DURHAM, N.C. -- So this is how it began. No, the picture above is not of Cameron Indoor Stadium hours before the first game, this was
the first game. The 2008-09 season tipped off in relative silence, televised subregionally, radio only. The first 40 minutes of college basketball's new year were played out in front of thousands of empty gray seats.
In the Durham pod of the Coaches vs. Cancer mini-tourney, the game that rewarded the winner with a shot at the Duke Blue Devils, Georgia Southern held off Houston 65-63 with a superior inside presence, baseline-driving the Cougars to death and flummoxing their shooters with alternating zone stacks. The win triggered an e-mail to hundreds of Mid-Majority readers, some of whom openly wondered what had made this an "upset."
A team from the Southern Conference, a low-budget, Football Championship Series league full of tiny southeastern schools, beat a squad from Conference USA, a lineup with an average $23.7 million athletic budget, fueled and funded by big-time gridiron bucks. We've said this many times in the past, but it's not our fault C-USA can't convert its financial advantages to basketball success. Like the Mountain West, it's little else than a failed power conference.
Besides, this has been the exact criteria for years here, and apples must be compared to apples. Still, though, it was wonderful that for a couple of hours, the sub-Red Liners were a perfect 1-for-1 against the top half. If history indicates correctly, that 1.000 batting average will dip to around .110 by the time this 5,600-game journey is complete.
That second game, Duke's lopsided 80-49 romp over the Presbyterian Blue Hose, was over quickly but lasted 40 minutes anyway. The long trudge offered plenty of time to observe the odd rituals and mating habits of the Cameron Crazies, some of the most interesting and intelligent animals in the college basketball ecosystem. There was little choice to do otherwise, because they were over, around, on top of and under.
Everything they say is true, and it's a sight to behold. The chants are negotiated and settled upon at lightning speed and spread across the two long side and end sections, and the mascot steps in with a tilting-hand gesture when things get too crazie or over the line. (Overheard: "Dude, you just got called out by the Devil!") Being a media representative in amongst all of this is a remarkable experience, wedged against the three-foot sideline barrier and a crushing mass of face-painted humanity. One ends up with ears ringing and spit-spray in the hair, and they do read your notes over your shoulder and make suggestions. All the old hands hide their spiralbounds under cupped palms like they were repeatedly copying down their e-mail passwords and recording their deepest sexual fantasies.
A lot of students have asked me for suggestions as to how to start or improve a student section at this level of basketball. My night with the Cameron Crazies would lead me to underscore and underline my standard advice. Stay away from rigid rules and hierarchy, and don't treat it like just another student club. Those with the will to power might be better served to channel their individuality into wacky costumes and stage personas -- those will end up being remembered as the stuff of legend, not who the first president was.
The Cameron Crazies act and appear like a unique organism, organically grown and self-perpetuating. They work together, selflessly, towards a common goal, which is to get their basketball team to stomp out the opposition. It's possible to build similar armies at the mid-major level, to improve upon the rag-tag revolutionary bands of brothers that gather in collapsible bleachers from the Big South to the Big West, but it's essential to take lessons from the right forbears.
But most of all, it helps to have that rarest of qualities, to love the game more than you love your school. For that first game between Georgia Southern and Houston, a small group of Duke fans (seen to the right of the above screen) arrived hours before their team began its campaign. About 100 of them -- one for every 30 or so who eventually showed up -- chose sides, yelled for the Cougars or the Eagles, picked favorite players and targets of ridicule. Some folks just want to watch good basketball, no matter who's playing.
Those, I thought, were my kind of fans.