Luke DeCock

December 29, 2012

DeCock: Postcard from the center of the college basketball universe

At a spot in the woods in RTP, you’re exactly 9.72 miles from Cameron, PNC Arena and the Smith Center -- the geographic center of the Triangle, in basketball terms, and by extension the world of college basketball.

The Center of the College Basketball Universe is nothing much to see. A few yards into piney woods along a largely unused boulevard, just off a pedestrian trail in the middle of Research Triangle Park, it’s a quiet spot under the menacing gaze of a cell tower with nothing to suggest its significance.

This is the geographic center of the Triangle’s three basketball arenas. From here, it’s 9.72 miles northwest to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s 9.72 miles west to North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center. And it’s 9.72 miles southeast to North Carolina State’s PNC Arena.

If Tobacco Road were the home address of college basketball, this is where the mail would be delivered: 35 degrees, 52 minutes, 1.7 seconds north latitude, 78 degrees, 52 minutes, 34.21 seconds west longitude. The nearest postal address, is 7001 Development Drive, Sony Ericsson’s abandoned RTP campus, the perimeter of which is only a few hundred feet away.

This spot has moved over the years, slightly southwest when North Carolina moved from Carmichael Auditorium to the Smith Center, more violently west when N.C. State moved from Reynolds Coliseum to what was then known as the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

All three schools play games at home Saturday – No. 1 Duke against Santa Clara at Cameron, No. 23 N.C. State against Western Michigan at PNC Arena and North Carolina against No. 20 UNLV at the Smith Center – and from this spot, you could almost hear the cheers. Or at least the traffic.

It’s been a strange year for the Triangle’s hoops preeminence. At the same moment Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all began the season in the top 15 for the first time ever, the uniqueness and ubiquity of this Triangle was threatened by the emergence of a different trio of teams that captured the attention of the national media: “Indiana-Louisville-Kentucky triangle rules college hoops,” a USA Today headline blared.

Yet the schools in that “triangle” are separated by hundreds of miles. The schools in the Triangle are separated by walkable distances, if one were willing to put in some time and effort. (There’s even a fourth Division I school, N.C. Central, snuggled within the same radius.)

After a season preview article in the N&O said all three schools could be included within a 28-mile radius, reader Michael Pjetraj wrote a letter to the editor, suggesting the neighborhood was quite a bit smaller.

“Based on the current basketball stadium locations, the three courts can be plotted within a circle with a radius of only 9.72 miles with a center point just south of the Durham Wildlife Park Lake and Development Drive,” Pjetraj wrote.

Pjetraj proposed a roadside sign on Development Drive to mark the spot. Standing in the quiet spot, there’s nothing to mark it -- yet -- and no surroundings of any significance.

It’s not until you look at a map that you realize that a mere 400 feet away, on the Sony Ericsson campus, visible from a bend just up the trail, sits a regulation basketball court.

Heretofore unregarded and unnoticed, it lacks rims or backboards. The basket stanchions stand guard, impotently; a ghost court. Nevertheless, it’s the center court of the epicenter of college basketball.

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