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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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I am a sick, sick man. I may need your prayers. I know that the University of North Carolina's basketball team, the object of my obsession, needs them. Here is the depth of my sickness. It is a few years back on a beautiful afternoon during basketball season. The cable is out. (Note to self: Kill Time Warner.) I am alone in my apartment in New York City, frantically hitting the refresh button on my computer screen, getting the updates of Carolina's shockingly bad performance against its archrival, Duke. So far, the Heels have shot 18 three-pointers and hit exactly five.

There is no end to my gloom. My father is in his grave, my marriage is kaput, my girlfriend is said to be in Miami (though what she is doing there I can't say since we're not speaking), I have no income, and yet the thing that is driving me over the edge is a basketball game that I can't even see. North Carolina, my beloved North Carolina, is being brutalized by Duke, being outplayed by opponents who are too kind, too mannerly even to gloat. At least when your rival gloats, you know victory over you means something. Again and again, I hit the refresh button and am transported anew onto a message board resounding with rending cries and moans from fellow Carolina obsessives, posting their dismay miss by brutal miss. It's like tuning in to the distracted mutterings of old men alone on park benches, all over America. There are so many of us. And I am one of them.

Grown men, presumably a lot like me, are spending their Sunday afternoon on an Internet message board, writing things like "I wanna hurl." BlueBlood cries, "My sixth-grade students are gonna rip me a new one."

While I myself never post, content to lurk, I've come to know the personalities of some of the posters. The clever but doomsaying JeffBrown opened one season by writing an amusing, if despairing, list with the title "We Just Have a Few Minor Problems." A guy calling himself The Critic, who gets on my nerves with his constant pessimism, says, "Good night, folks."

I won't eat. I can't eat. Or maybe I should eat, since there is the possibility, faint perhaps, that through a small, apparently unconnected action, like ordering sushi from the Malaysian place down the street, I will change the karmic pattern at work in this game. It's chaos theory and not to be sniffed at. What's that classic example—a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and two weeks later a major hurricane devastates the Bengal peninsula? Or, to put it in my terms, perhaps a tuna roll inside out will allow Jason Capel to actually hit a three-point shot. Maybe a bowl of chirashi will cause Brian Morrison to stop booting the ball out-of-bounds. And a nip of sake may teach goddam Kris Lang (as he is known in my household) to hold on to the ball.

I order the sushi, and for a moment my plan seems to be working. A former teacher of mine, a great scholar of Southern literature, believes that he can control games by maintaining the same posture throughout the contest and by doing some kind of weird voodoo gesture with his fingers every time an opposing player shoots a free throw. I'd rather try eating, but nothing works. Carolina is shooting 29% from the field, and Lang has exactly one rebound. Like a cancer patient, I continue to make bargains with God (who I am not sure even exists). But He must not be watching this game. Another Tarheels three clangs off the rim. They lose by 26.

The message board erupts. Coolheel: "I could have shot 5 for 18 from 3 myself after having a six-pack, which was much needed to endure the flow of this stinker." UNCodeCorrect: "It's a huge s—sandwich and we're all going to have to take a bite."

Another fan writes, "I may have to sit out this year with a bad back"—a pointed reminder of the hated Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's condition during the 1994-95 season when the Blue Devils suffered a beautifully horrible time of it, finishing 13-18. Overburdened, Krzyzewski took a leave of absence from coaching during that season. Now, the normal human certainly would feel sympathy for a man in such pain. But I am a North Carolina fan and by definition, at least when it comes to Duke, not a normal man.

I came naturally by my prejudice in this matter from my father, William Brevard Blythe II. He was a lifelong North Carolinian who was born in Mecklenburg County in 1928. His childhood during the Great Depression was paradisiacal, or so he portrayed it to his children, whom he liked to tease for being "city kids." (Until we got older and learned to hit back, we would actually cry when he called us this.) He had a pony and a dog, he roamed through the woods and the fields without supervision, he and a couple of friends had the initiative to build their own tennis court when they decided they wanted to learn the game. Like his father before him and like me after him, he graduated from the University of North Carolina. He could not understand why you might want to live in some other place. He loved his home state (trees, birds, soil, fish, crops, counties, ladies, barbeque) in a way that few people seem to love their home states anymore, home being a quaint, antique concept in a nomadic and upwardly mobile America.

My father used to love to tell a joke about Duke, or more specifically, about the difference between the University of North Carolina, in our hometown of Chapel Hill, and Duke University, which was only about eight miles from our house but a universe away in our affections. In a sense it was a riddle about the difference between being and seeming, and it went to the heart of my father's values. He would even tell the joke to international visitors to our home, who had no idea what he was talking about, but usually chuckled valiantly at the punch line. I remember in particular one homesick, bespectacled Egyptian grad student whom we had signed up to host one semester and who sat at our table one Friday night eating country ham and biscuits, earnestly trying to understand our views on Duke and North Carolina. How well my father understood this poor man's homesickness, having once spent three months in Cairo helping set up dialysis units, listening every day to the muezzins' calls to prayer ringing from the minarets, which seemed to be summoning him not to Mecca but back to North Carolina.

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