices.
But it was a night the Blue Devils knew would come, the sure last leg of the choreographed tour to complete a Duke career that began in 1980, when hardly anyone around Durham knew what to make of the rental of Tom Butters at West Point. . It ends with at least five national championships – with the possibility of winning one more in the NCAA Tournament which ends next month in New Orleans.
Krzyzewski, now 75, said last year it was time to step away. With conference and national tournaments looming, there could be up to nine more games. But none of them will be in Durham.
So the blue body paint started chipping or sweating long before the whistleblower between No. 4 Duke and unranked North Carolina, but the masked students still bounced back. The band was taking a break, though the fans down below never quite made it to the end. A young man, impossible to see through the thicket of signs, outstretched arms and stuffed animals, walked behind the row of the press and muffled an apologetic question as basic as it was intimidating. “My God, how am I going to get out of this? ?”
But hour after hour, on a night when dozens of former Krzyzewski (and Jerry Seinfeld) players descended on Durham, he and his blue-clad brothers thundered mostly in dynasty-worthy fashion. college sports.
To celebrate each national championship mentioned in a pre-game video. To taunt the Tar Heels. To declare their allegiance to Krzyzewski, who will end his career with 572 victories at Cameron. To make a mess.
After all, the instruction on the student motivation sheet was: “Be stronger than ever today.”
The Duke’s bench was not silent either. The man regularly called Coach K, almost the only one there not to pay tribute to his career, often was.
Tipoff approached. He was sitting with his arms crossed and maybe a little in tears. The horn sounded to signal that game was near. He clapped his hands, stretched his fingers, clenched his fists without a word. He looked in the middle of the yard. He clapped his hands again.
A basketball game, the 257th meeting between Duke and North Carolina, has finally begun.
He winced when North Carolina scored first. Twenty-four seconds later, he stood up for the first time, gesturing and shouting because his advice had no hope of being heard otherwise. The supporters were already officiating.
He faded into the blur of the game, though even now, even after all these decades, he would still be tense at times, frozen in the moment, when one of his players took a shot.
None of Duke’s eyes — and those in attendance included people with surnames you’ll remember, like Brand, Hill, Laettner and Redick — ever looked terribly far from him, though. Peek behind the bench and plenty of old devotees stood and stared at their former coach, their faces turning towards him as much as the scoreboard above.
Besides Krzyzewski, they often looked like the quietest men in the place, though they and the coach punched the air and roared in unified fury at a rude call that went Carolina’s way.
The calm would come between Saturday and Thursday, when Duke plays Brooklyn as the top seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Some quiet moments came when Duke fired free throws, but eardrums can’t shoot that fast yet.
And the calm sometimes began to encroach late. Duke trailed 10 with about 52 seconds left, done by a porous Blue Devils defense and a dynamic North Carolina team with freshman coach Hubert Davis suppressing a smile and speaking after the game the way he told his team to “let all this side stuff go on” and stay focused on the Tar Heels’ own work.
Krzyzewski, whose team beat North Carolina by 20 points during a visit to Chapel Hill last month, was left on the sidelines with his arms folded again. He clasped his hands behind his back. He bit his lip as he watched a less heralded team he later said “played a lot better than us” walk down history as a team that ruined their farewell. The noise was still stirring, never quite extinguished.
But everyone knew the result. They were simply marking time for a North Carolina win, 94-81, that bettors and worshipers had deemed unlikely.
“I’m sorry for this afternoon,” Krzyzewski, who spent much of the afternoon mixing notes of gratitude with ruthless criticism of his team, told the crowd. ” This is unacceptable. Today was unacceptable.
The season was not over, he preached. But his time at Cameron was.
He still has 1,196 career wins, including 1,123 as a Duke coach.
The last, if there will be any, will have to come elsewhere. This weekend, at least, proved again that the noise and pageantry will only take any team and manager so far, especially when a Tobacco Road rival is in town.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Krzyzewski, who capped his first regular season at Cameron by upsetting North Carolina in overtime, after the night’s ceremony. “Let’s practice and see what happens in tournaments.”