By Scott Fowler
The Charlotte Observer
Published Jan.26, 2008
In less than two months, the ACC comes to us.
Last weekend, we went to them.
Along with Observer photographer Jeff Siner, I took advantage of the league's compact geography and a quirk in the conference schedule to go to four games and watch eight ACC teams play in the space of 24 hours.
It was our own homemade ACC tournament, preceding the real event that Charlotte will host at Bobcats Arena on March 13-16.
We drove from Charlotte to Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and back to Charlotte -- about 380 miles total -- on the trip.
It snowed some of the time, which made it even more fun.
We saw two decent games and two classics -- one of them a thunderous upset of the nation's then-No. 1 team, the other decided on a last-second steal and lay-up.
We saw one Cameron Crazies cheer sheet, four pep bands, all five Carolinas ACC teams and thousands of fired-up fans.
It was a frantic, fun odyssey. Come along with us on a recap of the ride.
Danny dances, Crazy Towel Guy waves and an $80,000 motorcycle thunders
12:15 p.m.: Our first stop, on Duke's campus, is the eerily quiet Cameron Indoor Stadium. Four-year-old Jordan Brown, the son of a Duke PR man, is shooting baskets on a lowered goal. Otherwise, there's hardly a sound.
It is almost time for Clemson's game-day shootaround. Most basketball teams do this. It's a chance to get a feel for the place they will play in a few hours later at a much different decibel level -- a cram session before the final exam.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell walks into the arena with his players. He quickly gathers his team at the midcourt circle in a huddle and looks them over.
"I feel a positive energy here," Purnell says. "Let's go!"
With that, the Tigers start an hour-long practice. Their game plan against Duke will be to pound the ball inside and, most importantly, to avoid turning the ball over against Duke's overplaying defense.
12:35 p.m.: ESPN announcers Mike Patrick and Fran Fraschilla enter the arena to watch practice and chat with Purnell as they prepare for their 6 p.m. broadcast. Patrick notes that his friend Dick Vitale, who recently had throat surgery, is tentatively scheduled to resume broadcasting Feb. 6 at the Duke-North Carolina game.
Patrick notes that it must be killing Vitale, a born showman, not to have an audience. Patrick says he left a message with Vitale's wife recently in which he said: "Tell Dick I'm sorry I'm not there to not hear it."
1:15 p.m.: As the shootaround ends, Purnell calls his team together again for some final words of instruction on how to beat Duke. "Run," he says. "And go inside. That's the key. Go inside. They can't handle that. Now 1-2-3 Win!"
1:20 p.m.: We drive 11 miles to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, where North Carolina hosts Maryland at 3:30 p.m. The No. 1 Tar Heels (18-0) are a heavy favorite. Our plan is to leave at halftime, assuming North Carolina holds a comfortable lead, so we can see all of No. 7 Duke vs. No. 24 Clemson. That game is the one most people believe will be the best ACC game on today's schedule. (In terms of drama, it will be the worst).
3:16 p.m.: I see Lennie Rosenbluth, who was UNC's national player of the year on the 32-0 North Carolina team of 1957 that won the NCAA title by edging Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in triple overtime. Rosenbluth, along with dozens of other former Tar Heels, has come this weekend for both the game and a private tour of the new UNC basketball museum adjacent to the Smith Center. (The museum is free and will open to the public on Monday. )
"It's beautiful in there," Rosenbluth says. "And it's big. We spent an hour and a half walking around and didn't get time to see it all."
3:35 p.m.: North Carolina coach Roy Williams walks onto the Smith Center court with three T-shirts in his hands. He promptly slings them into the student section, drawing huge cheers.
3:41 p.m.: The pregame dances of Tar Heels sixth man Danny Green have become so popular that they are a focal point of every North Carolina home game. As the arena reverberates to House of Pain's "Jump Around," Green primps in a fake mirror, then does several dance moves worthy of Prince.
