I was in the Dean Dome the last time Duke won there—the last time Duke beat North Carolina anywhere, actually—and even though the win is only two years old, it seems a long time ago.
On that chilly night in Chapel Hill, a presidential candidate named John Edwards, clad in his blue jeans, plopped down in an aisle seat midway up the section behind North Carolina’s bench. Every hair rested in place. People hovered around him, hoping to talk to the best hope of a Tar Heel in the White House. He smiled liberally, and he waved a lot. The star of the Blue Devils’ win was a point guard who now plays football. The Tar Heels’ stud was an All-American center who now moonlights as an AT&T pitchman. Mike Krzyzewski was still six months from a trip to Beijing, and Roy Williams was about a year away from snipping down nets in Detroit. And hey, the Tar Heels were even ranked back then.
So: It’s been a long time. We’re older, some of us are wiser and presumably the players on both teams are better at basketball. Things are different, for sure.
But how much remains the same? When Duke is a top-10 team but not a dominant one and North Carolina is absent even from the Also Receiving Votes section of the Top 25 poll—don’t forget to chuckle while you can—is the rivalry as fiery and meaningful as it usually is?
Two years ago, a bus carrying No. 2 Duke chugged the 8 miles down 15-501 to face the third-ranked Tar Heels. Later that year, they met in Cameron Indoor Stadium with the ACC title hanging in the balance. Last season, the Tar Heels were the best team in the country, and simply playing them gave Krzyzewski’s squad a chance to register a season-changing win. These weren’t the types of games that are going to loop on ESPN Classic 20 years from now, but they were substantive. The consequences of winning and losing extended beyond an errant Gerald Henderson elbow, and for that reason, we cared, and so did any other hoops fan. The Duke-UNC rivalry wasn’t resting on its laurels. Both teams had earned the attention.
This year? Well, to be honest, I kind of forgot there was a game Wednesday before I channel-surfed and landed on Dick Vitale calling an overtime thriller in Chapel Hill. This year? A North Carolina win would improve its record to 3-6 in the conference. This year? Duke’s matchup three days later against Maryland is more relevant.
And all of that matters about as much as every college basketball game not taking place in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night. That is, not at all.
Circumstances have changed, but they always do. Variables are the constant of this rivalry—of every rivalry in college sports.
Every four years, there are not only new players, but also new fans, jumping up and down on the exact same bleachers and risers their predecessors did. Those students will be acutely interested in the rivalry forever. They will take extended breaks from Wall Street cubicles to sneak peeks at the nearby television, and they will gather in the local bar, knees twitching in anticipation in the split second before the opening tip is tossed. One day, eventually, they will tuck their children into a room adorned with college memorabalia and tell them about the time Mommy and Daddy kissed for the first time near a bonfire, facepaint peeling the whole time.
That’s because the Duke-Carolina game is a seminal experience for us. I couldn’t tell you the subject of an academic paper I wrote last week, but I remember sprinting into Cameron Indoor Stadium to snag a seat before the game my freshman and sophomore years. I remember convincing a bartender in Colorado on spring break last year to switch the game to the big screen so that my best friends and I could watch with too many nachos and not enough beer. I remember standing on the Cameron bleachers, an hour before any Crazie sidled into his spot, watching Jon Scheyer hoist jumpers in a toasty, empty, silent stadium and wishing for just a few more minutes of peace, for the game not to start at all.
And I remember walking through Krzyzewskiville hours after that 2008 Duke win in Chapel Hill, having filed stories and taken photos on the court. We were the last reporters to leave the arena, and by the time we returned to campus, an impromptu bonfire had been quelled, and the players had been mauled getting off the bus outside Cameron. The tent city was quiet. Most people were sleeping. I found a friend and we sat outside, in the 3 a.m. cold, and we talked about the game with the precision of an event just hours old and the nostalgia of a shared memory. We needed to digest it, one last time, before we moved on.
Most of us, after all, spend just four years here. We’re not entitled to graduate, nor are we ensured of leaving with jobs or wisdom. But we are guaranteed eight basketball games between Duke and North Carolina, and from there, it’s up to us to make the most of them. Which is why on Wednesday night, North Carolina fans will tell themselves that beating Duke would make up for an NIT season. Duke fans won’t take pity on the Tar Heels.
Instead, they’ll just tell them to go to hell. They will mean every word of it.
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