DURHAM, NC — Before we get to the score, you should — no, you must — know what it was like at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday evening. That is the only way to appreciate what happened.
The occasion was the final game in which Mike Krzyzewski, winner of the most Division I men’s basketball games in history, would patrol the Cameron sideline as Duke’s teacher. Saturday was the appointed time for the faithful to holler or croak whatever they could through the din.
What came was an expulsion of emotions in surround sound, passions built up over 42 seasons that yielded some of the finest college basketball ever seen. For one last Krzyzewski-fueled Saturday night at Cameron, the range tore through once more: grief and glee, 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 Saturday, maybe an equal number of prayers that the fire marshal was not a Tar Heel fan.
There were some, but very few, North Carolina partisans around. To call Saturday a full Duke family reunion, though, it would maybe be too much since it is hard to have a family reunion when ticket prices surpass those of the Super Bowl.
But this was a night the Blue Devils knew would come, the last date-certain milestone on the choreographed tour to round out a Duke career that started in 1980, when nearly no one around Durham knew what to make of Tom Butters’ hire from West Point. It is concluding with at least five national championships — with the opportunity for one more in the NCAA tournament that will end next month in New Orleans.
Krzyzewski, now 75, said last year that it was time to step away. With the 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 to flake or sweat away long before typoff, but the masked students bounced anyhow. The band would pause, even if the fans near the floor never really did until the end. One young man, who was impossible to see through the thicket of signs and outstretched arms and stuffed animals, passed behind press row and apologetically choked out a question as basic as it was daunting: “My God, how am I going to get through here ?”
But, one hour after the next, on an evening when scores of former Krzyzewski players (and Jerry Seinfeld) descended on Durham, he and his blue-clad brethren mostly thundered in a manner befitting a college sports dynasty.
To celebrate each national championship cited in a pregame video. To taunt the Tar Heels. To declare their allegiance to Krzyzewski, who will finish his career with 572 wins at Cameron. To make a ruckus.
The direction on the cheer sheet for students, after all, was: “Just be louder than ever today.”
The Duke bench was not quiet, either. Krzyzewski, nearly alone there in not donning a sartorial tribute to his career, often was.
Tipoff approached. He sat, arms crossed and maybe a bit teary. The horn sounded to signal that the game was near. He clapped his hands, stretched his fingers, clenched his fists wordlessly. I have peered at midcourt. I have clapped his hands again.
A basketball game eventually began.
I grimaced when North Carolina scored first. Twenty-four seconds in, he rose for the first time, gesturing and shouting because his guidance from him had no hope of being heard otherwise. The fans were already officiating.
He faded into the blur of the game, even though, even now, even after all of these decades, he would still sometimes tense, frozen in the moment, when one of his players took a shot.
No Duke eyes — and the ones in attendance included people with surnames you will remember, like Brand, Hill, Laettner and Redick — ever seemed terribly far from him, though. Glance behind the bench, and many of the old stalwarts were standing and watching their old coach, their faces turning toward 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 over a foul call that went Carolina’s way.
Quiet would come between Saturday and Thursday, when Duke will play in Brooklyn as the top seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Somewhat quiet moments came when Duke shot free throws, but eardrums cannot draw still so fast.
And quiet sometimes started to encroach late, when Duke fell behind by 10 with about 52 seconds to play, done in by a porous Blue Devil defense and a dynamic North Carolina team with a first-year coach, Hubert Davis, who suppressed a grin and talked later about how he had told his team to “let all that sideshow stuff go on” and keep focused on their own handiwork.
Krzyzewski was left to stand on the sideline, his arms crossed again. I have clasped his hands behind his back. He bit his lip. The noise still stirred, never quite extinguished.
Everyone knew the outcome, though. They were simply marking time toward a North Carolina win, 94-81.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” Krzyzewski told the crowd afterward. “It’s unacceptable. Today was unacceptable.”
The season was not over, I preached. But his time at Cameron was.
He still has 1,196 career wins, including 1,123 as Duke’s coach.
The last ones, if there will be any, will have to come somewhere else. This weekend, at least, proved again that noise and pageantry will only take any team and any coach so far, especially when a rival is in town.
“I’m glad this is over,” Krzyzewski mused later. “Let’s just coach and see what the hell happens in the tournaments.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism