I could feel the heat of the fire from 50 yards away. Helicopters pitter-pattered far above and students occasionally incanted “Let’s Go Duke!” before being drowned out by laughter, throaty male yells and the babble of thousands of people who were clearly happy. Very happy.
From afar, I sat on a bench watching a horde of Duke students huddle around a 20-foot-tall bonfire in the middle of campus. Moments before, the Blue Devils defeated Butler in thrilling fashion in the NCAA men’s basketball championship, 61-59.
Students launched anything they could get their hands on into the inferno. Droplets of cheap beer and Amp—which promoters handed out for free at the end of the game—sprinkled down on the crowd as cans soared through the night sky en route to the blaze. Writhing rolls of toilet paper levitated amidst the smoky drafts. A shower of swirling sparks escaped from the fire, frantically curling every which way like a school of fish that lost their choreographer.
“Let’s burn shit up!” someone yelled.
“Let’s have a riot!” seconded another.
“Just because you’re feeling woozy is no excuse not to rage,” said a shirtless male to a female with impassioned sincerity, the lip of his underwear advertising the American Eagle brand.
Phones and cameras glowed as students texted and snapped photos. Several girls sat atop the shoulders of males. As one blond was escorted closer to the fire, the crowd cheered as if they selected her to be the virgin sacrificed.
As time passed, new smells of pot and liquor brought diversity to the prevailing campfire musk. There was a guy in a gorilla suit. An impromptu wrestling match broke out. Whenever the fire began to ebb, giant thousand-pound blue benches were carried on the shoulders of fraternity brothers who looked like pallbearers carrying a casket with the morbidly obese enclosed. They’d tip the giant structures into the flames and the fire—freshly stoked—would growl while onlookers took several wary steps back.
I was on a bench far from the fire, describing the scene in my notepad. I simply couldn’t get wrapped up in the revelry, even if that’s what I wanted most.
Before the game, I’d heard of the post-championship tradition and dreamt of surrendering my will to the whimsies of the mob. There’d be footage of me on the morning news tipping cars, heaving Molotov cocktails through campus windows, and circling the fire naked next to free-loving pre-meds and MBAs.
But this didn’t happen. The riot never really got out of hand and I knew all along that this was a crowd I’d never feel a part of. Before coming here, I thought I might identify with a young, ambitious and intelligent mass of people. But I’m just of a different ilk. I’m old, prefer to be alone, and there’s an ideological chasm between myself and most students too wide to bridge. It’s sad to admit, but here I’ll always be an outsider looking in.
Moments before I was in Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke, over the past 10 seasons, has amassed an astounding 159-13 record (.924 winning percentage). By contemporary standards, Cameron is a small basketball court, only large enough to house a little over 9,000 fans who are considered the team’s “sixth man” for their ability to hex opposing teams.
I’d been in the stadium once before. I stood on the floor in the graduate section. For half the game—when the opposing team had the ball—the crowd jumped up and down in the rafters, screaming unremittingly. There were elaborate chants and hand gestures employed at different points of the game. The other team was ridiculed and demoralized. Duke won 84-48. Throughout my many years on sports teams and as a frequenter of sporting events, I’d never seen such organized chaos. And this was just an exhibition game…
Because I hadn’t watched another game until the tournament, I’d recently jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. Having been a Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan since my youth, I’m well-acquainted with unsuccessful teams and devastating losses. No goal. Wide right. The Music City Miracle. Four straight Super Bowl losses. The failures of these teams mirrored the outcomes of those I played on as a young man. I thought Duke might be my one chance to be on the side of a winner, even if I had to hastily pledge my loyalties. But really, I think I wanted to feel, if just for a day, that I was part of campus and the student body.
Because the championship was played in Indianapolis, Duke students who couldn’t make the trip were welcomed into Cameron where we’d watch the game on four television screens aired on the scoreboard.
Even though there were no players on the court, the atmosphere was just as electrifying. Chants erupted from the collective will. Mantras of “Let’s Go Duke!” and “De-Fence!” became common refrains.“Boos” moaned from the crowd whenever highlights of Butler were shown. For free-throws, the crowd would raise their arms and drop them as the ball went into the bucket, everyone yelling a synchronous “Whoosh!”
Because the players were several states away, it was obvious that the chants and cheers and boos weren’t for those in the game, but for the people in the stands. Each collective cry was a reaffirmation of solidarity. The thrill of being in a crowd comes from feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself; that you’re amongst people of your kind with whom values and traditions and beliefs are shared.
The game came down to the last seconds. Anxiety and excitement were palpable. There was concerted disconcertion. Butler had the ball and Duke was up by one with a just a few seconds left. Unease swept across the stands. The crowd mumbled their doubts. Palms were placed over heads as they watched Butler’s prepare for their last shot.
When they missed with three seconds left and Duke’s victory was all but sealed, a few streaks of blue flitted past me and ran onto the court. Before I knew it, I was in the midst of the throbbing throng—a hopping, hugging, fist-pumping mass of people who were swept from the stands and onto the court by some collective force too mysterious to name. Packed tight in the midst of the core beneath the scoreboard, I felt, if just for a fleeting second, that this was my team, my college, and my people.