Certainly we could have used such telekinetic intervention. The game was being played at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, a hellish hive of vituperation posing as wit. I was alternately envious of Duke's Nuremberg-rally-style mass cheers and appalled at the snooty self-satisfaction that was interpreted by nincompoops like Dick Vitale as evidence of high SATs and a predictor of future success. The Carolina players were introduced.
"At center, at seven feet, from Greensboro, North Carolina, Brendan Haywood," the announcer announced.
"Hi, Brendan, you suck!" the Duke students chanted en masse.
The Tar Heels' superb if volatile shooting guard Joe Forte was introduced. The students greeted him in unison. "Hi, Joe, you suck!"
And so it went on down the starting five. The only thing was, Joe didn't suck that night. He didn't come close to sucking. If Joe sucked, then sucking should be required. Sucking should be part of the curriculum. Sucking should be a station at basketball camp. Because Joe was sucking as in sucking up every rebound in sight, driving and shooting and rebounding as if he were at home, as if the game were being held in the gym at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., where Joe had honed his throwback skills of mid-range shooting—16-foot jumpers falling into the net like groceries plopped into a bag by a pimply teenage checkout boy. He wasn't a great leaper. His game had a 1950s Midwestern element to it, a fundamental Tightness.
Normally the Duke players displayed good fundamentals themselves. Too often, actually, they reminded me of past Carolina teams—getting fouled more than their opponent and going to the free throw line, where they nailed shot after shot, making more than the opposition even attempted. Nerves of Teflon. But tonight, to my astonishment (could it have been my father messing around in his alternate dimension? Did they have ESPN mere?), the Duke players were shanking free throws. Shanking them, clanging them, spinning them off the rim like a rec-league team of eight-year-olds. Only Jason Williams (who is now called Jay and is better known for having suffered a terrible motorcycle accident that may end his professional career) was keeping Duke in the game, hitting outside shots and driving layups.
At halftime the score was 41-34 in favor of Carolina. At first I had only wanted the Tar Heels to make it a good game (yeah, right), keep it close, play hard, not embarrass themselves, given that they had lost five straight in the rivalry. Then I wanted them to make it a very, very good game. But screw that: Now I wanted what I always wanted and had been too fearful, too worried about asking of the basketball gods—and that was total, unconditional, World War II—style victory. A loss would be devastating after having played so well, after having gone into Cameron and executed with such control and precision. Even the relatively lead-footed Jason Capel, Carolina's 6'8" forward, had landed a shrieking, gravity-defying dunk on the befuddled heads of the Blue Devils. For a moment I wondered which player had soared like that. Capel? I respected his ardor in going after rebounds, but I was more used to seeing him pump-fake three times in a row and then get the ball blocked off the top of his modestly Afroed head. I imagined that he had to take a pick at halftimes and fluff the ball-imprint out of his hair.
But tonight he seemed transported to another quantum level. This was good to see. His older brother, Jeff, had gone to Duke and during a shooting slump had been booed by his own fans—one of the more shameful moments in Cameron's eternally shameful (from a Tar Heels fan's point of view, of course) history. In an unfortunate symmetry Jason, too, had raised the ire of his own fans. He seemed too desirous of being a star rather than an accomplished role player, which suited him best. He had gotten angry when reporters suggested that he was a supporting cast member for Joe Forte's Broadway extravaganzas. "I'm not a role player," he had told them.
It was embarrassing to see a player misjudge his altogether competent game, though I could understand that the confusion most likely stemmed from his competitive instinct, the same quality that had made him the thoroughly above-average college player that he was. And yet here he was tonight, at loose in the stadium where the Cameron Crazies had booed his brother, giving them a star's rejoinder. Three-pointers, dunks, fist-shaking, screaming. Capel liked to scream. Unfortunately, he would scream and pound his chest and make these weird horns over his head with his arms even when Carolina was losing by double digits. Fortunately, that wasn't the case tonight.
So why, as the second half unfolded, was I feeling dread? The first answer is simple. I always feel dread when Carolina is playing Duke. Normally, the Blue Devils are a good team, and for the last few years, they've too often been a great team. So there is always the possibility of losing and the psychic turmoil that roils my world in the wake of that. But even if Duke has a bad team—as they did in 1995 when the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils played one of the greatest games in the series—the dread is there because there is nothing worse than losing to an inferior Duke team. So there is no way I can win. Except by Carolina winning. And not just winning occasionally, but by winning every game.