Balancing atop the rafters at nearly 140 feet above the Dean Dome's center court in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 1998, four Duke students had one thing in mind-stealing Michael Jordan's jersey.

One student used belaying equipment, which he borrowed from members of Project WILD, to pull himself up to the scoreboard and open the door to the arena's rafters. Another student walked across the rafters with just the support of a climbing rope. Armed with a wrench, he unscrewed Jordan's jersey from its honorary loft.

"There were several close calls. The cops were looking for people out there, but they never had any sightings," said one of the students, who referred to himself as "The Sixth Man" in a 1998 letter to The Chronicle. "A security guard came in to show his girlfriend the Dean Dome while we were ducking behind seats."

The Blue Devil fans finally left the Dean E. Smith Center at 4 a.m. and hid the jersey in a gap between the rafters and the wall. They returned to the stadium the following night to pick up the jersey, which they then hid in a Central Campus apartment for almost three weeks.

"Everyone had assumed the jersey had disappeared at a Yanni concert that had happened that weekend," The Sixth Man said.

Planning the prank

The Sixth Man said in the letter to The Chronicle that he decided to steal the Jordan banner to avenge the theft of memorabilia taken from Duke's Hall of Fame Room the previous summer. He said he still believes the memorabilia-including Grant Hill's No. 33, Christian Laettner's No. 32 and Dick Groat's No. 10 jerseys-were taken by fans of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I was a little bit indignant because of the way it was done," he said. "That stuff rings of vandalism more than a prank."

The Sixth Man said his friends had discussed various pranks including wiring a prank video to play on the large TV screen in the Dean Dome but eventually decided to steal Jordan's jersey.

To plan the trick, the four Duke basketball fanatics visited the Dean Dome on several occasions, The Sixth Man said.

"We wound up getting into the Dean Dome about eight times," he said. "We never actually had to break in."

He explained that the main service entrance had a rolled-up gate with a small triangular space left open, which allowed the students to enter the building.

The Sixth Man said he now recognizes the extreme danger involved in the prank.

"We tried to assess all the risks to make sure no one was going to die or get hurt from this, but had that person fallen it probably would have been interesting," he said in reference to the student who climbed the rafters to secure the jersey. "He was the crazy dude of the bunch."

Jordan's jersey makes its K-ville debut

UNC embarrassed the No. 1 Blue Devils 97-73 during the first game in Chapel Hill that year. Before the second matchup at Duke, the banner representing Grant Hill's retired jersey went missing from the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Michael Sobb, assistant athletic director of marketing, said Duke was able to quickly hang a backup Hill banner, but UNC could not replace the Jordan jersey in their rafters.

The four Duke students proceeded to plan the next phases of their elaborate prank.

"We decided it would be fun to show the [Jordan] jersey when everyone was camping out in Krzyzewskiville," The Sixth Man said. "The same crazy guy we got to go out on the [Dean Dome rafters] ran it straight through K-ville wearing a stocking on his head."

Dukies tenting for the game that year said they remember the events leading up to the discovery of the jersey.

"We heard that someone was running around with it in K-ville during a tent check, but we never saw it," said Dr. Jeff Chaiprakob, Trinity '98.

Men's basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his annual speech to the tenters the night before the game.

"During his pregame speech, [men's basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski] said something to the effect of 'We will have a replacement [Hill banner] tomorrow because we are Duke, damn it,'" said Craig Parker, Trinity '99. "It was probably the best game I ever saw-Coach K's 500th win."

'Holy mackerel, this is Jordan's banner.'

The Cameron vending staff was in K-ville the morning of the UNC-Duke game at Cameron cooking barbecue and preparing other snacks for the tenters.

"We were out there feeding the students, and there was ice on the ground," said Maynard Childress, manager of vending operations for Duke Stores. "I was holding the rail because there was ice on the steps. My hand hit the rail and there was fishing line tied up to it. I pulled it down and it was Michael Jordan's jersey."

Before the game, the Sixth Man and his accomplices had hung the Jordan banner-covered in a black shroud-from Cameron's rafters, attaching a fishing line to the setup so they would be able to unveil the jersey from outside as hordes of fans poured in.

Sobb was with Childress when the Jordan jersey was discovered.

"We were sort of like 'Holy mackerel, this is Jordan's banner,'" Sobb said. "Someone had crossed out in duct tape the 'Jordan' name and [wrote] 'Hill.'"

He added that the prank would have required intricate planning.

"They obviously had something orchestrated and figured out because somehow they got on the roof of Cameron," he said. "It had to be more than one person. If you have ever been to the Dean Dome and looked up at those banners flapping at the top of the roof, you would have to shimmy out on something to get down. I still have no idea how they did it."

UNC students were enraged when they learned that the irreplaceable symbol of Jordan's retired jersey had disappeared from the Dean Dome, said Jonathan Murfee, UNC '99.

"When we found out it had been stolen by someone at Duke we went from being enraged to being livid," he said. "They didn't even have the guts to show themselves."

Murfee added that several UNC students carried out pranks against Duke in retaliation. He noted, however, that none of the acts matched the feat of stealing Jordan's jersey.

"It was unbelievable, It still fires me up to this day that that happened," he said. "My hats are off to them, the only way it could have gone off better is if the jersey had not been discovered."

The Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels 77-75 at home Feb. 28, 1998, leading the team to victory in the ACC regular-season championship.

Matthew Keshian contributed to this story.