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Take a trip with me to Tobacco Road

TOBACCO ROAD, N.C. - The years fly by and a sports writer's bucket list, with any luck, gets shorter.

I couldn't let my trip to North Carolina pass without a first-ever visit to college basketball's Mecca.

Wednesday was a day I won't soon forget, with stops at Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh and the campuses of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State.

They are three of four Atlantic Coast Conference members located in a 25-mile radius in what is known as 'Research Triangle.' Wake Forest is another 100 miles up the road in Winston-Salem.

The basketball programs of Duke and North Carolina are of mythical proportions, and since North Carolina State - with NCAA titles in 1973 and '84 a pretty good history of quality basketball in its own right - is so close, the decision to knock off all three in one swoop is a no-brainer.

The goal is to see the football stadiums and basketball arenas of the three schools and get a bit of a feel for each campus, even though summer school is in session and there will be fewer students on hand.

Notes on the cuff:

9:30 a.m.: I leave Charlotte and head down Highway 85, which turns into Highway 40, toward my first stop, Durham, a pretty drive that takes me a little more than two hours. I'd make it quicker had I not noticed an outlet store for 'J.R. Cigars,' my mail-order company for stogies, in Burlington. I stop off for a couple of minutes, only to be disappointed that Cohibas cost a little more in person than they do through the mail because of North Carolina state tax. Bummer.

I turn left onto wooded Cameron Boulevard and am soon on the campus of Duke, established first in 1838 in nearby Trinity, then moved to Durham in 1892. The college is named after James Duke, a tobacco and electric power industrialist of the area. Duke is an exclusive private school, with only 6,500 undergraduates and 8,200 post-grad students.

I start at Wallace Wade Stadium, site of the transplanted Rose Bowl in 1942 in which Oregon State beat Duke. Frankly, not very impressive. A track circles the field inside a stadium with a capacity of 33,941, all in bench seating. There don't appear to be any suites. The press box is located in a building with the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Research Laboratory.

Krzyzewski's name is all over campus. Inside Cameron Indoor Stadium - the basketball facility - is 'Coach K Court.' The Krzyzewski Center, where the school's athletic hall of fame, athletic academic support center and its basketball office and practice courts are located, is in the area of campus known as 'Krzyzewskiville.'

Who is this Krzyzewski character, anyway?

I'm relatively sure all of these venues named in the basketball coach's honor is a practical joke on sports writers, who have to keep trying to spell the guy's name.

Cameron is cool. It's a brick building - like nearly everything on campus - that opened in 1940. It is quaint, cozy and classy, a two-level edifice in which they can cram 10,000 Cameron Crazies on game night. The upper level is all theater seating; the floor level is all bench. You can almost feel the magic of the great Blue Devils teams under Coach K as you step onto the playing floor and look up at all the championship banners.

The hallways are marked with memorabilia, including a display of the 13 retired jersey numbers, plus those of two women players.

The athletic hall of fame facility features basketball but includes all sports. Portland's own Becca Ward - an NCAA champion fencer and Olympic bronze medalist - is part of the display.

You can't get to Coach's K's fifth-floor office without the proper thumbprint, I'm told. Keeps the riffraff media away, I imagine. Genius.

I spend a half-hour walking through the secluded campus, making sure to stop by the 210-foot-high Duke chapel, an architectural marvel that is Gothic style, constructed from stone and in splendid condition 80 years after first being used for commencement ceremonies.

1:15 p.m.: I'm back on Highway 40, and before I know it - 15 minutes, max - I'm on the campus of North Carolina, which lays claim to being the oldest public university in the U.S. For sure, it was chartered in 1789, first enrolled students in 1795 and is the only U.S. public college to hand out degrees in the 18th century.

The campus has a much more big-school feel than Duke, so it's no surprise North Carolina has 18,600 undergrad students and 10,800 post-grads. Many of the buildings are brick, too, and there is a sunken brick courtyard called 'the Pit' where students gather.

