This article will give you an overview of the elusive culture of Duke tenting. I am so fortunate that I had a dear friend of mine (who is now going to NYU Med School) co-author this publication because my knowledge of Duke basketball is not as in-depth as the average student’s.
To give some background, Duke basketball is huge. People across the nation who know nothing about top universities like Dartmouth/Rice/Swarthmore, or whatever know of Duke because of Duke basketball. Most encounters I’ve had where people knew of Duke were because of basketball and nothing academic related which is funny to me. (This happened to my friend one time – he was shadowing at a clinic and told the office staff that he went to Duke, and they were like “oh, the basketball school?”).
For those not familiar with Duke basketball, every year we usually have one of the top if not the #1 picks to the NBA draft from our freshman basketball players. Duke is often ranked within the top 10 teams through the season by the AP poll (which essentially asks sports reporters to rank who they think the best teams are), and we often are ranked as having one of the best incoming class of freshmen players (we’re number two this year!). We’ve won five national championships, and have made it to finals many more times than that. Considering how small Duke is as a school, that's to paint the picture of how intense and famous Duke basketball is.
UNC basketball is equally cracked (even though they had a really poo poo season last year – they were the first team ever ranked #1 at the start of the year not to make the March Madness national championship tournament 🤡🤡). So now you have two big basketball schools right next to each other (less than a 20-minute drive), which is a big reason we're hella rivals. One of the biggest games of the year is the Duke v UNC basketball game. Those tickets sell for thousands of dollars and celebrities often attend (like Obama in 2019).
Tenting results from the fact that, unlike schools like UNC, where tickets are distributed randomly to students based on a lottery system, Duke students can go to any home basketball game for free on a first come first serve basis. Usually, this just means that students need to line up slightly in advance in order to get into a game (think like two or three hours in advance) – for the less popular games, you often can even get in if you get there right before tip-off.
Given the importance of the Duke-UNC game, this first come first serve approach presents issues because students could just move out to K-ville (the area outside of Duke’s basketball stadium) as soon as possible after the start of the school year – because K-ville is the site of the ticket line for basketball games, these students could technically claim to be “first” in line to get into the Duke Carolina game. It’s easy to see how this could get disorderly pretty quickly, presenting the need for an alternative solution.
Thus, the line monitors (Duke students responsible for overseeing student attendance at basketball games) created the tenting system to resolve this issue – contrary to what most people think, the tenting system doesn’t solely entail living in a tent for the longest amount of time possible (which is what would have happened in the absence of the system). Nowadays, tenting is basically the only way to get into the game. There are exceptions, like members of the band or dance team who get to attend without tenting because they perform at the game – however, being chosen for the Duke-Carolina game often requires being a committed member of these organizations for several years.
Tenting is when you literally live in a tent with a group of Duke students outside K-ville for weeks in the cold North Carolina winter 🙂. The tenting season begins at the start of the spring semester and is divided into three phases – black, blue, and white. Black tenting is the longest, spanning from the start of the semester to the Duke-UNC home game (which could be as late as March based on scheduling 🥲). Blue tenting is the next longest, spanning from the second or third week of the semester to the game. Finally, white tenting is the shortest, lasting only one or two weeks before the game.
The longer you tent for, the better seats you get in the stadium (thus, black tenting is the most unpleasant but gets you the best seats). However, in order to even be eligible to tent, you have to participate in certain competitions – for black and blue tenting, this is the basketball trivia test, and for white tenting, this is the race to the secret spot. The basketball trivia test takes place at night in Cameron and asks students to answer questions related to that season’s team. It’s actually a pretty hard test, and prospective tenters are expected to know some pretty obscure things (sample test here). The teams placing in the top 70 are allowed to black tent, and the next 10 are allowed to blue tent. The race to the secret spot is basically a super chaotic scavenger hunt over campus – on the day of the scavenger hunt, you’ll see people lurking around campus at night, staking out in their designated portion of Duke. When the clues are released at 9 pm, all hell breaks loose and people start sprinting and screaming as they try to get to the places indicated by the clues. Trust me, it’s really chaotic . The teams placing in the top 25 get to white tent, while the next 25 teams get to flex tent (which doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually get into the game – people usually get in though because the line monitors pack you into the stadium like sardines).
Usually, the rules of tenting are during the day, you have to have 2-3 people in the tent at all times, and at night, 6ish people. The exact number of people required varies based on the phase of tenting that we’re in, but the rules can be found here. In order to ensure that people are actually complying with this requirement, line monitors call tent checks throughout all times of day and night – they signal this with a bullhorn. Whenever you hear the bullhorn, you have to show up with your student ID to get checked off by the line monitors. Tenters like to complain about how sadistic the line monitors sometimes are about calling tent checks – you’ll hear stories about checks getting called at like 1 AM, 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM, and 5 AM in one night (which basically means you’re not sleeping that night if you’re on tent duty). Needless to say, tenting often causes people’s academic performance to suffer (ahem), but they do provide a nice study tent equipped with WiFi so you can grind out that linear algebra problem set while getting frostbite and questioning your life decisions :).
Overall, tenting is a huge activity for Duke students, and it's one thing that definitely creates community at Duke. All the campus parties and celebrations and hype for Duke basketball are things that basically any student can get behind, even if you don't like basketball because they're just fun. This is something that you’ll find a lot with basketball culture at Duke – even if you have absolutely zero interest in basketball, aspects of the traditions associated with basketball become a very big part of campus life in general. From the bonfire that we have on the main quad after a home victory to the campus’s obsession with the song “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada (which is like a random dance song from the 2000s), basketball definitely plays a really big part in making Duke the strong community that it is.
What if I don't want to do basketball cult things?
To be completely honest, (which is why I had to recruit my dear friend to help contribute to this article), I’m not a fan of huge crowds and friendly cult-like atmospheres, so things like concerts, large games, events, etc. Had I heard about the extent of Duke basketball hype prior to committing, I don’t know if this is the school that I would have chosen for me. However, I’m so glad I did. I think that is one thing that I want to make known to everyone is that even though I didn’t participate in every bonfire, game, nor K-ville concert, I didn’t have to. It’s so nice to have the option to go and sometimes I did, but not every time. That said, I know a lot of people consider not attending a school because of one thing like it’s size, or one community value or one sport you don’t know much about. But, do your research, because the schools are genuinely so much more than that and I think what’s so great about large schools or elite schools is that they have something for everyone. I have so many friends that were hesitant about attending their new uni at some point in time and now totally love it because they were able to find their people and passions and engage with them however much they’d like. I will admit, now that I’m going to be a Duke grad student, I may even try the one-week tenting option that grad students get to do 😂.