What's it like for UNC, Duke fans this week? A peek inside The Game we thought we'd never get
In case anybody has been living in a cave, it’s Duke/Carolina week. And even outside of ACC country, that one registers on the radar for anyone who cares about college basketball.
But if you grew up many miles from Tobacco Road, you might need a couple of guides to navigate the rivalry. I grew up in eastern Kentucky, where everybody was a fan of Kentucky or otherwise unaffiliated. I graduated from law school at the University of Louisville, and co-authored “Fighting Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville” on that particular hoops rivalry. Fortunately, I found a Tar Heel and a Blue Devil who were not only agreeable to talking, they were actually friends … friends who had genuine insight into the history of the rivalry with an insane new chapter coming on Saturday, when they meet in the Final Four.
Joe Cox: Can you two introduce yourselves and give me your Duke/Carolina connections?
Beau Dure: I graduated from Duke in 1991 and was managing editor of The Chronicle the year Coach K won his first championship. More recently, I edited a book on K’s career that The Chronicle’s board produced. In between, I married a UNC grad and have two wonderful children who will attend neither school. Also along the way, Neil and I were in each other’s weddings.
Joe: How does the inter-rivalry marriage work?
Beau: We both hate Maryland. The kids couldn’t care less. But this is a rivalry of mutual respect. I don’t think it would work otherwise.
Neil Amato: A middle-aged UNC grad, I wrote for The Daily Tar Heel and multiple papers in North Carolina (including the Wilmington Star-News, where Beau and I were colleagues, along with Saturday Road editor, Chris Wright). I’m out of full-time sports journalism, and the last time I covered a game between the two was probably 2008 – I actually cannot recall anymore. I’m a diehard follower of no team, really, not even my favorite hockey team (Beau and I root for NHL teams that don’t really like each other). I realized it’s not worth the stress.
Joe: Neil, how has the rivalry impacted your friend/family circles?
Neil: I have Duke friends, several I’d say I’m very close to, but there are times we go silent about hoops. And I would NEVER watch a Duke-UNC game with them. I know they’re not itching to watch one with me, either. I also don’t watch sports much anymore, but I will admit to getting pulled into hoops again the night of UNC’s visit to Cameron Indoor for Coach K’s last home game.
Beau: I can’t remember the last time I watched a game with other people. I don’t watch a ton these days myself. Just enough to be familiar.
Neil: This will be Armageddon to some, but not really for me, and I’m guessing not for Beau.
Beau: I just have to mute people on Facebook — oddly enough, most of them NOT Carolina grads.
Joe: So Neil brought up the craziness surrounding Duke’s senior day game. Does that add anything extra to the rivalry?
Neil: Regarding the current “controversy,” I would say it’s forgotten by the players. I’m sure every fan there will watch to see who shakes whose hand, but it’s more of a social media thing than anything that really matters.
Joe: Has that been true of other controversies within this rivalry over the years?
Neil: The players, at least in the ’90s and early 2000s when I covered the teams, used to go to the same barbershop and get their hair cut.
Beau: Including the Capel brothers, who went to opposing schools.
Neil: Duke and Carolina players weren’t best of friends, but they talked to each other, could be in the same room with each other, but of course some of the talk was smack about the next game.
Beau: These days, I think there’s more of a mercenary feel to it. Do one-and-dones have the same sense of the rivalry as a Christian Laettner or King Rice did?
Neil: Still, the rivalry has had heated moments, ones fans remember perhaps more than the players (the Hansbrough blood thing, for instance, and there are others Beau can probably come up with).
Beau: And yet Hansbrough is podcasting with Gerald Henderson now, I think.
Joe: I’d imagine the rivalry’s narrative changed in 1991, when Coach K won his first title at Duke?
Beau: The narrative definitely changed. When I started working in Wilmington, the UNC people (not yet including Neil, and he didn’t feel the same way) regarded 1991 as an aberration, and K was still an interloper who’d never reach the heights that Dean Smith reached.
Neil: There are plenty of people on both sides who probably want the other program to never go back to the Final Four. But the rivalry is great, and both programs are great, because of the other’s excellence. To those who wish nothing but failure on their rival, be careful what you wish for. There’s a keeping up with the Joneses aspect to this rivalry that I’ve always loved. Duke wins two titles in 1991-92, and UNC comes back and wins in 93. Duke gets to the title game in 94, UNC goes to the Final Four in 95. There are plenty of other examples. (He’s right: UNC won in 2009, Duke won in 2010. Duke won in 2015, UNC got to the final in 2016 and won in 2017.)
Beau: I can guarantee very few Dukies were rooting for UNC in 1993. But I don’t think anyone wants the other school to be down for multiple years.
