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January 10, 2008Photo Gallery: Home-Court Advantage: The Sweet 16
The following is Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara's first-hand account of being an opponent in college basketball's most difficult place to play, Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
A good friend had his heart set on trying out for Florida State's basketball team, and he talked me into joining him during our sophomore years in 1998.
I was only an average power forward in high school in Miami, but I figured I had a chance because I had grown a couple of inches and added about 15 pounds and was 6 feet 6 and 220 pounds.
It turned out to be good timing because the team was searching specifically for backup post players ? although I quickly learned I was an undersized power forward at that level. After the one and only day of walk-on tryouts, I was one of the guys invited to practice with the team. After a series of cuts and a two-point performance in the Garnet-and-Gold game (which remains my moment of glory), I was given a spot on the roster with less than a week remaining before the first game.
I quickly learned that meant I would go to about half of the road games; only two walk-ons went on each road trip and there was a rotation. Still, I was fortunate enough to land the coveted Duke game.
I didn't play a single second and we got hammered ? the Blue Devils won 98-73 ? but the trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium remains one of the most indelible moments of my life.
The night before the game, we took a commercial flight into Raleigh-Durham airport (the sight of watching 7-2 Karim Shabazz cram his lanky frame into a coach seat hasn't escaped my memory) and took a bus directly to the arena for a short practice.
After a 20-minute drive (that seemed more like 40), we came to a stop in front of a relatively small stone building across from the football field that looked more like a church than a gym. It had an old, gothic look on the outside.
I thought, "Surely this isn't where Duke of all teams plays?"
As we walked into view of the court, it felt like that scene in Hoosiers when the players walk into Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time. Everybody turned quiet and our eyes scanned the old-school wooden bleachers surrounding the court.
There was nobody in the gym, but it still looked and felt incredibly small. I knew it sat only around 9,000 people, but it didn't seem as if that many could fit in there. It didn't look any bigger than some of the high school gyms I played in, even when empty.
But there was an immediate sense that this was a historic place, and I found myself in awe of it all. As we went through warm-ups and stretched, nobody talked. The only noise was the buzz of a heater in the background.
The team seemed more focused than usual ? perhaps a product of the surroundings ? and we walked off feeling fairly confident even though Duke was ranked No. 2 at the time, riding an 11-game winning streak and boasted five future first-round picks (Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, William Avery and Shane Battier). We had been picked near the bottom of the ACC, but were off to a 3-1 start in league play. We had won on the road at Georgia Tech and knocked off No. 25 Clemson.
The following morning, after a quick breakfast, we arrived back at Cameron for warm-ups. Walking onto the court, I was quickly introduced to the Cameron Crazies. The student section, which goes beyond the length of both sidelines, was packed. It was a shocking sight.
As we shot around, fans yelled all sorts of obscenities and vulgarities, and I quickly learned that everybody was fair game. After airballing a 3-pointer, I could hear them chanting, "Airball! Airball!"
I couldn't believe they cared what I, a lowly walk-on, was doing in warm-ups.
The noise during the game was deafening right from the start. When we were on defense, I could literally feel the floor shaking and I couldn't hear what my teammates sitting on either side of me were saying. It stayed that way for 40 minutes, even though we fell behind by more than 20 points early in the second half. At one point, the lead got around 30. The students started chanting, "Need four touchdowns."
I found myself thinking, "What is it like when they play North Carolina? Or a top-five team?" Surely, it couldn't be any louder.
The proximity of the fans to the players is what really separates Cameron from other gyms. When players are near the sideline or throwing an inbounds pass, the fans are close enough to reach out and touch the players. There is no way to block them out or ignore them. If you're on the visiting team, you can't help feeling uncomfortable. You feel surrounded, engulfed by a great big blue mass at all times.
I came away thinking there could be no greater home-court advantage in any sport. No other arena I had been to was as loud or had such an intimate feel. No place had such dedicated, ferocious students.
Eight years later, after having traveled to dozens of college and pro venues across the nation, that notion hasn't changed.
Our team wasn't the same after leaving Duke. We didn't win another road game and finished 5-11 in league play.
Our once-promising start turned into a disappointing campaign filled with regret and questions of "What if?" The powerful aura of Cameron and its dedicated fans can take much of the blame.
Photo Gallery: Home-Court Advantage: The Sweet 16
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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