I recently visited an old college gym that was built before Pearl Harbor was attacked, has old wooden pullout bleachers that even most high school gyms have replaced, and seats well under 10,000 fans.
Most Division I college coaches or athletic directors would be calling for a new and larger facility as soon as they arrived on campus and saw this facility, right?
Well, guess what? That arena I visited was Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, probably the most famous college hoops arena today and the scene of some of the best college basketball over the last 30-plus years.
And getting a ticket to see a men’s game there is almost as tough as getting in to see the Masters golf tournament on short notice, unless you are willing to pay a pretty good price.
Believe it or not, though, I walked in to see a game last Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium and almost had the place to myself, with probably no more than 500 to 1,000 fans on hand.
Of course, I was watching a Duke women’s game in this famous arena, not a men’s game.
But the experience of being there was still quite memorable and added a new experience to my almost yearly recent trips for fun to this part of the Tar Heel State – mainly Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina.
As I have mentioned in past stories, I am not a University of North Carolina graduate, and am not even sure I could have been accepted as a freshman student at what is one of the more challenging state schools academically in the South. And of course I am a still very proud University of Georgia alumnus and part-time University of Tennessee employee, not to mention a longtime Indiana University basketball fan, too.
But ever since I first visited in 2012, I have admired the UNC campus and the town of Chapel Hill and have developed an almost alumni-like admiration for it. And the fact that the Tar Heels’ men’s team has regularly made some runs deep into the NCAA Tournament has not hurt my attraction, either!
As a result, I have traveled here yearly for four straight years in December to watch a little basketball and walk and jog around the pretty campus while staying for a night or two at the historic Carolina Inn by the campus.
Anticipating all this and wanting to complete my seven-hour drive to Chapel Hill in time to get my money’s worth from the Carolina Inn, I awoke at 5 a.m. last Wednesday and was soon on Highway 153 headed to I-75 and eventually I-40.
After a breakfast-to-go stop at Hardee’s in Ooltewah, and later a quick McDonald’s visit for a Big Mac for lunch somewhere in Central North Carolina, I arrived at the Carolina Inn a little after 1 p.m. I had been kept occupied by listening to the NPR radio broadcast of the funeral of George H.W. Bush. By the way, he courted his future wife, Barbara, at none other than this same historic inn’s restaurant while stationed in Chapel Hill in the Navy.
Once I checked in, I headed down to Franklin Street fronting the campus to get a piece of Tiramisu at the Mediterranean Deli. It was a long way for a dessert, but there would be plenty more icing-on-the-cake experiences on this trip that was intended just as a way to relax for a couple of days.
The next sweet reward was walking over to the Carmichael Arena, formerly Carmichael Auditorium, to see the UNC women play the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The UNC team won easily by a score of 82-55, but I did not simply start admiring the 1960s-era – but renovated – former home of the men’s basketball team during much of the Dean Smith era, as I have done in the past.
Instead I kept watching the play of a UNC player named Stephanie Watts. Despite a slightly unorthodox way of letting the ball go with an apparent sidespin, she captured my attention with a lot of made 3-pointers.
In fact, she had 26 points at the half and 35 at the end of three quarters, and she was kept in the game longer than the other starters to see if she could set the single-game UNC women’s scoring record of 42 set in 1998.
Unfortunately, she did not score in the fourth quarter before being removed late, but still drew the applause of the small crowd of only 200-300 or so. UNC, by the way, is coached by Sylvia Hatchell, who is in her 33rd season at Chapel Hill after starting out as a graduate assistant and freshmen coach for the University of Tennessee women when Pat Summitt was in her first year with the Lady Vols in 1974.
After the late afternoon game ended and I saw the pep band play the alma mater and the UNC fight song, “I’m a Tar Heel Born” -- and I admired the UNC players jog around the court high fiving those fans by the court -- I walked back to the Carolina Inn. On the way, I passed where a Hanukkah program was beginning in the Pit sunken plaza by the Student Union/bookstore, and went on toward the landmark Old Well, where another treat was awaiting.
Gathered in front of the handsome, gazebo-like structure with a water fountain was apparently the same a cappella men’s student choir group I had seen there last year. As soon as I arrived, I heard them break out into the beautiful old James Taylor song, “Carolina In My Mind,” as about 50 students, most of whom were female, stood around and watched. That song alone was almost worth the seven-hour drive for this “subway” UNC alumnus.
But the impromptu concert was not finished. The group then sang the UNC alma mater, with the students watching while swaying back and forth. And during the playing of the upbeat “I’m a Tar Heel Born” immediately afterward, they started jumping around quickly and excitedly.
After sitting in my hotel room for an hour or so, and snacking on the complimentary pimento cheese and crackers, I then began the 15-minute or so walk past the tree-covered area by Kenan football stadium and on to the Dean E. Smith Center.
Once inside the warm arena, I grabbed a couple of hot dogs and a Coca-Cola in a souvenir cup that looked like it was big enough to quench the thirst of an entire family – or bathe a chihuahua. I then went and sat in my seat in the upper deck of the cavernous arena.
I briefly talked with a nice woman near me who was with her husband and said she was attending her first UNC game.
I also heartily ate the hot dogs while waiting for the game to start and realized I had sampled more college basketball games than vegetables that day.
Soon, coach Roy Williams came out amid applause as is always the case, and he also threw some T-shirts into the student section as he has done in the past. Although freshman standout Coby White unfortunately did not play due to injury, causing disappointment for this once-a-year visitor, the Tar Heels still won easily, 97-69, against the UNCW men.
