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A Syracuse grad crosses Duke game at Cameron off bucket list

By Alan Pergament

This isn't exactly a story about television, but it does have elements of the old series "Mission Impossible."

About a month ago, I asked a friend with deep basketball connections if he would help me take one item off my bucket list.

Since I almost kicked the bucket a few years ago, I thought it was about time I went to the top of the list and tried to see a basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke University plays and I have wanted to go since my childhood when Long Island legend Art Heyman played for the Blue Devils.

Since I graduated from Syracuse University, I asked if he could get me two tickets for the SU-Duke game on Saturday night, Feb.22 that was going to be televised on ESPN.

Talk about "Mission Impossible."

My friend asked several of his connections and was greeted with laughter.

That was a week before Syracuse beat Duke in overtime, 91-89, in a Feb. 1 ESPN game before 35,446 in the Carrier Dome that is widely being referred to as the game of the year and created an instant rivalry. And Cameron only has 9,314 seats.

Needless to say, "Mission Impossible" got even more impossible for a game involving two of the best teams in the country.

Until last Monday, when my friend called and said "you got them."

I reacted as if the Bills had won the Super Bowl.

I told my older son Ben that it would be best if we didn't root loudly for Syracuse in an enemy building. I'm not sure what was more impossible -- getting the tickets or getting Ben to be quiet.

If I wanted quiet, it probably would have been better to take my younger son Max, but he couldn't afford to take time off from college.

Ben is a bigger Syracuse basketball fan than I am. Besides, he had a tough week. He is engaged to a beautiful graduate of Boston College, who rubbed in BC's upset of Syracuse last Wednesday just a little.

She rubbed it in enough that Ben joked that she wasn't entitled to Chef's meatballs and meat sauce, which I planned to bring with me on my visit to Ben in  Arlington, Va. before we headed to Duke.

I thought that would make us look like sore losers, so I proposed a compromise. She would get Chef's if she didn't bring up BC's win. It was a win-win.

Not cheering loudly wasn't going to be problem for me. I used to be a sportswriter and practiced not cheering for years. When I said "used to be," I mean I covered college basketball when Jim Boeheim was a young SU coach and Jim Baron was playing at St. Bonaventure decades before he came to Canisius College to coach.

Still, I wasn't sure I would be perfect, either. After all, one of the major reasons I stopped being a sportswriter is because it requires you to stop being a fan. As Allen Iverson used to say, "we're talking about practice." And I hadn't practiced not cheering for awhile.

After being told we had the tickets, I immediately told one of my closest friends from Boston, Mass. that I was going to the game because his son is a Duke student and I thought my friend might be coming to the game, too.

My friend Jack texted me that his son "is eager to scream at the refs for handing the last  Duke-Syracuse game to Syracuse." He was referring to a big non-call that went against Duke at the Carrier Dome.

I told Jack that his son from Boston might be spoiled by officials because "Duke is used to getting all the calls. Like the Patriots. And the Bruins. And the Celtics."

After getting assurances from my son that he would control himself, we headed on a four-hour drive from his home in Virginia to Durham, N.C. early Saturday afternoon. We didn't get our tickets until 30 minutes before the game, which caused me enough anxiety that my son feared that I might have a heart attack before completing my bucket list item.

We didn't have a lot of time before the game to bask in the very welcome 70 degree weather to do much but have a quick meal at a Durham sports bar, look at the surprisingly large campus and and take in some pre-game festivities.

At the sports bar, a Duke fan near us handed four tickets to his friends and said "there's $20,000."

The going rate for a ticket on Stub Hub was apparently $5,000 a ticket.

We noted in our brief tour of the campus that Duke has a building for something called "Interdisciplinary Innovation" classes, which sounded like a course that teaches discipline.

Outside Cameron, students were already having fun at the expense of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. One poster said "Jim Boeheim likes Nickelback," which I guess means that group isn't popular anymore. I doubt Boeheim ever heard of it. Another poster read "Jim Boeheim uses Internet Explorer."

Those clever Dukies.

About 30 minutes before the game, we entered Cameron, which reminded me of the movie "Hoosiers." It looks like an an airplane hangar and has seats that are as old as I am.

But what an atmosphere. The Duke students -- the Cameron Crazies -- were all standing and cheering so loud before the game that my ears hurt and I couldn't hear my son next to me.

It made my heart happy to see an university give the best seats -- or in this case stands -- in the house to its students.

We had good seats behind one of the baskets that were in full sight of all the national championship banners that Duke had won.

Amazingly, we were surrounded by Syracuse fans. Well, surrounded might be an exaggeration. There were two Syracuse fans dressed in Orange in front of us and another one behind us. There was also a crazie Duke fan to our left and another to the right. They frequently shouted at the two relatively subdued Syracuse fans.

My son cheated a little bit concerning the edict not to look or act too pro-Syracuse. He was wearing Syracuse socks. They weren't visible to anyone, but they made him feel good.

My son didn't expect much. After Syracuse lost to his fiance's team, he texted me that Syracuse "could lose four in a row" and "we may see a blowout Saturday."

"Totally different game and attitude," I replied.

It was one of the few times I was right. It was a defensive game that you undoubtedly are aware went down to the final minutes. With Syracuse down a point, the Syracuse fan in the row in front of me turned to me and encouragingly said "this is who we are." He meant all Syracuse games go down to the final seconds.

Then with 10 seconds left, a controversial charging call negated a potential tying basket by Syracuse's C.J. Fair, which led Boeheim to go all internet explorer. He got two technical fouls that prevented SU from getting another chance to tie. Syracuse lost, 66-60, and Boeheim earned the "honor" of being fodder for sports talk shows over the weekend and beyond.

It is nearly impossible to completely defend Boeheim, who probably deserves to take some Interdisciplinary Innovations courses at Duke or perhaps listen to Nickelback as punishment.

The Fair play was right in front of us. I am a little biased but thought that the basket was going to count and Fair was going to go to the foul line for the lead. I was told on Twitter that ESPN announcer Jay Bilas, a Duke grad, didn't like the call, either.

It was a bit of a downer to see Syracuse lose, but nothing was going to ruin my bucket list experience. Not even the referee's call. After all, I learned long ago from covering basketball that bad calls happen. In my mind, the call against Fair was the worst call since the one against Michael Carter-Williams that cost Syracuse a Final Four game against Michigan last year.

However, this also was the most fun I have had at a basketball game since 2003 in New Orleans, when Syracuse won its only national title. I wasn't going to let the one call ruin my night. I could even endure listening to the Duke post-game radio talk on the way back to Arlington saying it was the right call.

I could endure it because I apparently knew something that Boeheim didn't know: The one truly mission impossible Saturday was for a visiting team to get a call like that at the end of a game at Cameron.

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