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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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The second reason I was feeling the sneaker squeak of doom was that Duke was too good a team this season not to make a comeback. And come back it did. With 1:28 left in the game, Carolina was leading by a mere five points, 76-71. The lionized Battier fouled Tar Heels point guard Ronald Curry near half-court, and Curry went down hard, holding his left thigh. I hate to see players injured, especially North Carolina players, but if anyone was going to be injured before having to shoot two free throws, I was glad that it was Ronald Curry, whose charity-stripe percentage stood at a resoundingly awful 41%. Now whether Curry was really injured—can a thigh bruise stop you from shooting free throws?—I'll leave to the Duke conspiracy theorists. Clearly, Krzyzewski thought that Curry's injury was about as credible as the Warren Report. He leaped off the bench and yelled at the officials, though to no avail. Carolina coach Doherty substituted Max Owens (who just happened to be an 80% shooter from the line) for Curry. Owens sank the free throws, and Carolina now enjoyed a seven-point lead.

It wouldn't last. Down by three with perhaps five seconds left, Duke's Mike Dunleavy, a gangly Ich-abod Crane of a player, took an awkward, fading three-pointer. I had been screaming "No threes! No threes!" for all the Upper West Side of Manhattan—not to mention the entire universe (was my father listening?)—to hear. The shot arched into the air with dispassion. So calmly did the ball float through the air. So lovely was its migration. As an aesthetic phenomenon, it really couldn't have been topped, parabolas always possessing such spellbinding curvature. And damned if the shot didn't fall cleanly through the hoop and stab me in the heart like the sneakiest, cheatin' girlfriend. God Damn, I Knew This Was Going to Happen!

The crowd exploded. How I wish it really had exploded—you know, blue-painted body parts shooting through the air, cheerleaders spiraling above the city of Durham, all those obnoxious students and that out-of-state arrogance disappearing in one bright blast. No more references by Dook, er, Dick Vitale about the future doctors and lawyers acting like animals before they headed off to Harvard Medical School and Wall Street, the blue paint still slathered on their bodies as if they were lost tribes of the Amazon. Forgive me, I know this is wrong. But, still....

With 3-9 seconds left, Doherty called timeout and gathered his players around him. They seemed remarkably relaxed. That may have been because earlier, in an effort to keep his players loose, Doherty had told them, " Duke has the ugliest cheerleaders in the ACC." Later, this comment leaked out to the press, and Doherty was forced to apologize. I don't recall the exact words of his regret, but the remark certainly worked for his players, who, mysteriously to the observant fan, seemed to be laughing in the huddle.

Carolina had designed a play for—who else?—Forte, who by this point had collected 24 points and 16 rebounds, an astounding figure for a guard. The inbounds pass was supposed to go to Forte, who would be running down the sideline like a wide receiver on a fly pattern. Forte was supposed to catch it and get the best shot he could. A reasonable if haphazard plan, given that Duke could be expected to key its defense on Forte, which was exactly what it did. Thus, when the harassed Forte got the ball, he had no choice but to fling it downcourt to, of all players, Brendan Haywood.

At the same moment that the ball reached Haywood, so did Battier, dubbed "the Golden Boy" by the wry Lang, who, in contrast to Battier, possessed a lot of brass but not much touch. Whistle. Foul. Amazingly called on the Golden Boy himself by referee Mike Wood. Duke fans must have felt that Wood had some nerve. Twenty-two feet from the goal, 1.2 seconds left in the game. "Just say I was a defensive back and got called for pass interference," the ever-glib Battier would say later. "It was just basketball. I wasn't even making a play on Brendan. I saw the ball and went after it like I've done a thousand times. I was trying to bat the ball away to get to overtime. I wasn't trying for a steal. I collided with Brendan, and I guess I lost, because he got the call."

Haywood was an extremely good shooter when he was within about two feet of the basket, which is to say he could dunk the ball very well, scream, hang on the rim and not much else. At the free throw line he was an ironworker, averaging only 48%. When he was a freshman, he missed a pair of free throws late and Duke snaked past the Tar Heels by two points. "I was definitely remembering those free throws," Haywood confessed. "That was the first thing that was running through my mind."

Agony. Agony. Agony.

Haywood stepped to the line and fired. Swish. He calmly sighted one more time and shot. Swish. "I just had to focus and go ahead and follow through and think of my mechanics," he said to reporters later. "Luckily, they went in for me. There's a lot to be said about luck." His gratitude to luck—the unseen forces at work in the universe—struck me as just and gratifying and the sort of sentiment rarely expressed by athletes, who, like Republicans, tend to see success not as the provisional result of hard work but as the confirmation of their rightful place in the world. "I didn't want to see myself on TV as part of an instant classic," Haywood added.

Duke had one last chance. Chris Duhon hoisted a shot from near mid-court, and as time expired, the ball bounded off the back rim. Too close for comfort, but off just enough for jubilation. North Carolina triumphed 85-83. I'm not the type of guy to point up to the sky at a dead relative the way many athletes do these days. But I wondered. Or, anyway, I wanted to wonder.

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