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Will Blythe
March 08, 2004
If you're a lifer, like the author, in the maniacal rivalry between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils, this Saturday's game will be another life-altering occasion. There are only two ways it can end: in ecstasy or in unspeakable agony
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March 08, 2004

Blue Blood

If you're a lifer, like the author, in the maniacal rivalry between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils, this Saturday's game will be another life-altering occasion. There are only two ways it can end: in ecstasy or in unspeakable agony

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"How can you tell the difference between a Carolina man and a Duke man?" my father asked the Egyptian, who thought for a while and finally shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of defeat. This was not a fellow who had a spent much time pondering the fiery temper of Art Heyman or the buttery jump shot of Walter Davis. And then proudly answering himself, my father said, "A Duke man walks down the street like he owns the whole world. A Carolina man walks down the street like he doesn't give a damn."

The Egyptian student laughed conscientiously, looking from one member of my family to the other to see if he was doing the right thing. We nodded, yes, yes, you got it. "Oh, that is so funny," he said.

There are two kinds of Americans, it seems to me, with my father representing the first. Those for whom the word home summons up an actual place that is wood-smoke fragrant with memory and desire, a place that one has no choice but to proudly claim, even if it's a falling-down dogtrot shack, the place to which the compass always points, the place one visits in nightly dreams, the place to which one aims always to return, no matter how far off course the ship might drift.

And then there are those citizens for whom home is a more provisional notion—the house or apartment in which one sleeps at night, as if American life were an exhausting tour of duty, and home, no matter how splendid, equaled a mere rest stop on the Interstate of Personal Advancement. I am biased against this kind of nomadism, no matter how well-upholstered the vehicles. The loss of adhesion to a particular place seems ruinous, and those without the first kind of home wander through our nation like the flesh-eaters from Night of the Living Dead. Spiritually, they are akin to oil wildcatters and clear-cutters, never mind their pro forma eco-sympathies.

A great many of these flesh-eaters pass through the pseudo-Gothic arches of Duke University, pass through being the relevant phrase. Duke is the university as launchpad, propelling its mostly out-of-state students into a stratosphere of success. While hardly opposed to individual achievement, North Carolina, by contrast, is the university as old home place, equally devoted to the values of community and local service. That, at least, is the mythology many of us swallowed as we grew up. So that when one roots for one team or another in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, one is cheering as much for opposing concepts of American virtue as for adolescent geniuses of basketball.

The Basketball Rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is doubtless the greatest rivalry in college athletics, perhaps in all of sports. This is a rivalry of such intensity, of such hatred, that otherwise reasonable adults attach to it all manner of political-philosophical baggage, some of which might even be true. I know because I'm one of them. Last winter presidential candidate John Edwards, the senator from North Carolina, could not resist jumping into the fray when he told a reporter for The Oregonian that he "hates Duke basketball." Yes, cautious John Edwards, a man determined to wage a coast-to-coast campaign in which he alienates not a single voter. But there he was out in Oregon, watching television in the company of a reporter, and there was the Duke basketball team, trashing another overmatched opponent on national TV, and Candidate Edwards, a North Carolina law school graduate, could not contain himself, could not choke back his distaste. A grown man who had otherwise put away childish things, he still had to say it, how he "hates Duke basketball." Of course, he has his counterparts who feel similarly about North Carolina basketball. Why should this be so?

The answers have a lot to do with class and culture in the South, particularly in my native state, where both universities are located. Issues of identity—whether you see yourself as a populist or an elitist, as a local or an outsider, as public-minded or individually striving—get played out through allegiances to Duke's and North Carolina's basketball teams. And just as war, in Karl von Clausewitz's classic formulation, is a continuation of politics by other means, so basketball, in this case, is an act of war disguised as sport. The living and dying through one's allegiance to either Duke or Carolina is no less real for being enacted through play and fandom. One's psychic well-being hangs in the balance.

Of course warfare is rarely quite this much fun. In most wars you don't get to paint your faces all shades of blue and festoon them with pictures of little devils or little heels. You don't get to rip off your shirts on national television to reveal the name of your university slathered drunkenly on your chests. You don't get to shout en masse, "Go to hell, Carolina," or "Go to hell, Duke." You don't get to scream and throw objects at your television set and curse the day Kris Lang thought he had mastered the jump hook. And you don't get to witness the marvelous basketball played by two great teams that occasions this partisan mania.

What is behind the hatred, the collective ferocity? The solution to that mystery begins not with basketball itself, but with the universities in both fact and perception. Proximity clearly breeds contempt. The schools stand a mere eight miles away from each other off 15-501, the heavily traveled thoroughfare between Chapel Hill and Durham. Put two different notions of the universe in the same atom, as it were, and there's bound to be disturbances at the molecular level. In quantum terms, it's matter meets antimatter. In basketball terms, it's Duke vs. North Carolina. As Krzyzewski once said, "Forget the Big Ten.... We share the same dry cleaners.... There is no other rivalry like this. It produces things, situations, feelings that you can't talk to other people about. Because they have no understanding of it." So while the two schools are geographically close, they're a world apart in just about every other way.

North Carolina is a public university, the oldest one in the country, chartered in 1789 and opened in 1795, when one presumably weary student by the name of Hinton James walked into town from New Hanover County on the coast in search of schooling. Duke is a private university, endowed in 1924 by the tobacco magnate James B. Duke, who gave his money in exchange for having a college previously known as Trinity named after him. He directed the school to erect Gothic-style buildings amid the pine forests and old tobacco fields, structures befitting a medieval university where scholars would go punting on willow-shaded rivers, not on a football field. By contrast, the North Carolina campus evolved in a more higgledy-piggledy fashion and features a heterodox assortment of architectural styles, ranging from a simple brick dormitory from the 18th century to hideous concrete block fortresses from the '70s. Throughout the years, an aesthetic of modesty has seemed to prevail. (In that regard, the state of North Carolina for the last couple of centuries has been paradoxically proud to consider itself "a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit," those peaks being Virginia and South Carolina.) North Carolina draws a large share of its 15,961 students from within the state. Duke attracts most of its 6,347 students from out of state, many of whom are accused by Carolina fans of being Ivy League wannabes who have fallen back on what their brethren call "the Harvard of the South."

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