by Adam Sobsey
R.E.M. played Cameron while touring with their then new album, Lifes Rich Pageant (but without the apostrophe in "Life's"). Let's Active, whose frontman, Mitch Easter, co-produced R.E.M.'s Murmur, opened. You could look it up.
Lifes Rich Pageant was R.E.M.'s breakout album—not quite the one that made them a household name (that would be the next one, Document, which featured "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It"), but the one that assured that they soon would be. Pretty much a pop album, rather than an art album or a folk album as R.E.M.'s previous releases had more or less been—Pageant was produced by John Cougar Mellencamp's producer—its lead single was the tuneful, hummable "Fall on Me."
"Fall on Me" may or may not be about acid rain or ecological peril generally. You never can quite tell with R.E.M., but in any case the song is certainly about the sky falling. Yesterday morning, thinking of R.E.M.'s show at Cameron a little over 25 years ago, (they actually played there again less than a year later), "Fall on Me" sprang to my mind, perhaps also summoned by the previous day's brooding rain and its night of heavy fog—the sky falling low over Durham, indeed.
But after North Carolina pummeled Duke last night, 88-70, UNC's biggest win at Cameron since not long after R.E.M. played there, the clouds of the song's meaning cleared up. As they like to say over in Chapel Hill, "If God is not a Tar Heel, then why is the sky Carolina blue?"
Well, so, the Carolina-blue sky fell on Duke yesterday, with the very dawn of the game. North Carolina raced out to a breathless, wha'ppen? 13-point lead before the first break in the action—feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air—and led 22-5 at the second official timeout. At that point, I tweeted that either team could still win by 17 points: They are both talented, unpredictable, streaky, capable of both greatness and blandness, and hard to get a read on—like R.E.M., come to think of it. There was no reason why Duke couldn't roar back, as they have done a few times this year, with their home crowd in a frenzy (what noisy cats are we), and also no reason why UNC couldn't continue to dominate to the final buzzer.
Which the Tar Heels did, and won not by 17 but by 18 points. They led by the astonishing score of 48-24 at halftime. "We were overwhelmed in the first half," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski would later say. The Tar Heels pushed the lead to 26 points 23 seconds into the second half, withstood the inevitable Duke rally and marched to victory.
The game was, in other words, something of a dud. Good thing we had lifes rich pageant surrounding it.
Probably Durham's single biggest day of the year, every year, is the one on which North Carolina comes in to play basketball at Duke. The eyes of the sports world lock on the town for a day, or longer. Walking to Cameron from the parking lot, one was confronted by the massive crowding and scaffolding that surrounds any major media event and imparts that DeLillo-like air of eerie, simulated unreality.
First there were the Duke students: more of them, more blue-painted, more mud-caked thanks to the rain. More tents, more security, more guardrails. Then there was the big ESPN Gameday pontoon, which had docked right in front of the building, with its armature of technology supporting its imposing rise up and over the mall outside Cameron. The commentators having decamped temporarily, roadies placeheld their chairs like the well-fed soldiers of a black-clad, invading army. Boom mikes, light grids, antennae. The bigger the weapon, the greater the fear.
And inside, the press room was more packed and abuzz than any other day of the year. Grab the game notes, head straight out onto the court more than an hour before opening tip. The student section is already almost full—a few more would slip in from the line outside—and the band is blaring. It's as if 1,000 fans have been teleported out of a rally and set down in an otherwise empty, quiet arena. What are they screaming for? There is nothing to cheer for, nothing at all going on whatsoever, and yet there is cheering, there is screaming, as though some phantom contest is taking place but only the young can see it. Happy throngs, take this joy.
And take this, too: About an hour before tipoff, a single player emerged from his locker room and onto the court. It was UNC's Tyler Zeller.
Now, as you must know if you're reading this, Tyler Zeller has forever enshrined himself in Duke's hall of fame for his role in allowing Duke's comeback win at Chapel Hill last month. He missed free throws. He tipped in an own-goal. And he stood, corrected, as Austin Rivers launched the three-pointer that beat the buzzer and won the game for the Blue Devils. This last five-second sequence has taken on Zapruder-like infamy, has been shown almost infinite times, without losing a sou of currency, since February 8. The Duke media makers immediately inserted the footage into Duke's pregame "hype" video, and it has triggered bedlam every time the Crazies have laid eyes on it, as it did again last night. (Kendall Marshall, seeing it on the big screen over Cameron, told his teammates it was disrespectful and used it as extra, zero-hour motivation.)
So you can imagine what the real deal, the genuine article, all seven feet of him, touched off when he walked, alone, onto the Cameron hardwood. And you can also imagine that Zeller knew what sort of mania his Wild West-style entrance would set off. You'd need DeLillo (or Sam Peckinpah) to give the moment its full due. R.E.M. will have to suffice: The mythology begins the begin.
