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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