The roar of the crowd is deafening, and Capital One Arena begins to shake. Zion Williamson has just thrown down a thunderous alley-oop dunk, and it’s gone viral. Inside the stadium, fans jump out of their seats. Even a few ushers scream in excitement. People waiting in line at the concession stands rush back, likely cursing at themselves for leaving their seats. This, judged by the reaction, is the reason they came. It’s halfway through the second half, and Duke is up by six points.
Williamson has officially welcomed D.C. to the biggest show in men’s college basketball.
“I’ve met so many Duke fans this year,” says Terry Rains, a Duke season ticket holder from Raleigh, North Carolina. “Usually people tune in to watch us lose. I think with Zion, R.J. [Barrett], it’s like I’ve never seen so many Duke fans … There’s more Duke love this year.”
On this Friday night in late March, downtown D.C. is playing host to 18-year-old Williamson and the top-seeded Duke men’s basketball team, typically the villain in college basketball, as it takes on Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
Tickets to the game have been selling for several hundred dollars each.
Rains, 39, drove up to D.C. with his 7-year-old son, Cameron, and made the four-plus-hour trip just in time for tip-off. His son, named after Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, is wearing a No. 1 jersey (the same number as Williamson) and a blue wig. Cameron has a younger brother named Parker, in honor of Jabari Parker, a former Duke standout who now plays for the Washington Wizards. (Rains mentions that his wife, a University of Tennessee alum, would claim their son is named after WNBA star Candace Parker instead.)
The loyalty to the Blue Devils runs deep in the family.
A few feet away from Rains, vendors are selling official NCAA March Madness merchandise. One of the women behind the table says that Duke T-shirts have been the most popular—even more so than Virginia Tech, which is a close second. She’s not surprised. The excitement around this year’s Duke men’s basketball team has been unparalleled.
“The moment we knew there was a chance we could see a tournament game within a reasonable distance we figured we would come down and find a way to get into the building,” says Matt Amsterdam, a Duke fan from New York City who attended the game with a friend, “and here we are.”
A group of about 15 people crowd around the TV outside Section 100 near a concession stand selling cocktails. It’s half an hour before the game the begins. Michigan State had already beaten LSU, 80-63, in the other Sweet Sixteen game at Capital One Arena.
Chants of “Let’s go Tigers!” breaks out. A young fan wearing a Christian Laettner jersey punches the air with his right first and screams. His friend, wearing a J.J. Redick jersey, stands next to him and can’t stop smiling. On the TV, North Carolina is down 10 points to the Auburn Tigers. The Tar Heels, Duke’s hated rival, would go on to lose, 97-80, in another Sweet Sixteen game.
At 9:45 p.m., it’s Duke’s turn to play. Sara Shmueli has trouble staying in her seat. She hops up and down and into the aisle at every twist and turn of the game. The Duke senior paid $300 to be here today. Her ticket also covers the Elite Eight game being played two days later. The Blue Devils enter halftime down 38-34. Duke fans don’t need to be reminded, but Virginia Tech won the regular season matchup, 77-72.
Shmueli insists she isn’t concerned.
“I’ll be here [for the Elite Eight] regardless of what happens,” she says, “but we’re going to win.”
Several rows down in a front row courtside seat, Sydney Smith appears relaxed. The 33-year-old Upper Marlboro resident is here because of her younger brother: Duke’s director of basketball operations, Nolan Smith. The younger Smith starred at Duke and for several high schools in the D.C. area.
But even Sydney acknowledges the buzz around this year’s team is special.
“I’ve never seen this much attention on any team in college basketball,” she says, “just the hype around one player … and I’ve been around for a long time.” She’s met Williamson a few times, and calls him “the sweetest kid.”
“Duke basketball is probably the biggest show,” Sydney continues, “over the Lakers, over the Warriors … I stand by that.”
The comparisons arrive swiftly. On the TV broadcast, CBS shows replays of Grant Hill‘s alley-oop dunk on a pass from Bobby Hurley in the 1991 NCAA Tournament title game after Williamson’s ferocious slam from a Tre Jones assist in the second half.
Hill won two national championships with the Blue Devils after starring at South Lakes High School in Reston. He’s back home in D.C. to be a part of the CBS broadcasting crew covering the tournament.
In the tense final moments of the Duke game, the team turns to Williamson, who finishes with a game-high 23 points, shooting 11-of-14 from the field. The Blue Devils hold on to win, 75-73. They will play Michigan State in the Elite Eight on March 31. After the game, a reporter asks Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to compare the two dunks.
“They both went in, right?” the coach replies. “Zion can do amazing things. He can actually jump higher than Grant. But on that play that Grant did with Bobby, he was, I think, the highest he’s ever jumped. And when you’re playing with a great point guard, sometimes they lead you and put you in a position where you extend and you pass the limit you already had, because they have such confidence in you.”
At 20 past midnight, Hill packs up his bags and gets ready to leave the floor when a Virginia Tech fan appears at the top of the steps and shouts, “Duke sucks!”
Hill looks up toward the man and smiles. He’s unfazed. For Duke and Williamson, the show goes on.
Aman Kidwai contributed to this report.