The 20th anniversary of the 1992 Mens’ East Regional Final, Duke vs. Kentucky, is coming up this week. I am a Duke grad (class of 1992) and was fortunate enough to have been in The Spectrum that night in Philadelphia (which is where I now live). The Spectrum is no more, having been demolished a few months ago to make way for a new entertainment complex called Xfinity Live. It stands just to the east of The Spectrum’s footprint, which is now a surface parking lot.
I don’t remember every detail about that game. In fact, my memory is limited to three things: (1) the students’ “fighting” with The Spectrum ushers to allow us to stand during the game, as we did at home games, (2) some grad students sitting a row or two in front of me and saying that I was the most vocal fan they’d ever been around, and (3) the very end of the game from the final timeout to the final shot. I recently finished reading The Last Great Game by Gene Wojciechowski, and that helped refresh my memory and provide some insights that I had not known. I’m not going to spoil it, other than to say that it’s a book for both Kentucky fans and Duke fans (though most Kentucky fans wouldn’t go near it because of the picture of Laettner hitting The Shot on the cover).
The students and the ushers
As any Duke student (post-1989 Cameron Indoor Stadium renovations) knows, it is not physically possible to sit during home games. The bleachers are too narrow and too close together. If I (at a meager 5′ 10″) tried to sit down, my knees would be in the middle of the row in front of me. Plus, students in the first row wouldn’t be able to see over the sportswriters seated courtside. So we stood, all game, every game. And we tried to take that philosophy with us wherever we went. The Spectrum ushers didn’t want to cooperate, so we resorted to two tricks: sitting when they told us to sit, and then standing again as soon as they left; and singing the national anthem (because you can’t sit during the national anthem). Eventually the ushers gave up and let us stand.
The graduate students
In Cameron, the undergrads sit on both sidelines and the grad students sit behind the basket closest to the Duke bench (this is due to the way the ticketing is arranged: the grad students camp out once in late August or early September for season tickets, and the undergrad seating is first come first served for every game, hence the lengthy camp-outs). From January 1990 through March 1992, I was in Tent #1, except for one or two games. My “job,” as I took it to be, was to make sure that there was always noise in Cameron. Thanks to the small size and acoustic construction, it gets LOUD in there. Unless you’ve been to a game in Cameron, you really can’t tell how loud it gets, but you know while watching a game on TV because the announcers start shouting because they can’t hear themselves.
So at this game, which could have been the last Duke game I would get to watch as a student, I carried over that “make it loud” vibe. Of course, with only 150-200 students in an arena holding nearly 18,000 people, it wasn’t that much noise, but it was what I did. At some point during a timeout – I’m not sure when in the game this was – one of the grad students sitting a row or two in front of me turned around, introduced himself (sorry if I forget who you were) and said that I was the most vocal fan he and his friends had ever heard. I was a bit surprised about hearing that; I never thought it was anything special. It was just what I did. But thanks again.
The Final Timeout
You know a game is exciting when you start sweating, and you’re not even playing. My hands were sweating and I was nervous. Standing in my “usual” nervous position during the timeout, with the index and middle fingers of my left hand on the seat in front of me, there was only one thought in my mind: “It can’t end this way. It can’t end this way.”
Aside: I have no idea why I stood in that position. It was something that carried over from home games, since I could put my hand in the sportswriter’s seat in front of me. Due to my location near center court, this was often a member of the national media or one of the local papers. (Different story for another day on how we interacted with those guys.) I guess my thing, which I even did during free throws was better than the arms up followed by a “woosh” sound from the students. Please stop doing that. Really, I mean it.
In hindsight, there are two things that I did not know or recall at that point that, if I had remembered or known, I would have been even more nervous. First was that the exact same play had gone wrong in a Duke loss at Wake Forest a few weeks earlier. Grant Hill throw a curve ball that Laettner couldn’t catch and stay in bounds. Second was that Laettner hadn’t missed a shot all night.
To avoid confusion, the game play will be in italics. Everything else is my commentary. As noted by others in Wojciechowski’s book, time slowed down as this play went on. Looking back, I didn’t think my mind could process the thoughts as fast as the events actually unfolded.
Hill inbounds the ball to Laettner.
We were sitting behind the Duke bench, off to the corner of the court, so the play came at us, from right to left (on TV, you saw it from left to right). As the ball is in the air, everyone in The Spectrum stands in the direction of the play (from my right to my left), like the first part of The Wave (you didn’t see that on TV).
Laettner catches the ball. Dribbles once, spins to his right, then back to his left.
He’s dribbling!?! He doesn’t have time to dribble! Shoot it! This was a great basketball move – Laettner created the spacing he needed to get off the clean shot. And it helped that Kentucky was not going to be close enough to foul.
Go in! Go in! Go in!
Was it good? When you see the famous picture of The Shot, you see the clock only has 0.2 seconds on it and the ball has clearly left Laettner’s hand. That wasn’t immediately clear from where we were sitting. No signal to wave the shot off. It was good!
Then: utter chaos in the Duke student section. We were hugging and high-fiving everyone we could get our hands on. Didn’t matter if you knew them before the game started or not. If there were not seats separating us, there would have been a massive pile of Duke students in the stands. That euphoria was part collective sigh of relief, part subconscious acknowledgement that we had just seen something incredible.
If I had my stuff packed in the car (I was staying at my parents’ house in north Jersey, about 90 minutes away), I probably would have gone back to campus that night, despite the additional 6 hours it would have taken, to try to participate in some of the on-campus frenzy.
But I wouldn’t have changed places for anything on that night. People did ask if I thought I missed out on not being on campus for some of the great Duke wins while I was a student (this game, 1991 vs. UNLV, the 1992 Final Four). And without hesitation then, and even still today, the answer is: No, I didn’t think that I missed out on anything. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and thought it was my “obligation” (for lack of a better word) that I go to those games and support my team.