A trip down Tobacco Road means more than great basketball


For most of the time, the life of a sportswriter, particularly one who covers college basketball, is a good one.

The competition is usually excellent, the food is free, if not often great, and the people we cover are generally polite and not yet spoiled enough to take it personally when the next day's paper heralds their shooting woes.

But, just like with everything else, basketball and, by extension, travel that goes with it, should be taken with small doses.

Here is a brief chronicle of 12 days on the road to see six college basketball games at three different schools:

Word that the nation's airports had beefed up security apparently filtered through to everyone except this correspondent, who foolishly left his briefcase and bag (with a laptop portable computer inside) unattended at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for about three minutes to buy a newspaper.

About 15 minutes later, after three State Police officers, a security guard and a bomb-sniffing dog had been introduced to the contents of those packages, the lesson of improved airport security was imparted, in a major-league way.

So a German shepherd drooled over the brand-new briefcase as the officers ordered the batteries removed from the computer and a portable tape recorder. All the while, strangers gawked and pointed. And if that incident wasn't humiliating enough, there were other indignities to follow.

Like arriving at the Atlanta airport, primed to pick up a sporty compact car, only to get a mini-van -- a term that defines the word oxymoron -- and having to spend 15 minutes trying to figure out how the electronic mirrors work.

Or having to ask for directions to the CNN Center, only to discover that the building is just one block away.

Luckily, the basketball that ensued made up for the trip's beginnings. For the most part.

The first stop was Atlanta, to watch Georgia Tech and Duke do battle for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the Yellow Jackets' home court, is a marvelously understated setting in which to watch a game, particularly since coach Bobby Cremins resurrected the program, guiding it to the Final Four last year.

As tip-off approaches, a record crowd of more than 10,100 squeezes into the 9,800-seat arena and there is a certain electricity coursing through the building.

A group of six Georgia Tech students carries a giant banner, which highlights the basketball team's Final Four appearance and the football squad's share of the national championship. While the cheerleaders circle the court, the band slowly plays "Old Gold and White," one of Tech's two fight songs.

Finally, the team emerges from a tunnel to a tumultuous ovation. It is nothing short of magic. As the Jackets lose two of three on the home stand, including that night to Duke, no other moment comes close to that.

After five more days in Atlanta, it's off to Clemson, two hours to the north on Interstate 85. Most years, basketball season in this part of South Carolina is little more than the down time between a football bowl appearance and spring football practice.

And even in the season after the Tigers have won their first men's ACC title in 36 years, the buzz around Littlejohn Coliseum is more about the early football recruits than about the game at hand. On the court, Clemson notches its first league win of the season, besting Maryland by six, before a crowd generously announced as 7,500.

It's up and off the next morning for a four-hour drive to Durham, N.C., and 2 1/2 days with the Duke Blue Devils, to see them play Virginia, then Maryland.

An assignment to 51-year-old Cameron Indoor Stadium is the proverbial two-edged sword, for, on one hand, there is no better atmosphere in college basketball and no place where the home team gets more support than at Duke.

However, the "Cameron Crazies," as the students have been affectionately labeled, can make life hell for a sportswriter, since they occupy the stands immediately surrounding the court and press row, and they stand throughout the game, usually hovering over the writers, who sit bunched at a physically restricting table.

And the students are loud and often profane, but usually funny and quick-witted. During the Maryland game, for instance, as Terps point guard Kevin McLinton steps to the free throw line, one fan, drawing comparisons between the guard and rapper M.C. Hammer and his recent hit, "Can't Touch This," yells, "Hey. It's M.C. Linton. He can't make this."

And he didn't.

So, finally, after 12 days, 768 miles in a rented van, and $150 in restaurant receipts, it's time to head for home.

And it is safe to say that in the future, when given the choice between hitting the road for 12 days in a big red van or being strapped into a chair and forced to listen to 12 days of Dick Vitale on ESPN, there will be only one decision:

Hand over the car keys and hope for cruise control, baby.

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