I miss the Pit, but I don't miss Kenan Memorial Stadium, capacity 63,000. It's nice, but I'm surprised the only theater seating is in the end zone in front of a row of suites. The Fred Kenan Football Center - where the coaches offices and athletic performance center are - is atop the other end zone.

Across campus is the Dean E. Smith Center, named after the great North Carolina coach whom I had the pleasure of interviewing when his Tar Heels played in the Far West Classic in the late 1970s. The arena opened in 1986 but has aged beautifully. It is of NBA quality, only bigger - 21,700 capacity, and good luck trying to get a ticket.

I spend 45 minutes roaming the 'Dean Dome.' Carolina's powder blue is everywhere. There are huge framed photos in the concourse of all the championship teams. I'm drawn to the 1960-61 club, which included Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh and Doug Moe. Coach Frank McGuire's chief assistant was Dean Smith. From the playing floor, looking up to the rafters is daunting.

I visit the coaches' office - I actually get to speak with a receptionist - then stroll down 'Vince Carter Letterman's Lane' and reach the Carolina Basketball Museum. It is extraordinary, with high ceilings and video displays and a huge board displaying the names of the 40 Tar Heels who have been first-round NBA draft picks since 1957.

3 p.m.: Like the Will Ferrell 'More Cowbell' skit on Saturday Night Live, I'm pleading, 'More Rasheed Wallace' as I leave the UNC basketball museum, take a final drive through campus and move onto Highway 54 going east toward Raleigh.

Within 20 minutes, I'm driving up Manning Street and then onto Skipper Bowles Drive toward the complex that houses North Carolina State's football and basketball venues - Carter-Finley Stadium and PNC Arena.

Carter-Finley Stadium, home of N.C. State football since 1966, seats 57,583. It's locked up, but I enter the athletic hall of fame building at the Wendell Murphy Football Center - one of my boyhood heroes, Roman Gabriel, gets good play - and ask the receptionist if she can help.

She lets me through an athletic training facility room for a peek through a window, when I hear, 'Hey, do you cover the Beavers?'

It's Timothy Rabas, who accepted a position as assistant strength and conditioning coach at N.C. State in March after six years at Oregon State. He takes me for a look at the stadium, which reminds both of us of Reser Stadium in Corvallis - just a little bigger, a little more big-time.

'I miss Oregon State,' Rabas tells me as I leave. 'I miss the coaches. Miss the kids. But we have great coaches and great kids here, too.'

I drive to the other side of the complex, where I approach PNC Arena, which seats 19,700 for N.C. State basketball and is also home of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. It opened in 1999 and has a classy, big-league look. Must be a great place for the Wolfpack to play basketball, but I'm shut out trying to get inside. Everything is locked up, and the guard at the 'VIP entrance' tells me I need a reservation that I don't seem to have.

So I drive down toward campus about two miles away on Hillsborough Street, which Rabas tells me is like Monroe Street in Corvallis. Before I reach campus, I spot the J.S. Dorton Arena, home of the Carolina Rollergirls (roller derby) and a place where the Carolina Cougars of the old American Basketball Association once played some games. It's a mini-Saddledome which, when it opened in 1952, must have looked space age to the people of Raleigh. I fall in love immediately and am disappointed to learn that the Rollergirls aren't playing tonight.

I circle N.C. State's campus, which seems much more expansive than that of Duke or North Carolina. It's the largest university in the state, with 21,200 undergrads, 9,600 postgrads and three sub-campuses. There is a tremendous amount of construction going on, including at the student center and several of the dorms, so some of the roads are blocked off. Again, though, I notice loads of red brick buildings and plenty of trees and greenery, as is the case at the other two schools.

4:45 p.m.: I'm back on Highway 40, heading toward Highway 85 and Charlotte. Traffic is light for rush hour, and I'm feeling fortunate - for the smooth flow, yes, but also to have experienced a great portion of college basketball history in another part of the country. Hail Tobacco Road, even if the cigars along the way aren't such a deal after all.