Joined by a couple of Blue Steel scrub teammates on the court, Zeller calmly stretches near midcourt, fully across the court from the student section, in full and isolated view so they can volley their ecstatic hatred on him. They even wave a life-sized cutout of Zeller, to add to the simulacrum.
Not long after, Dick Vitale is body-surfing the bleachers full of Crazies. Seriously. Photo. Erin Andrews, dressed in ludicrous skintight black leather (or maybe Naugahyde) with a white blouse over the black bodice and spike heels, is soon on the court. She looks like she's auditioning for a Whitesnake video, right around the time Lifes Rich Pageant came out. (Tawny Kitaen will beat her out, again).
The richness of the pageant allows for the vast, needy egos of even Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews to be fully satiated while still preserving plenty of energy, an inexhaustible surplus, for the main event to follow. Calvin Hill is on the court for a while. Some Carolina media outfit is making a documentary and they go and interview Hill. Duke's players come out, run little pregame drills, stretch. The Tar Heels come out, shoot around, stretch. The hated John Henson is the last of them to emerge. More screaming from the fans. At one point, Austin Rivers takes a little moment for himself. He comes over to the media table and leans on it, right next to me, watching the court, soaking it all up.
"This is gonna be fun," I say to him.
"Yes it is," he says. "This is why you play basketball." And he keeps watching for a few more seconds, serene yet coiling. When I was young and full of grace / And spirited—a rattlesnake.
Roy Williams, much shorter than I expected, is escorted in by a pair of policemen. There's a pregame video tribute to Duke's lone senior, Miles Plumlee. His brothers, junior Mason and redshirted freshman Marshall, join him on the court. That is 21 feet of Plumlee. It is like men on stilts. A circus, a pageant.
After this Oath of the Plumli, the entire Duke contingent, including Mike Krzyzewski, who never comes onto the court more than two minutes before tipoff, exits to the locker room.
Grand entrances and exits. Coronations and celebrations. Peyton Manning. Almost (but not quite) Justin Bieber.
And then, finally, the game starts.
And then, in eight minutes, it ends.
The insurgency began and you missed it.
One thing you notice in person about teams you've only seen on television is how big the players actually are. Carolina is big. "They're bigger than us at all positions," Krzyzewski would later say, one of many instances in his postgame commentary in which he issued unmitigated, glowing praise for UNC. And it isn't just the obvious Henson-Zeller height and length. It's guys like Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, who were not just taller but all-around bigger than their Duke counterparts. Watching Seth Curry, then Tyler Thornton, then Austin Rivers all try to guard Barnes in the game's first three or four minutes was almost comical. He not only towered over them, he simply looked like a player from an entirely different milieu. He hit a jumper over Curry, he drove the lane past Thornton and got fouled for free throws, he hit a fadeaway jumper Rivers could only watch. Carolina made eight of its first 10 shots, and Barnes hit both of the team's free throw attempts. We are not your allies / We cannot defend.
It was actually 4-4 for a little minute there, thanks to a pair of in-close buckets by Miles Plumlee to open his final home game.
Then Duke missed its next 15 shots. And three of four free throws.
22-5. You set the pace of what was to come.
Now, Duke did not give up. The one sustaining thing about this team is its apparently genetic inability to quit or lose faith, even in the most hopeless situation. In the halftime press room, you heard sportswriters saying "They may not come all the way back," saying "Duke's got a run in them." The language of believers, of faith in the faithful. We are hope despite the times.
The Blue Devils went on a 7-0 run to get the deficit under 20 points. And when Tyler Thornton his one of his improbable, patented, shot clock-beating three-pointers to cut it to 16 with 16:26 to play, you nodded and thought, yes, here it comes, here we go, I will rearrange your scales. A few minutes later, he hit another three-pointer to keep Duke's hopes alive.
But then there was a Zeller layup, too easy. Then a tipped Kendall Marshall pass went to Reggie Bullock, who drained a three-pointer. (Bullock had a quietly excellent all-around game, not only scoring 12 points and getting six rebounds, four offensive, but also helping Austin Rivers along to 15 rather harmless points, plus four turnovers.) Then Marshall abused Quinn Cook for the second time. 61-41, less than 13 minutes left. Sensing the coming of the end, UNC started burning clock.
And Duke was close enough to it to catch fire. Mainly, they started going inside, where Carolina was content to give the Blue Devils some operating space in the second half. They had learned their lesson from the previous game in Chapel Hill: Don't let Duke shoot too many three-pointers. The Blue Devils took 36 of them last month against UNC, 21 last night—and missed 15 of them. Roy Williams spent part of his postgame session with media rehashing his staff's exhaustive breakdown of each and every Duke three-pointer from the February game. They were determined not to let it happen again.