It's quite a routine. Green even has a supporting cast of teammates who often pluck the back of his jersey while he leaps. I'm surprised Roy Williams lets Green do all this -- can you imagine anyone getting that sort of pregame freedom from former coach Dean Smith? -- but it's entertaining.
3:42 p.m.: The tip-off starts my internal game clock. It's time to shoehorn four ACC games into 24 hours.
4:30 p.m.: Maryland's James Gist looks like the best player on the floor. Roy Williams is red-faced at courtside. Maryland's Gary Williams, so often frenzied, seems remarkably controlled.
The Terrapins have lost seven games, including back-to-back home losses to Ohio and American, but they are shocking the Tar Heels.
At halftime, photographer Jeff Siner and I pack up as planned, but then huddle and decide we should stay with this game until its conclusion. We'll miss some of Duke-Clemson, but an upset may be brewing. That's an intoxicating deterrent to our original itinerary.
5:15 p.m.: The Tar Heels take a 78-74 lead with 2:29 to go as the Smith Center rocks. The upset possibility seems to be disappearing.
5:40 p.m.: Maryland fearlessly climbs back into the game. At 80-all, the Terrapins run a play that frees up Bambale Osby for a lay-up with 21.6 seconds left. Green, the graceful dancer who was supposed to guard Osby after a defensive switch, falls down on the play.
The Tar Heels get four shots to tie or win the game in the final 12 seconds -- the last on Tyler Hansbrough's rare 3-point attempt -- and miss them all. The Terrapins celebrate at midcourt.
5:45 p.m.: We leave the arena in a hurry, rushing out into a snowfall and a huge traffic jam full of sullen Tar Heels.
6:38 p.m.: Even with the traffic, we make it door-to-door from the Smith Center back to Duke in 53 minutes. If you walk up on Cameron Indoor Stadium while a game is roaring inside, it's amazing that you can't hear that from the outside. There's not a louder arena in college basketball. But when we are just 30 yards away, it is so silent I can hear our footsteps.
6:40 p.m.: Duke leads, 30-19, when we walk into a building and suddenly get bombarded with sound. The chant for "Crazy Towel Guy" comes shortly after that.
Crazy Towel Guy's real name is Herb Neubauer, and he used to work for Food Lion. Now he's 66, sits in the upper deck in Section 7, Row G, Seat 8 and brings a towel to every game. Neubauer used to wear a blue leather hat he had bought in Tijuana to every Duke game. He carried the towel to wipe off his sweat -- Cameron is always hot.
Now Neubauer's hat is gone, but the towel remains.
"I love being a fan," says Neubauer, who retired from Food Lion 20 years ago in part so he could have more time to follow Duke's teams.
When the students yell "Crazy Towel Guy! Crazy Towel Guy!" Neubauer makes them wait for about 15 seconds. He lets the roar build, then stands up and passionately swings his towel. The crowd -- as always -- goes wild.
Neubauer, incidentally, is also a huge Duke football supporter. He tells me the Blue Devils will win at least seven games in 2008 under new coach David Cutcliffe. Hmmm.
6:55 p.m.: I ask a couple of the Cameron Crazies behind me how long they camped out for tickets. Two days, it turns out.
"And it was 22 degrees out there one night," chirps one female Crazie.
I've always found the Crazies friendly. If you've ever wondered how they do all those chants in unison, they always have a cheer sheet (passed out to all the students as they enter the game) to keep them organized.
The sheets are extremely detailed and not as vulgar as you might expect. Today's sheet notes: "Keep cheers clever, witty and classy. If you want to use profanity, go to Maryland."
The cheer sheet for the Clemson game lists biographical items about the Clemson players that can be turned into personalized cheers. For instance, it notes that Clemson freshman guard Terrence Oglesby, a 3-point specialist, went 2-for-11 on 3s and had five turnovers when he lost a state tournament game in Tennessee. In high school! The team that beat Oglesby's high-school squad was called Maryville.
