The alarm sounded at 6 a.m., awakening me to my undercover operation in the sub-freezing northland of Syracuse, New York.
I regretted each and every Labatt Blue that I had downed the night before. I had planned to stay in shape for today, but a couple of beers with my cousin Harrison and his friends had turned into a long night of beer pong. After all, I had to become a Syracuse University student for a day, and I had to get into the role.
As we trudged into the deep freeze, Harrison still had spring in his step, a clear sign that less than a year removed from college I was already too old for this shit.
We headed across campus to stand on line until 7, when the university’s great monument to basketball, the Carrier Dome, would open its doors to admit students to a game that would start 12 hours later.
The Syracuse colors were everywhere: orange faces, orange jump suits, orange spandex outfits … orange, orange, orange, along with the rhythmic chants of “Let’s Go Orange!” This was the moment I had prepared for: Would I pass for a ’Cuse native, make it through the Orange crush and get past those gates?
I grew up a college basketball fan. As a kid I had imagined what it would be like to join one of those rocking student sections at a big-time game. But I didn’t end up at a place like Syracuse, Duke or Michigan. I attended SUNY Albany, which had teams in the NCAA’s Division One, but nothing like those powerhouses whose logos hang in sports stores across the country. I can still remember my senior year at Albany and the excitement of watching the Great Danes make it to the NCAA basketball tournament for only the third time in school history. For Syracuse, making the tournament wasn’t celebrated, it was expected. Final Four appearances were celebrated.
Six months after graduation, living in New York City, I visited cuse.com, the official site of Syracuse University athletics, just to check out the schedule. Syracuse had joined the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, and with that came new opponents. Among them was Duke, one of the most revered teams in the country. And Duke would visit the Carrier Dome in four short months. This was the stuff of my dreams: two elite powerhouses coached by the two winningest coaches in college basketball history facing off in a conference game for the first time ever.
A five-hour bus ride through the Adirondacks would be well worth the payoff of finally seeing a game this big, this close. I called Harrison, a sophomore at Syracuse, and told him to make room for me. For months I scoured ticket broker sites. But tickets started at $65, and I could not get a reasonable view of the game for anything under $150.
“I will try to figure something out and I’ll keep you posted,” said Harrison. Several days later he called me. “I got a student pass for you. We are going to the Duke game!”
I would go, that is, if I could pass as a guy named Marcus, who had a short crew cut (not my longer hair), thinner eyebrows, a deeper hairline and a less pronounced jaw.
As I inched toward the Carrier Dome gate, shuddering in the February dawn, I hoped this wasn’t a waste of my 10-hour bus ride and the $50 round-trip ticket. Just for a second, I had to pass for Marcus in this orange mayhem. When my turn came, I stepped forward, trying to match the mood of the happy, rowdy crowd of students around me. The agent reached for Marcus’s ID, scanned it – and didn’t glance at me. I held out my arm for a wristband and I was in.
I remained composed (on the outside) until it was safe enough for a fist pump. As I took a step down the corridor a campus police officer suddenly appeared. “What is your sign?” he asked. My Zodiac sign, denoting when I was born? I froze, an absent look on my face. Marcus, when the hell were you born? Before I could open my mouth and insert my foot, the officer broke into a chuckle and I kept walking.
When the game finally tipped off that evening, the stadium was full of Orange. I tried to blend in with an Orange shirt proclaiming “Syracuse Basketball” in navy print. I had borrowed it from Harrison, and it barely stretched over my 6-foot frame. But I wasn’t going to be caught dead wearing another color.
And there, right before me, were the big men of Duke and Syracuse. As legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse paced the sidelines and tried to shout commands in the tempest, the teams traded blow for blow. Both managed to get out to single-digit leads, but it was evident to a neutral fan like me – as neutral a fan as you could find in the Dome that night – that this battle would go down to the wire. And it did.
The student section had synchronized cheers that everyone around me knew by heart. The easy ones, like taunting Duke star Jabari Parker by repeating his name slowly, Jaaaaaabbbbbbbbaaaarrrrrriiiii, were easy to learn. Others, such as the complex cheers for each player’s introduction, were much more difficult. There were distinct chants for Duke free throws, Syracuse free throws, Duke fouls and many other situations. Harrison coached me through some of them during breaks in the action. By the second half I had figured out many of the chants, but I gave up on others.
The game went into overtime after Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon hit a game tying three pointer as time expired. As the two teams traded overtime possessions, everyone in the stadium was living and dying with every shot. It became clear that the emotions I had invested just to see the game didn’t compare to the agonies of the thousands of alumni, students and lifelong fans who surrounded me. I had gotten what I came to see: A classic matchup had turned into an unforgettable game.
Syracuse won, 91-89. The entire arena rose to sing the alma mater, led by the marching band and student section. I didn’t know the words.