Tobacco Road’s great old gyms are just empty buildings without college basketball fans

Duke was supposed to go to the Bahamas this year, back when traveling to an island resort for a basketball tournament was the simplest thing in the world. The closest the Blue Devils or anyone else will get is the atmosphere in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday, when Duke hosted Michigan State in an arena empty of fans.



Cameron Indoor Stadium before Duke plays host to North Carolina on March 7, 2020, in Durham, North Carolina.


© Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America/TNS
Cameron Indoor Stadium before Duke plays host to North Carolina on March 7, 2020, in Durham, North Carolina.

Without the students screaming and boosters murmuring, the squeaking of sneakers was loud as a gunshot. Voices carried. Even the lighting looked different. Duke installed new LED lighting over the summer and without the teeming mass of human bodies to reflect and refract it, it had a bit of the blue glow of the ballroom at Atlantis, where Duke was supposed to have played.

In Cameron and in Reynolds Coliseum and in the Smith Center and in every arena across the ACC and across college basketball, the first week of the season has served as a cogent reminder that college basketball without fans is something else entirely.

They are missed.

Professional sports can exist in a bubble. College basketball as we know it can only thrive and flourish in symbiosis with the fans who crowd its sidelines and baselines. They are as much a part of the game as the players. A game played without them is a different game — still compelling, still with all the skill and drama, but with a vacant space where its soul should be.

Every sport has had to make these accommodations, but the NBA and NHL and especially the NFL can get along just fine in an empty stadium or arena. They are, at heart, productions made for television, and fans are merely an accoutrement, same as the pumped-in music during an offensive possession in the NBA.

Which is … fine. The world of professional sports is an entertainment business. The show must go on. And it does. NBA games in the Orlando bubble had more in common with professional wrestling or a Broadway musical than a college basketball game. College football long ago crossed that divide as well.

College basketball has not, and like European and South American soccer, an essential component of its spirit is that it be played in front of frenzied crowds, preferably in steamy (or, once, smoky) buildings, at the highest of temperatures both physically and emotionally.

We refer to the great buildings as cathedrals and temples and shrines for a reason, and not merely out of hyperbole. With their vaulted ceilings and dark corners, they serve as venues for the collective embracement of a higher ideal, the ethos expressed in the plaque at the entrance to the Palestra, the St. Peter’s of college basketball: To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.

The Triangle’s great old gyms, Cameron and Reynolds and McDougald-McLendon, are sewn from the same spiritual cloth, built in the same architectural style — Naismith high Gothic — and play the same cherished role here that the Palestra does in Philadelphia and for the Big Five. They represent, in concrete and wood and steel, our love of the game. They give us a place to express it.

What are they without us?

Cameron, with its lone fan — Mickie Krzyzewski, in her usual seat above the scorer’s table — is no different during a game now than it is during an afternoon practice, when raised voices and the thumping of basketballs echo off the rafters. The environment is no longer hostile.

This leaves a void, because the buildings themselves are integral to the experience in a way that only the historic baseball stadiums — Wrigley, Fenway, Camden Yards — can match. Part of the ACC’s thinking in eschewing a bubble-type setup, in Greensboro or elsewhere, was that players deserve the ritual of walking into a Cameron or a Smith Center, even without fans.

There is indeed value in looking up at the names in the rafters, comparing them to those of one’s own school, feeling their presence. It is a noble goal, to preserve that element of the experience, when so much else is missing, but that’s all it is. One element. The building remains empty, without the adrenaline that builds as the seats fill.

And if basketball misses the fans, think what the fans are missing, even just walking in the door: All of the Triangle’s buildings have their own experience, their own introduction to the court and the game. In Cameron, the ramps lead up to the seats, so the court reveals itself from above, banners first, floor last. The Smith Center has no secrets, with its concourse open to the bowl. Reynolds can be a maze of cramped hallways and corridors that explode into light when the moment comes. And PNC Arena, with its wide avenues and kiosks and hustle and bustle, builds the same sense of anticipation as a theater lobby.

That’s before a seat is taken, a ball is tipped, a game is won or lost, any memories are made. Even the most basic aspect of the experience — the mere anticipation of it, that first glimpse of the court under the bright lights — has been abandoned, by necessity.

It leaves so much missing, and the strange lighting and strange sounds provoke the same empty feeling of one of those mid-level holiday tournaments in Cancun or St. Thomas. Those tournaments sacrifice atmosphere inside for atmosphere outside. This winter, we’ve had to sacrifice the atmosphere inside for having college basketball at all, or what passes for a facsimile of it.

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