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Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium not as crazy after all these years

By Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri February 10, 2012
At Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke fans do their best to distract players on the opposing team.
At Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke fans do their best to distract players on the opposing team.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are 1,000 seats for undergraduate students at Duke basketball games
  • Many of those seats have been sold to non-student Blue Devil fans
  • Success, conference dilution and technology have role in downtown, fan says
  • Cameron Crazies need the spontaneity back, says veteran sports columnist

Editor's note: The author grew up near Durham, North Carolina, and is a huge fan of Duke's rival. He has attended games at Cameron both as a reporter and as an interested observer. He thinks there might not be a better place to watch a basketball game.

(CNN) -- It is the place where the "Air Ball" chant was invented. It is or has been home to Crazy Towel Guy, Viking Guy and Bunch of Guys. A man once distracted an opponent's free-throw shooter by rising from his seat and dancing while wearing a dark blue Speedo and nothing else. That guy became a pastor.

The college basketball fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where there are just 9,314 seats, are not only known for being loud, they take pride in getting into opponents' heads. They are a coordinated cacophony that gives the Duke Blue Devils a home-court advantage only a handful of teams have. Duke University has won nearly 84% of its games in Cameron since 1940.

The Cameron Crazies are so famous, they were even in a Coke commercial.

But recently, the young fans have been the subject of scorn from former Crazies, other basketball fans, the media and even Duke's legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

They haven't been their old selves, and they haven't been filling the undergraduate students section, not even to cheer on a top-10 team. Duke has 1,000 spots for undergrads but has sold up to 400 of those seats to other Duke fans this year.

As Duke enters the heart of conference play, student attendance has picked up recently, senior Ellie Garrett, one of two student ticket line monitors, said in an e-mail.

The smaller undergrad crowds is not a new trend; there have been fewer of them in Section 17 for the past few seasons. But this season, the lack of passion has been noticeable.

Coach K had these words after a January victory at Maryland, according to the Chronicle: "This team is trying to develop and don't just watch them, be with them. They need your support. This Saturday let's be out there at noon [they won against St. John's] and be the Cameron Crazies. If you don't want to do it, then don't, but it will be a mistake. I think sometimes you just take things for granted."

The students responded to the coach's call; Garrett said Section 17 was over capacity.

Longtime Duke fan Julian King says there are several reasons Cameron is a different place these days. King -- who grew up in Durham, has seen hundreds of games in Cameron and runs the message board forum Duke Basketball Report -- points a finger at a tech-rich culture, a student body more focused on academics, conference expansion and the team's "ridiculous success."

No question Duke is one of the most beloved teams and one of the most hated -- in large part because it wins so much. With four national titles and fourth place on the all-time victories list, the Blue Devils are on TV and the front pages of newspapers and sports websites constantly.

"People get spoiled; they get used to (winning)," King said. "But the secret of Cameron, and people who haven't been around a while don't realize, but Cameron really became a great place out of frustration."

He explained that in the 1970s, other teams came in with their stars -- David Thompson of North Carolina State, John Lucas of Maryland and Phil Ford of North Carolina -- and whipped Duke's butt.

Since there was no beating them on the court, Duke fans turned to making fun of them, King said. And those fans, including the most raucous ones known as Bunch of Guys, were often hilarious and often downright offensive.

Caulton Tudor, columnist for the News & Observer in Raleigh, said the fans sometimes crossed the line, but they were spontaneous.

"They've turned into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," he said. "They are orchestrated. Everybody knows exactly what's next."

At Duke, students will work on a cheer sheet and hand them out to those who attend games. Some students have complained that new cheers are needed. They also say there needs to be better coordination.

There are other factors at play, King and Tudor said, and these could affect all schools.

In the early 1980s, when Coach K was new to Duke and the Devils were beginning to win consistently again, there were no fans texting on cellphones or updating Facebook pages, Tudor said. Sure, some brought books so they could study during breaks, but their attention spans were longer and more focused on basketball. These days, not so much.

There also were no huge TVs in the dorms, where students don't have to wait for hours in cold lines to get into the arena, where they might stand (or jump up and down) in closer-than-close quarters for three-plus hours. Today's students can also watch anywhere on campus on computers or smartphones.

And there are now 12 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference (two more schools join the league next season), and old school rivalries have been diminished as a result, said Tudor, who has seen more than 300 games in Cameron since 1957.

Like many superconferences, the ACC has grown so big that schools sometimes play conference opponents only once a year instead of twice. For Duke, it means people don't care about some games as much anymore, King said. It's hard to get worked up about a revenge game if a year separates a loss and the next contest.

Things will get better, Jeff Kovacs, a former crazy known as Mullet Man, wrote in a letter to Blue Devil fans on Duke Basketball Report.

"You may think that the Crazies aren't up to the standards of the past, but maybe this current crop is merely going through its own growing pains," he wrote. "Maybe they aren't spoiled and complacent. Maybe they are learning on the job."

Garrett wrote that students were anxious to be part of the tradition.

"People are painting up, making signs, and counting down the minutes until the doors to Cameron open," she said.

A betting man would probably wager that Section 17 will be full on Saturday when Duke is host to Maryland, which fancies itself one of Duke's rivals (Duke fans feel a little differently).

Coming off a miraculous comeback win against the No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels, Duke and its Crazies have to have their swagger back. If the spontaneity and enthusiasm return with it, the Terrapins might just want to invest in some earplugs. And the Tar Heels, when they come March 3, well, it'll be as crazy that day as ever in Cameron.

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