C.B. McGrath, a former player for coach Williams at Kansas in the 1990s and former UNC assistant, is the UNCW coach. I also now know that UNCW is nicknamed the Seahawks, and their primary team color is a teal-colored green.
The Smith Center is quite cavernous and looks like a slightly larger version of UT’s Thompson-Boling Arena, although there is light blue everywhere.
There are two primary unique experiences about attending a UNC game there. The first is when a UNC player shoots a free throw. The students clap their hands once in a collective manner when the player is handed the ball by the official, raise their hands while he shoots and then clap multiple times if he makes it.
The second tradition involves the pep band, which has a great post-game routine of playing the alma mater and then almost instantaneously breaking into “I’m a Tar Heel Born,” just as the a cappella group did.
Although this was the third time for me to hear those songs that day, I still enjoyed them. In fact, with about 8 minutes left in the game, I went down to the lower deck and, since the stands were less than half full, found myself a seat near the band and watched the rest of the game. Luckily no ushers asked to see my ticket.
As was the case last year, the fans with tickets would get some free food from Bojangle’s if the Tar Heels reached 100 points. They scored 97 and had four chances to make a three-pointer in the closing seconds, but I believe the same shooter missed all of them.
After the band played, I then made my way back through the cold and enjoyed the nice, cozy lobby of the Carolina Inn and looked at my computer laptop before heading off to bed several minutes after midnight.
The next morning, after a jog through the campus and breakfast at Panera, I took part in my only non-basketball-related event planned for my trip. As I wrote in a follow-up story last year, I have written two or three stories over the years about the popular former 1958 Girls Preparatory School May queen Grace Moore, who had tragically died in a car wreck while visiting UNC in 1960.
Former Chattanoogan Hugh “Banjie” Goodman had shared some of his memories of that tragic event, and for some reason I figured I would try to find the highway where the accident had occurred to put some completion on last year’s story.
Mr. Goodman said the accident scene he had unfortunately passed as a student nearly six decades ago was around 12-15 miles outside of Chapel Hill on state Highway 54 headed to the Raleigh-Durham airport.
Highway 54 was a two-lane road in 1960, but in 2018 it has become mostly a widened road with shopping centers and research parks – and countless traffic lights – in what has apparently become the suburban outskirts of Raleigh.
Without any landmarks to go by, I just drove east about 15-17 miles or so and back to get a feel for what the highway looked like today. The few two-lane sections remaining helped visualize the highway of old better, and I once again pondered the tragedy of this event of long ago and the loss of this gifted young woman who managed to still leave a lot behind. I also sadly thought about how many accidents have taken place since then. They almost seem to be a daily occurrence in Chattanooga and numerous other places as of late.
That afternoon, after enjoying a nice chicken gyro -- stuffed with some vegetables – and a peanut butter/chocolate pie from the Mediterranean Deli, I headed up Highway 15.
My destination was Cameron Indoor Stadium. Needless to say, I was not wearing a North Carolina sweatshirt as I had the night before. After being in my car only about 15 minutes – and passing the mid-century modern Binkley Baptist Church that coach Dean Smith once attended – I saw a sign for Duke’s West campus.
I forgot that Duke has two campuses and just assumed that was not it. However, after driving on another 10 minutes and realizing that must have been it, I turned around.
After getting off at that exit, I was actually just a few hundred yards from the parking garage where a website said to park for Duke games. I parked there for free and then asked someone how to get to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The woman did not give me the Carnegie Hall line of “practice, practice, practice,” but politely pointed me in the correct direction.
I then went past it and the Krzyzewskiville grassy area where students camp out to be in line for men’s games, but since it was nearly two hours before the 7 p.m. game, I decided to walk around campus.
With some more directions given courteously from someone else, I went to the Duke Chapel. I walked in the giant Collegiate Gothic structure and sat for 15 minutes or so and listened to a delightful choir practicing soft songs of melody that sounded more like they were from the Renaissance or Middle Ages.
I realized that if I happened to be there for a Duke men’s game, I could have experienced within a few minutes of each other two of the most relaxing and most energetic experiences known to man.
I then walked out of the building and noticed that several students were getting their pictures taken in front of the chapel. I then stopped by the bookstore, bought a Duke basketball T-shirt and then went over and waited for Cameron to open.
Once inside, I delightfully explored the place before the game. On this night, it gave no hint of being such a loud and boisterous place where the men play.
But it was certainly unique looking. Besides wooden bleachers for some of the students, it also had an upper deck that reminded me of Baylor School’s old gym the way the entrance/exit tunnel stuck out into the stands.
The place reeked of history, even though it has one or two modern additions. It also had several Duke basketball history displays, including one in tribute to 1960s era coach Vic Bubas, who had enjoyed much success long before Coach K and just died this past April.
The workers in the arena could not have been nicer. Two or three nice women were manning one of the unique concession stands, and, at their recommendation, I ordered a cheeseburger and later a barbecue sandwich, both of which were delicious. One of the women even helped me open a mustard packet.
The Duke women beat UNLV, 66-38, in what was a fun game to watch, except when a UNLV player injured her arm during an awkward-looking pileup.
But by far the highlight – other than perhaps watching the costumed Duke mascot – was the Duke pep band. In an impressive sign of energy, they played almost continuously the entire game when it was appropriate and they were quite loud in the smaller Cameron facility.
I bet they played double the number of songs most other pep bands do, although they ended the night simply with the alma mater, and no jazzy fight song.
Some of their music, as well as that heard at UNC, was still playing in my mind as I began the long drive back home from North Carolina Friday morning 36 hours or so ahead of the heavy snow.
My heart was warmed yet again over another nice trip.
Until next year…..