You don’t need to watch the pros to get a taste of American sporting culture, says PHIL LUTTON

The sparse spare seats in New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden are disappearing quickly as the main game inches ever closer. As the stragglers tiptoe their way through the aisles to take their seats, armed with hot dogs and tankards of fizzy drink big enough to bathe in, the booming buzzer sounds the end of the lead-up match.

The restless fans, the majority adorned in the blue and white of their favoured team, shuffle and squirm as they await their charges to arrive for the big match, flicking through the official programme and engaged in those endless sporting debates that transcend country and code.

They aren’t left to stew for too long. Within minutes, the tracksuited basketballers pour out of the tunnel and onto the gleaming court, sneakers squeaking on the hardwood as they twist, spin and turn. They run through the motions, potting jump shots and slotting lay-ups in their warm-up ritual as the 20,000 fans concentrate on their every move. The old arena seems to shiver and groan with every thunderous dunk – and the match hasn’t even tipped off.

These athletes are in good company by playing in the Garden, a New York institution that’s home to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) New York Knicks and ice hockey’s Rangers. It was on this floor that Chicago’s Michael Jordan broke the hearts of New York’s basketball diehards on more than one occasion, and it’s where Spike Lee takes his courtside seat each and every time the Knicks are in town. It has played host to some of boxing’s most famous fights and, along with its crosstown compatriot, The Bronx’s Yankee Stadium, is one of America’s most hallowed sporting theatres.

Tonight, though, the ballers on the court didn’t roll up in their Bentley’s like their NBA counterparts may do, nor do they take home pay packets that humble the GDP of most countries. When tonight’s stars aren’t on the practice court, they spend their days studying and simply growing up. The 20,000 punters aren’t here to see Shaq or Kobe. Tonight, it’s all about college basketball – college ‘hoops’ to those in the know.

It’s the final of the NIT Tournament, a pre-season invitational featuring Memphis against the No.1-ranked team in the nation, the Blue Devils of Duke University in North Carolina. Duke ground their opponents down for the win on this occasion, but the closeness of the battle means they limber of the court knowing there is a tough season waiting ahead.

The city of Durham is an old tobacco town and a long way from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. It is slow and sleepy, much of it working class while its leafy suburbs harbour a sprinkling of more affluent residents.

In the city’s heart, the old brick tobacco warehouses are being developed into apartments and cafés by some wealthy former citizens, helping give the region an economic boost to combat the recesses of dwindling tobacco trade.

When it comes to the city’s sporting faithful, there are two things to talk about: baseball and Duke basketball. The best piece of trivia we get when we drive in is that much of Kevin Costner’s Bull Durham was filmed at one of the local baseball fields.

But the real action is centred in Cameron Indoor Arena in the gothic surrounds of the Duke campus, a short drive from downtown Durham.

To outsiders, the idea of college sport having a high enough profile to sell out major basketball arenas or football fields, some which seat upwards of 60,000, takes some getting used to. Yet that’s exactly what happens every season as America’s next sporting superstars spring into action.

Not only does it receive backpage status in the nation’s daily sport sections, but college hoops and football are big business. They warrant live coverage on sports networks like ESPN and Fox. Unlike the UK, where the only interest in inter-college rivalry is the Oxford v Cambridge boat race, US college sport often outrates the major leagues. It’s primetime entertainment and the stakes are high.

Right around the country, whether it be the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the Crimson Tide of Alabama, the Minutemen of Massachusetts or the Cornhuskers of Nebraska, the level of fanaticism among supporters can make the Premier League seem like indoor five-a-side. For students and alumni alike, it’s a face-painting, chest-beating American tradition.

During a recent visit, as the NBA basketball season ground on and the football season edged towards the business end, the story on everyone’s lips was not who would win the Superbowl, but who would win the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s player of the year. Watching the presentation live on TV in a seafood restaurant in southern Mississippi, the Maryland crabcakes played clear second fiddle as faces were glued to the screen. Reggie Bush, running back for the University of Southern California, was the victor.

For people travelling to the US, catching a big-name sporting event is often on the to-do list, whether it be watching some baseball in Boston or sneaking a Lakers game in LA. College sport, though, provides the perfect chance to mix it up with the real” fans of America’s sporting nation, avoid the overpriced tickets of the professional leagues and, if you’re lucky, sneak an invite to a frat party afterwards. Kegger!

Frat parties are the last thing on the mind of the players at Duke on this wintry North Carolina day as they prepare for a practice session with their coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will also be coaching the US men’s basketball team at the 2008 Olympic games. Coach K has a cult following on campus, just like star players Sheldon Williams and JJ Redick, a hyperactive guard who is automatic from three-point range and last season won national player of the year honours. He is the big man on campus, as they say in the teen flicks.

The intimate Cameron Arena seats 8000 fans, which is small compared to some colleges but enough to fit every undergraduate at the private campus. If the prospect of being drafted into the NBA and earning millions isn’t enough to inspire the players to succeed, Duke’s army of fans – the Cameron Crazies – are there to give them a little extra inspiration.
When Duke plays against its biggest rival, the University of North Carolina (UNC), the Crazies have been known to camp out for three weeks for tickets. When the UNC Tarheels, the defending national champions and university where Michael Jordan cut his teeth, make the 20-minute journey for the local derby, the already scarce tickets are like ingots of gold.

Cameron Arena’s lobby walls are covered with lifesize photos of former stars like Grant Hill, who led the team to a national title before becoming an NBA All Star, and Christian Laettner, an NBA veteran who also played on the famous Dream Team, which won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and one of the wealthy former citizens driving Durham’s downtown makeover.

As we wander through the Hall of Fame and onto the court, with emphatic Duke decals on every sideline, the sound of doors opening and impending training session means our visit to Cameron Arena is over. Media aren’t allowed at practices, and Australian travel writers don’t get special exemptions. Top-secret training tips can’t be leaked to the press, not even TNT. But it’s no secret that sampling some college sport can add a new dimension to an American sporting odyssey. There were no frat parties in sight this time around, mind you. I’ll be priming the beer helmet for the return visit.

For information on Durham, contact the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau at, or Duke University at”