Tobacco Road’s great old gyms are just empty buildings without college basketball fans

Duke was supposed to go to the Bahamas this year, back when traveling to an island resort for a basketball tournament was the simplest thing in the world. The closest the Blue Devils or anyone else will get is the atmosphere in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday, when Duke hosted Michigan State in an arena empty of fans.

Without the students screaming and boosters murmuring, the squeaking of sneakers was loud as a gunshot. Voices carried. Even the lighting looked different. Duke installed new LED lighting over the summer and without the teeming mass of human bodies to reflect and refract it, It had a bit of the blue glow of the ballroom at Atlantis, where Duke was supposed to have played.

In Cameron and in Reynolds Coliseum and in the Smith Center and in every arena across the ACC and across college basketball, the first week of the season has served as a cogent reminder that college basketball without fans is something else entirely.

They are missed.

Professional sports can exist in a bubble. College basketball as we know it can only thrive and flourish in symbiosis with the fans who crowd its sidelines and baselines. They are as much a part of the game as the players. A game played without them is a different game — still compelling, still with all the skill and drama, but with a vacant space where its soul should be.

Every sport has had to make these accommodations, but the NBA and NHL and especially the NFL can get along just fine in an empty stadium or arena. They are, at heart, productions made for television, and fans are merely an accoutrement, same as the pumped-in music during an offensive possession in the NBA.

Which is … fine. The world of professional sports is an entertainment business. The show must go on. And it does. NBA games in the Orlando bubble had more in common with professional wrestling or a Broadway musical than a college basketball game. College football long ago crossed that divide as well.

College basketball has not, and like European and South American soccer, an essential component of its spirit is that it be played in front of frenzied crowds, preferably in steamy (or, once, smoky) buildings, at the highest of temperatures both physically and emotionally.

We refer to the great buildings as cathedrals and temples and shrines for a reason, and not merely out of hyperbole. With their vaulted ceilings and dark corners, they serve as venues for the collective embracement of a higher ideal, the ethos expressed in the plaque at the entrance to the Palestra, the St. Peter’s of college basketball: To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.

The Triangle’s great old gyms, Cameron and Reynolds and McDougald-McLendon, are sewn from the same spiritual cloth, built in the same architectural style — Naismith high Gothic — and play the same cherished

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College basketball begins strange season in empty arenas

The strangest, most anticipated season in college basketball history kicked off Wednesday with dozens of games at arenas across the country.

Like everything else in this pandemic world, it was odd and disjointed.

Cancellations, protests, quarantined players, piped-in crowd noise, masked cheerleaders, socially distanced bench seating — the start of the season matched the chaotic build up to it.

One day down, who knows how many more left.

“I’d like normalcy, I’d like a routine, but that’s not what we have right now,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “You can do everything you can possibly do and still have a slipup. But the process, you need to do everything you can possibly do and be prepared to handle everything as well.”

College basketball, like the rest of the sports world, was thrown into disarray last March when the surging coronavirus pandemic shut down everything.

Cancelation of the NCAA Tournament cost the NCAA $375 million in revenue, so the organization that runs college sports was determined to get through the 2020-21 season.

The prelude to Wednesday’s start followed the lead of a college football season filled with cancelations, shutdowns and last-minute replacement games.

Dozens of college basketball programs shut down for positive COVID-19 tests, big-name coaches like Tom Izzo, Scott Drew, Jim Boeheim among them. Games canceled almost hourly. Programs moved in and out of multi-team events like a game of whack-a-mole.

The first big event in Connecticut dubbed Bubbleville became more like Juggleville as teams dropped out, replacements moved in and crafting a schedule became like sorting through AAU brackets.

While gamblers socially distanced inside the Mohegan Sun casino, no fans were allowed in the 10,000-seat arena for the opening game between Virginia and Towson, a late replacement for coronavirus-affected Maine.

Cardboard cutouts filled the areas behind the baskets and recorded crowd noise was piped in to replace the full-throated roars of real fans. Yelling coaches and squeaking sneakers echoed off the empty seats, and seats on the benches were spread out for social distancing — as they were in arenas across the country.

Ten members of the top-ranked South Carolina women’s team followed the social justice lead of the NBA and WNBA by remaining seated for the national anthem before their 119-38 win over Charleston.

“We just wanted everyone to know we haven’t forgotten about what’s going on,” guard Zia Cooke said. “Of course, this is a basketball game, but we wanted to use our platform.”

Numerous other teams sat or knelt during the anthem, including North Carolina State’s women. The Virginia men’s team had “UNITY” on their warm-up shirts and Towson’s players had a raised fist on their backs.

Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing made a different kind of statement during the Hoyas’ season-opening game against Maryland-Baltimore County, draping a white towel over his shoulder in memory of Hall of Famer John Thompson, who died in August at 78.

Some teams never made it to the floor.

Georgia’s opener against Columbus State was canceled just hours before tipoff

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