Later, in the press room, Krzyzewski posed a rhetorical argument that his team shouldn't base its offense so much on three-point shooting. "Well, that's who we are, man," he insisted. "That's who we are." Shades of "It's what we do" versus Wake Forest in January.
Duke's final comeback was fueled less by UNC's defense, I thought, than by the Tar Heels' stagnating offense, which grew complacent and inefficient. Soon enough, their lead was back down to 17, then 14 on a Seth Curry three-pointer, then, with 6:35 to go, Barnes fouled Curry while Curry was shooting a three-pointer. (Barnes gave the referee a look of spectacularly haughty disdain after the whistle.) Curry, Duke's best free throw shooter, made them all.
And it was an 11-point game.
Over the next two minutes, North Carolina missed its next three shots and committed a pair of fouls, including Tyler Zeller's fourth. What if we give it away?
Duke had three chances to cut the lead to single digits (!). But Miles Plumlee missed a short shot, Curry missed an open three-pointer, and Rivers missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Duke, in fact, went 4 1/2 crushing minutes without scoring. The last gasp was a steal by Thornton of a limp UNC pass, and a drive to the bucket—and then his miss of an easy layup, prompting an oy vey reaction from Krzyzewski on the Duke bench. He must have sensed that that was the end of that. To put a fine point on it, six seconds later Harrison Barnes swished a three-pointer from the left wing. 82-64, 2:04 to play, and game over.
Duke lost its third home game of the season, the first time that has happened since 2006-07. This is a much better team than that one (Greg Paulus, Josh McRoberts), but they do have something in common: youth. We are young despite the years. If you're looking for an explanation for the Blue Devils' failure to protect Cameron this season, forget the turmoil about the Crazies' lack of Crazieness; forget the underdog identity that is supposedly better suited for road play: A man's home is his castle, a man's home. One of the reasons we've so often heard Krzyzewski talk about "men" this year—especially the somewhat ominous, even diffident "We're playing men Saturday; I hope we're men" comment in advance of the home loss to Florida State—is that this particular Duke team is mostly boys, not yet the men of the house. And that goes not just for true youngsters like Cook, Rivers and Thornton but also the still gawky Mason Plumlee and the soft-focused, sometimes woolgathering Andre Dawkins, who played only 11 minutes yesterday.
So it is remarkable that they posted a 26-5 record, against very stiff competition both in and out of conference, and were a tough, resilient, top-10 team all season long. Krzyzewski deserves ACC Coach of the Year honors, in my estimation, for turning these squeaky, mismatched parts into a humming, shapely whole. And the players deserve praise for accomplishing so much, perhaps more than was expected of them, and finding ways to win games in so many different settings, situations and environments. Adaptability, will, spirit—the players brought these qualities to the team with them, and it showed all season. They are, like R.E.M., a band that shouldn't have topped the charts, but did against the odds. I Believe.
Toward the end of his remarks yesterday, Krzyzewski compared this year's Blue Devils to a surprise gift: "You open it up; for the most part, it’s been a nice surprise. I never have any idea of what is in the present. Today there was nothing. It was an empty box.” That's vexing at times for a coach, whose success rides on the deeds of kids, but it's exciting to watch. All year, Duke has been a surprise. Practice makes perfect, perfect is a fault, and fault lines change.
After it was over, the sobered Blue Devils returned to the court so that Miles Plumlee could make a farewell speech. He didn't say much, although he did seem to promise that Duke was going to make it to the Final Four. One line of his lingers, though: "The best part of this is not over," he promised. That took the best-is-yet-to-come cliche and complicated it. We're already in the best part, Plumlee was implying. The pageantry of yesterday—the "good distraction," as Krzyzewski put it, of ESPN Gameday and all the rest—proves it. It is March, and it is the Madness.
The second season has begun. "0-0," both Krzyzewski and Thornton said after the game. Krzyzewski noted that there will be "some hungry teams" in Atlanta for the ACC Tournament, where the second-tier scrappers will be vying for NCAA Tournament berths, and where Duke will have a chance to regain its hold on a No. 1 seed if it can win the trophy down there. It would be nice to see them get to take on North Carolina again, even if Krzyzewski expressed relief going forward that "we won't play them all the time." And then, almost surely, Greensboro in less than two weeks for the opening rounds of the greatest pageant of them all, the Big Dance.
But that all seems far off, for now. Coming out of Cameron, the roadies were dismantling the ESPN set, Krzyzewskiville was a mud-mired evacuation site, and the few remaining students by their tents were making late dinner plans in the damp, cooling air. Before the second season begins, it's good to linger a moment on the rich one that has just come to its end. Take a picture here. Take a souvenir.