The Chronicle

Hensons make Tobacco Road rivalry personal

As Duke and North Carolina prepare to tip off Monday night in the first of this year’s four basketball games between the two schools in men’s and women’s basketball, one family finds itself right in the middle of the contention. Matt Henson is an avid college basketball fan, having grown up a North Carolina supporter before playing for Norfolk State University. The television in his home was frequently tuned in to Tar Heel basketball as his two oldest children grew up. The first child of Matt and Annette Henson only encouraged the family to continue bleeding the Tar Heel shade of blue when he matriculated to North Carolina, but his younger sister Amber has forced them to accommodate a darker hue as well.

Older brother John is a North Carolina junior and the reigning ACC defensive player of the year, and Amber is a Duke freshman who is sidelined for the season after undergoing knee surgery. Following in their father’s footsteps as kids, John and Amber did not have a difficult time figuring out which team to root for.

“We always pulled for UNC,” Matt said. “It was kind of a one-sided affair.”

Amber and John watched superstars like Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter in the late-1990s.

“My whole family has really been Carolina fans,” Amber said, “so... that’s the team we rooted for, and Duke was just the enemy.”

From very early on, John already was dreaming of someday wearing the powder blue uniform.

Nevertheless, as John developed into one of the top five recruits of the 2009 class according to Scout.com, North Carolina was not on his immediate radar.

“They weren’t necessarily on my list at first, but I would say [head] coach [Roy] Williams came in and swept me off my feet and it’s the best decision I think I’ve ever made,” John said.

For Amber, it was an entirely different story.

Although she, like the rest of her family, considered herself a devotee to the Tar Heel men’s basketball squad, her allegiance in women’s college basketball was not as clear-cut.

“I remember when I was in eighth grade, Duke came to play Texas when I was living there, and I remember watching Monique Curry play and Ali Bales play,” Amber said. “And I was like, wow, I really like Duke women’s basketball.”

Despite her interest in the Blue Devil women’s basketball program, her family ties made North Carolina an extremely enticing option. As the Henson siblings both became sought-after recruits, Amber often made school visits at the same time as her brother.

“Really, Carolina was the frontrunner… because I’d visit there all the time because John was going there,” Amber said.

Duke stepped in to recruit Amber a little later in the process, though, and once Amber started to explore her option down the road from Chapel Hill, she came to realize how good a fit the Blue Devils could be for her.

“I tell people all the time that I kind of just assumed I was going to Carolina, but when Duke started recruiting me, I came to visit and I met everybody and just felt right,” Amber said.

Amber now had to choose between rivals, while also weighing in basketball, academics and family. The two siblings talked often about going to school together, but John made sure that Amber made her decision based on where she felt she would fit best, reminding her that she would still be in school for two years after he graduated.

On top of that, Matt emphasized to his daughter that it was her choice, telling her to look past the rivalry and the basketball and pick the school she liked best.

“I said, ‘Think about if he’s not in that school. Think about if he’s not around. Pick the school that you’re going to feel most comfortable with from an academic perspective, and think about what if you weren’t playing basketball, what school would you want to go to?” Matt said. “I wanted it to be her decision and not somebody else’s.”

Since making her decision and signing with Duke, she has ventured over to Chapel Hill to watch a number of John’s games. And she has yet to renounce her loyalty to North Carolina, especially with her brother playing there.

“Even when they play Duke, I will find it hard to wholeheartedly go for Duke,” Amber said.

John, too, makes an effort to watch his sister play as often as possible, with assistance from the Duke staff to ensure that things do not get out of hand with a North Carolina player spectating in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“He tries to kind of walk in incognito,” Amber said. “He’ll either have a hood on and try to sneak in quietly because people recognize him wherever he goes…. It’s a little different for him coming here than it is for me going there.”

Having spent three years in Chapel Hill and a lifetime cheering on the Tar Heels, John takes a different approach from Amber on how he cheers for his sibling in the rivalry game.

When 23rd-ranked North Carolina (17-5, 7-2 in the ACC) takes on No. 5 Duke (18-3, 9-0) tonight at 7 p.m., John will be firmly supporting the Tar Heels.

“Whenever I ask him, he’s like, ‘I hope you do well, but I want my school to win,’ Amber said.

“The fact that she’s not playing right now makes it a little easier,” John said.

As for Matt Henson, the task of supporting both Duke and North Carolina has become a black-and-white issue—Blue Devils in women’s basketball and Tar Heels in everything else.

“I have worn to some Duke women’s games a Duke shirt, but I wouldn’t wear it to a Duke men’s game and I wouldn’t wear it anywhere other than the game,” Matt said. “I’m not going to be seen out in public, walking the streets with it.... If you see me in any [Duke] apparel it has to have ‘Amber’ on it. I wouldn’t want anyone getting confused.”