There’s a big college hoops game on today. I know this because I’m in the Salt City, home of the Orangemen. This town has embraced the Syracuse Orangemen basketball team for as long as I can remember. But that embrace has turned into a crazed squeeze in the last decade or so, like the Abominable Snow Rabbit clutching Daffy Duck. “I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him and squeeze him.”
Except that these Syracuse Orangemen love it. They want to squeeze the Abominable Snowman right back.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a college town and college men’s hoops team so locked in such an unabashed embrace. Public display of affection unlike any other.
And I think that’s awesome. I went to Duke for undergrad. And I still think it’s awesome. Allow me to elaborate —
I have vivid memories of watching SU on the little black and white in my bedroom as the team played in Manley Field House. My routine was to peel and munch on an orange, while watching the Orange, and to blink as infrequently as possible so as not to miss any of the action. I cheered the “Bouie and Louie Show” as loudly as every other 10 year-old Syracusan. I remember my Cub Scout troop–the one that met in my buddy Sean’s basement, his dad was our “Den Dad”–we once visited Manley. And got to watch these giant trees of men practice. Silken warmups. Dale Shackleford happily signed my SU season program. I still have that program and the autograph somewhere in a cardboard box in my garage in San Francisco. Along with my Corcoran Cougars Baseball Team Annual Programs & maroon-striped uniform pants, high school graduation cap & gown, and a bunch of other stuff that I pore over every few years.
I recall feeling what I later understood to be civic pride when the Carrier Dome was built. And I recall the sight of the Dome collapsed (unintentionally, the first time) under the weight of a heavy snowfall. The entire town wrung its hands, concerned about the Dome then as if it were a close family member. I remember the feeling of independence when I was allowed to wander around the Dome, behind the curtain, with my buddy Johnny. Turns out I wasn’t quite ready for that independence, as we got separated somehow during that mad rush at the end of the game, that reverse vacuum of air whooshed me out of the gate, and I couldn’t find my friend. I ended up walking all the way to Salina Street wearing only a thin blue hoodie. I dug a quarter out of my lint-lined pocket, and managed somehow to round up a ride from one of my aunts. The air was so frigid, by the time she picked me up one of my white drawstrings was frozen solid, my nervous saliva turned to ice. But I survived, and that experience of being lost is no less powerful now than the equally clear experience of witnessing Pearl Washington hit that half court buzzer-beater against BC in 1984. As I recall, he kept right on running straight to the locker room, never breaking stride. These memories are a big part of who I am, and I am grateful for them.
I’m also a Duke Blue Devil, through and through. I spent four ridiculously fortunate years there a long time ago, made some fantastic lifelong friends (of the Alien Head variety), camped out in Krzyzewskiville as a freshman with painted face, cheered with my fellow students at courtside, etc. I think I’ve managed to watch nearly every single Duke hoops game on TV since graduating. More importantly, I’ve managed to convince important people who arrived later in my life to become Duke fans. My wife whom I met in law school screamed as loudly as I at Laettner’s unforgettable shot that broke Kentucky’s heart. And both of my kids now live and die with my Duke Blue Devils, our Duke Blue Devils, though we have until today watched from afar, on television. In fact, my SU-loving mother will be outed right here: For Christmas, she sent both of my boys Duke hoodies.
The very same one that my youngest son Everett will be rocking at the Dome today.
Yessir. A couple months back, when I realized that Duke would be playing in the Dome, I scrambled up some inexpensive airline and game tickets. My 90 year-old grandmother unexpectedly passed away a few weeks ago, so this Duke-SU game afforded a second opportunity to be with my east coast family in the wake of that unimaginable sadness. This new rivalry has generated some positivity and excitement to help heal the void my grandmother left. (If anyone says that sports, especially college sports, are trivial, I beg to differ.)
Strangely enough, everything seems to have come full circle. My connection to both SU’s and Duke’s men’s hoops team has brought me home again once more, an unexpected chance to be back where it all started, and with one of my children in-tow, no less. And there’s something very cool about this new rivalry now allowing my siblings and I to share a little college hoops fanaticism with our own kids, and with each other’s kids. My stepfather twisted my stepsister’s arm into making two “Go Duke” cupcakes last night (for Ev and me), although said cupcakes were surrounded by orange and blue.
And for my part, last I helped teach my nephew Kellan the ropes —
So if you happen to catch Everett and I at the Dome today, please resist the urge to malign him for the royal blue Duke hoodie that his grandmother the SU hoops fan bestowed upon him. And if you can’t quite make out the weird cheer being shouted from our 335ZZ seats, here it is —
“GO SYRADUKE ORANGEBLUEDEVILMEN!”
It’s a mouthful, but it makes sense to me.
Thanks for reading.