Just in case there are any sports fans who aren’t yet sick of Duke and North Carolina, ESPN has come up with a foolproof plan to tick them off. It’s called “ESPNU Full Circle,”and it debuts on Saturday when Carolina makes its annual visit to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. All day long, every piece of the ESPN empire will devote itself to the Duke-UNC matchup, with special pre-game shows, documentaries, and even a video-game simulation on ESPN’s Web site. Once the game actually starts, ESPN will carry the normal game feed, ESPN2 will show the action from “Above the Rim” cameras, and ESPNU will devote half of the screen to the on-court action and half to the “Cameron Crazies” in the Duke student section. The only conceivable feature they didn’t think of was a broadcast with no audio feed, so fans could be spared from Dick Vitale.
If this doesn’t strike you as overkill, you’re either insane, live on Tobacco Road, or both. While Duke’s standing as college basketball’s most hated team brings national interest to every game they play, it’s still true that all rivalries are local. No matter how much I prattle on about how the hype generated by the Duke-UNC matchup doesn’t do the rivalry justice—full disclosure, I’m a big-time North Carolina fan—I won’t be able to convince people from Tuscaloosa that it’s more special than Auburn-Alabama. I can trot out all the usual arguments: Duke and UNC are only eight miles apart, and they’re the two most dominant college basketball programs of the past 25 years, with six national championships and 19 Final Fours between them. But no matter what I say, I’m never able to explain just how monumental these games are to Carolina and Duke fans.
I had given up hope of ever doing so until I read Will Blythe’s To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry—a copy of which will soon be in the mail to everyone I’ve failed to convince. Blythe—a Chapel Hill native and a Carolina grad and fan—declares in the book’s opening chapter that Duke versus North Carolina “is Ali versus Frazier, the Giants versus the Dodgers, the Red Sox versus the Yankees. Hell, it’s bigger than that. This is the Democrats versus the Republicans, the Yankees versus the Confederates, Capitalism versus Communism. All right, O.K., the Life Force versus the Death Instinct, Eros versus Thanatos.” And then he spends 350 pages backing it up.
Basketball has always held a prominent place in North Carolina culture. The end of tobacco-farming season coincided with the beginning of basketball season—after working their tails off outside in the summer and the fall, North Carolinians spent the winters indoors and relaxed by watching basketball. Even as North Carolina moved away from a tobacco-based economy, becoming less rural and more suburbanized, basketball remained a singular obsession. As Blythe writes, today it’s the utter blandness and politeness (not to mention the Presbyterianism) of the North Carolina suburbs that makes basketball so important in the state. “Between megachurch and maneuvering decently at the office, how’s a fellow or a gal supposed to cut loose? … [T]hat’s where basketball comes in. In a state otherwise deprived of outlets for the vehement passions … there is ACC basketball.”
With the state’s basketball obsession a given, the Duke-Carolina rivalry gets ratcheted up to lunatic levels thanks to the schools’ opposing characters. Duke, the small private institution, represents the “university as launching pad, propelling its mostly out-of-state students into a stratosphere of success.” North Carolina, the big public school, is the “university as old home place, equally devoted to the values of community and local service.” The rivalry, Blythe later writes, is about “American communalism versus American ambition.”
It sounds crazy, but there are people who actually believe this stuff. There are the Duke partisans who view their clan as an embattled elite surrounded by angry, resentful heathens. “Carolina people think because Duke’s a private institution that Duke people think they’re better than everyone,” says one Dukie. “I never really felt like that, but Duke sort of put that feeling in me. So they’re right. I am better than them.” There are the Carolina fans who believe that in cheering for the Heels, they’re basically cheering for the common good, like the Duke law professor who hates Duke basketball and claims that his wife can instantly spot students who went there as undergrads: “Almost without fail, they’ll talk about money.” Or the Carolina grad who once had to interview a Dukie for a job: “Honest to God, the first thing that ran through my head was that here are 30 minutes of my life that I’m never going to get back because there was absolutely no chance I was going to hire a Duke kid.” Or Blythe’s sainted mother, who becomes a nasty cuss whenever the camera shows Coach K: “How can anyone stand to look at him?”
And then there is me. I’m not from North Carolina. I didn’t even go to school there. But my wife grew up in Chapel Hill as the daughter of UNC professors. When I moved down there while she attended UNC medical school, I soaked up all this insanity—so much so that love of Carolina and hatred of Duke are now major parts of my identity. Yes, it probably helped that I was already a basketball fan, and that I had long rooted against Duke, but even if I had moved to North Carolina a total basketball innocent, I doubt I could have resisted the rivalry’s allure. Just as if I’d moved to Alabama (perish the thought), I probably would have gotten caught up in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.
While it’s true that all rivalries tend to be local, they all have similar themes: populist versus elitist; liberal versus conservative; virtue versus vice.If there’s a war raging all around you—permeating your every encounter, from conversations over dinner to idle chatter on the supermarket checkout line—you have to choose sides. And I like to think that even if my wife hadn’t hailed from a Carolina family, I would have sided with UNC, predisposed as I am to the forces of good.
And that’s what tomorrow night will be for me and countless other people: an epic clash between the forces of good and evil.Which is why, forpeople like us, the Duke-Carolina hype isn’t a turnoff, it’s just a recapitulation of what we already know. Nothing matters more than this game, and if the hype-masters at ESPN want to devote three broadcasts to it, more power to them. I bet at some point I’ll even switch over to ESPNU to check out the Cameron Crazy cam. After all, I need to get a good look at those pimply faces and beady eyes—if any of those Dukies ever show up in my office sans body paint, looking for a job, I want to be able to spot them for the loathsome creatures they are.