"When he inevitably struggles," the sheet suggests, "try chanting Ma-ry-ville."
7:48 p.m.: Clemson makes a second-half run to grab the lead, 55-54, but then the Tigers' composure disappears. What seemed like basic geometry at shootaround has become harder than calculus.
The Tigers keep trying crosscourt passes. Duke keeps intercepting them and sprinting downcourt for monstrous dunks. That makes the crowd louder, which helps force another bad Clemson pass and another lay-up. Purnell's nightmare is coming true. Duke will end up scoring 37 points on 21 turnovers.
8:07 p.m.: With Duke sporting a double-digit lead in the final minutes (the Blue Devils will ultimately win, 93-80), Siner and I decide to leave to get to the RBC Center and the Miami-N.C. State contest -- Game No. 3 on our slate.
8:54 p.m.: We arrive at the RBC Center at halftime to find that N.C. State leads No. 21 Miami by nine. The building is only about two-thirds full because of the snow falling outside and the fact N.C. State has already lost five times this season.
9:40 p.m.: A video tribute on the scoreboard, featuring current N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe and the 1983 national title team, draws big cheers. Lowe was a lot skinnier in 1983. Then again, so was I.
10 p.m.: Although this crowd has been the quietest we've heard all day, it starts to find its rhythm as the game heads to overtime, tied at 72.
10:17 p.m.: For the first 4:43 of the five-minute overtime, N.C. State doesn't score a point. Miami assumes a 76-72 lead. But then comes a story worthy of the 1983 Wolfpack. Courtney Fells hits a 3-pointer. Miami makes one of two free throws. With 15 seconds left, N.C. State is down 77-75 but has the ball.
10:20 p.m.: N.C. State's Gavin Grant drives hard to the basket and misses, but teammate J.J. Hickson tips it in. It looks like double overtime.
But then Miami's Anthony King, looking to throw it to Jack McClinton for a last-second shot, fires the ball directly to Grant instead. It's a horrendous mistake, and one so startling that only Grant seems to realize what has happened at first. He takes one hard dribble, goes up over King and scores.
N.C. State wins, 79-77.
I've seen hundreds of basketball games, but I've never seen one end exactly like that. Students rush the court.
10:30 p.m.: "He threw it straight to me," Grant marvels in his postgame interview. "I was just trying to get near McClinton to guard him and then suddenly, wow, the ball was in my hands."
11:55 p.m.: I collapse into bed at a hotel room in Raleigh.
11 a.m.: After a 107-mile drive from Raleigh to Winston-Salem, it's time for the fourth and final game of our tour -- Florida State at Wake Forest, which tips off at 1 p.m.
12:15 p.m.: There's a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind motorcycle in the back hallway at Joel Coliseum. Randy Burnette, a Winston-Salem man who constructs custom motorcycles at his Metal Rebel shop, built it and brings it here before every home game. Then Wake Forest's mascot borrows the motorcycle, revs it up and rides it during pregame introductions.
Since Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is believed to dislike the motorcycle and the fumes that spew from it, the mascot always rides extremely near the Duke bench when the Blue Devils are in town.
Burnette's machine is gorgeous. "And it's for sale," he says. "I'll take $80,000 for it."
1:36 p.m.:Ish Smith, the effervescent Concord native who starts at point guard for Wake Forest, makes one of two free throws early in the game. That's 50 percent, which is good for Smith. He's shooting 32 percent entering the game.
2:37 p.m.: Wake Forest freshman James Johnson seems like he is channeling former Deacons star Josh Howard as he takes over from both inside and out.
2:52 p.m.: Wake's student section begins a raucous chant as the Seminoles head toward a 74-57 defeat. "Just like football!" they yell. "Just like football!"
3 p.m.: The game is over, and so is our journey. We head back toward Charlotte, tired and happy. All of the teams we saw in this basketball odyssey, as well as the rest of the ACC, will soon follow.