DURHAM, N.C. - It's Sunday afternoon, 21/2 hours before No. 10-ranked Duke tips it up against the University of Montana men's basketball team.
A couple of Dukies toss a football around on the firmly tramped grass of Krzyzewskiville. A few more find some inventive ways to keep a hackey sack from touching the ground. They're in line for tickets, a ritual repeated before every game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a venue so unobtrusive, it could be mistaken for any other stone structure on the serene campus.
And get this, some of them have been there since 2:30 this morning. They've earned they're stripes as Cameron Crazies, some of the most rabid basketball fans you'll find anywhere. And this isn't even a big game for the Blue Devils. Wait until the ACC season starts and tents spring up to get into position for tickets against reviled rival North Carolina, which sits just a dozen or so miles down the road in Chapel Hill.
"Everyone in there is on the same page," Cameron Crazy Jessica Learish said. "The day of the Carolina game on campus it's electrified. Anyone you make eye contact with on campus is wearing Duke Blue and knows what's up. Anyone is super down to talk about it with you. Everyone is like one big family."
The Crazies know their opponents.
Years ago, an opponent who had been busted for marijuana came to Cameron.
As he was preparing to shoot a free throw, the students stood up and shouted in unison, "Freeze, police!"
Another had recently been arrested for stealing pizzas, so the Crazies showered the floor with pizza boxes when he arrived.
After Weber State knocked off the hated Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament in 1999, the Crazies ordered Weber State T-shirts and wore them the next time Carolina came to Durham.
But, alas, the Crazies have nothing unique in store for the Griz on Sunday. As the Griz are introduced prior to tip-off, they are greeted with, "Hi, Jordan. Hi, Brian," in a tone usually reserved for third graders greeting their teacher.
Anytime the Griz enter or exit the arena, the Crazies waggle their fingers at the end of outstretched arms, a kind of voodoo hex.
As one Grizzly stands at the free-throw line, the crowd goes silent with a prolonged, "Ssssssssshhhhhhhhh," then explodes as he releases the ball. Coincidence or not, the ball clanks off the iron.
"It's a great atmosphere in Cameron," said Jimmy Shevlick, the first in line today at 2:30 a.m. "There's no other way to describe it than that. When you're in the front row, you're right on the floor. You're as close to the action as you can get."
Indeed, on one in-bounds play in the second half, the Crazies are mere inches from touching Vassy Banny, easily close enough to enter his peripheral vision.
Eric Sukumar, who has been in line since 7 a.m., wears a crown and a suit of armor to watch Duke's 78-58 victory.
"It's being a part of the whole experience and cheering for the team, making sure you're helping out," Sukumar said. "It's a fun time, helping your team win."
"It's just the feeling you get when it gets so loud in there the brass bars around the (balcony) start ringing," Kim Marston said. "It's just the best sound."
It's a sound opponents hear when they enter Washington-Grizzly Stadium for a football game, but it's a sound that's been missing from Dahlberg Arena for all too long now.
Say what you want about winter break, or more competition for the entertainment dollar, or the rise of the football program on the UM campus; the single worst move Montana made for its basketball program was moving the students out of the east bleachers.
"It's not the same," Shevlick said. "I know in a lot of the new stadiums being built the student sections are just a part of the crowd. The students are not going to have as good of a time and the team is not going to have that sixth-man advantage unless the students are right there on the court. If you're going to promote the basketball team the best you can, I say put the students right down there on the court."
Amen, Brother Shevlick. Would someone else like to offer testimony?
"That would be terrible," Sukumar said. "Students are the most passionate and they deserve to be in the front. It would make the whole experience worse for the players because they should have the most crazy people right next to them cheering and it would make it less intimidating."
Got that right. And what if Duke ripped out the bleachers and replaced them with revenue-producing seats?
"They won't do it because they know we make such a difference," Marston said. "They know they need us there."
And if they tried?
"Coach K wouldn't let them do it," a group of Crazies shouts in unison.
This is, after all, Krzyzewskiville, where Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is mayor.
To be fair, Montana athletic director Jim O'Day has been making conciliatory gestures toward the students, putting them back on the floor for last season's home opener against Colorado State. A kinder, gentler Zoo turned out, but not in numbers that would justify wholesale changes, O'Day said.
This season, the media tables on the east side have been removed to get the crowd closer to the action and student sections have been added adjacent to the north baseline along the east and west sidelines.
"When you get them all together, there's a chance you can get some energy out of them," O'Day said. "We started to wrap (the seats around) and if they would ever keep coming, we'll keep running. At least we're allowing them to start making some movement (into the east sideline)."
Try as he might to ignore the Crazies, Montana senior Jordan Hasquet still hears the cheers.
"You try not to let yourself do that, but it's neat," Hasquet said. "The student section they have and all these fans, it's got to be a fun atmosphere to play in every time you tip it up here."
And what would it mean to the Griz to hear that in Dahlberg Arena?
"There would be no way you wouldn't get up for games if you had this environment around you every time you played," Hasquet said.
Missoulian sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at email@example.com