Neil: Yeah, I don’t mean they should root for that team to win it all, but don’t wish 8-20 on them every year, either, or you’ll get soft and suddenly not be as good.
Beau: I grew up in Athens, Georgia. My dad was on the Georgia faculty for 40-plus years. Our big rival was Georgia Tech. That’s faded into obscurity now that Georgia is a perennial football contender and Tech isn’t. And Georgia doesn’t have much of a basketball team.
Joe: What are your most memorable games in the rivalry?
Neil: The most memorable game to me has to be the 1995 double OT game in Cameron. The whole notion that the game is never over, the rivalry is never over, was proven to be true that night. Duke was in the middle of a losing season, but it took a Final Four team’s best punch, falling behind 26-9, and actually had a lead of several possessions (8, maybe 10 points) in the second half. Then of course came the Capel 40-footer to force the second overtime.
Beau: I can tell you the best pre-K games. I believe it was 1974 when UNC scored the last 8 points against a woeful Duke team coached by one-and-done coach Neill McGeachy. Then I think it was 1979 that Dean ran the Four Corners to absurd lengths. If I recall correctly, the halftime score was 7-0 Duke.
Neil: That 7-0 score is correct.
Beau: I think the best one from a Duke perspective was 1998 in Cameron. Duke had been building back from the 1995 disaster. UNC had a huge lead [17 points, at 64-47 with 12 minutes to play]. But Wojo, the diminutive senior point guard, rallied the defense and the fans, then raced into K’s arms when the comeback was complete.
Joe: What about the ugly side of the rivalry? When I was working on Fighting Words, one of the big stories was two old men who got into a fight over Kentucky/Louisville at a dialysis clinic in the week leading up to the 2012 Final Four matchup.
Beau: I can’t think of a single incident that stands out. I remember some truly ugly incidents in other rivalries — Steve Kerr being taunted about the death of his father — but this one? I think fans are sometimes a little out of control, but that’s about it. Duke and UNC have really good hospitals. I don’t see anyone fighting while getting dialysis.
Joe: There’s got to be some heat there, from the students anyway?
Neil: The UNC fight song officially says, “Go to hell, State.” But just about everyone now replaces “State” with “Duke” when chanting that part.
Beau: The Duke fight song officially says “Carolina some other day” or something like that. That’s not what we sing.
Joe: And the newspapers? There’s always great stuff there, like the Duke paper rebranding itself The Daily Tar Hole and having a massive white space as a tribute to UNC center Eric Montross?
Beau: I believe I was the editor on that Daily Tar Hole edition.
Joe: One of the fun things in chronicling the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry was the friendship that developed between Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum. Can you imagine a world where we have the Coach K and Roy show in the not distant future?
Neil: I could see those two being cordial.
Beau: I think we could indeed see a K/Roy show. We approached Roy to write for our book before he announced his retirement. When he announced, we figured it would be less likely to get him. Not at all. He graciously did it
Joe: But maybe not sharing popcorn at a game like Joe B and Denny?
Neil: I think Roy and K respect each other. They go about things different ways, but they still are both competitive.
Beau: There’s a difference between the heat of the moment and the underlying respect. Coach K was great friends with Jim Valvano and certainly admired Dean Smith, maybe more so in later years That said, I think Coach K and Roy together would be more bland than, say, a podcast with JJ Redick and — I don’t know, Hansbrough?
Joe: One thing that won’t be bland will be this game on Saturday. Who do each of you predict to win and why?
Beau: UNC, 90-82. I think they’re in Duke’s head now. And one-and-dones start getting distracted by draft talk. UNC has 4-year players who contribute. Duke really doesn’t.
Neil: Tough one, but I will say that Duke wins 77-72. Beau backs up his prediction better than I do. But I will say that we as observers/fans look at this far differently than elite athletes and coaches do. They want the competition, whereas some fans might be scared of what it would mean to lose to their rival on such a big stage. I think Duke has the edge because UNC can’t keep shooting the way it has (or is less likely to), AND all the easy baskets the Tar Heels got at Cameron will be cut down by those coaching adjustments K is known for.
Beau: I think UNC’s big men aren’t scared of Mark Williams the way other players are.
Joe: And you both think the winner is at a serious disadvantage Monday night, against the winner of Kansas and Villanova?
Beau: Oh yeah. The winner of this game loses Monday.
Neil: I think the other winner doesn’t have to overcome the emotional drainage that is a Carolina-Duke game.
Joe: And the overall health of the rivalry will be OK either way? We still going to have Duke guys and UNC guys in each others’ weddings?
Beau: But Maryland fans won’t be allowed.