Yes folks, it is officially tournament time in my neck of the woods and that is some serious shit to some people (most people!). I live in ACC country where UNC, Duke and NC State all rub elbows and shoulders with each other on a regular basis.
Now I grew up in ACC territory and lived pretty much in the shadow of the University of Maryland but I was never a Terps fan as my old man went to Villanova so the Big East took priority over the ACC in my family's household.
People often toss around the cliche that basketball is like a religion around here, but it is pretty much true - much like Sunday mornings, everything stops when there is a basketball game on in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.
I first encountered this phenomenon when I moved to Carrboro - a small town east of Chapel Hill - from Los Angeles in 1995. Now I had been well-versed in the fact that the locals took their indie rock music scene very seriously and in the mid-'90s. The town would become a mecca for the indie scene; kids still come to worship it to this day.
But I was totally unprepared for the basketball fever.
It's an eerie feeling when you go to the grocery store in a college town and all the aisles are empty.
"What's going on today?" I asked the teller. "Carolina game," she said.
Of course I would should learn of the huge UNC/Duke rival, of the canonized State coach Jimmy V, and of how some people just purely can't get along with one another based on the color they wear.
When I worked in Raleigh at a weekly newspaper, one of my co-workers told me how in high school the teachers would just leave the ACC tournament on TVs in the classrooms all day and nobody was expected to do much of anything except for cheer on the Wolfpack. And of course it's perfectly understandable, if not downright acceptable, to play hooky from work on ACC Friday. If you are one of the unfortunate saps who has to work, everyone turns a blind eye to having the TV or radio on or obsessively looking at the sports ticker at the bottom of your computer screen.
In the 12 years that I have lived here, I have only had the opportunity to see two UNC games and one Duke game, the latter coming just last week.
I was working a Duke/Maryland pre-game party for a local catering company. We were set up in the Hall Of Fame room which is connected to Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke plays. Cameron is legendary for many things, from its tiny size and intimate setting to giving birth to the Cameron Crazies - those over-enthusiastic fans who paint their faces, wave hands and bounce up and down for the entire duration of the game.
My co-worker had gone to Duke and was asking me if I'd ever seen a game at Cameron.
"Nope," I said. "But I've always wanted to."
"We could totally sneak in," he said. "I mean we're practically already in the building."
So he spent the better part of the two hour pre-game party schmoozing security guards with plates of food and endless sodas. But it was all for naught because when our shift wound down and the game got underway, the hostess of the party said she had two extra tickets and asked if anyone on our staff wanted to go.
An that's when it came down to me and my co-worker.
We didn't finished our breakdown until close to half time so he suggested we go over to the campus bar and pound some beers. "Sounds like a great idea," I said. At the bar he told everyone that we were going to the game and that it was going to be my first time at Cameron which was kind of like having some one who has gone to Spring Break three times nod at the fellow who was about to lose his Spring Break virginity - that look that said, "you have no idea what you are in for."
"I'm excited," I said. I never let on that I wasn't a Duke fan but then again I went in the spirit of competition not as a fan of either team. "This is just so random," I said to him.
"I was just watching this episode of Oprah about this whole positive thinking craze surrounding this movie The Secret and the book the Laws Of Attraction," I said trailing off as I looked at the big screen and half time stats.
"Dude," he said. "Never begin a conversation that starts with 'I was watching Oprah,'" he explained as he patted my shoulder.
With that, we finished our beers and watched the game.
And I have to say it was exciting; the place was filled with electricity and at only 7,000 seats it was downright intimate even though we had nosebleed seats.
Now if I could just see a Carolina/Duke game at Cameron, with Carolina winning, that would be utmost fulfilling...