By MARY KATHERINE HAM
There are two kinds of sports fans in the world. Those looking forward to a Duke/UNC matchup in the Final Four as one of the greatest potential sports spectacles of all time. And then there are Duke and UNC fans.
“This is terrible,” said one of my childhood friends, writing on Facebook on behalf of fans of both sides, for whom the stakes are impossibly high. “I’ve always said I don’t want it and I would say the majority of hardcore fans of either squad have agreed with me. It’s just too much.”
I have personally prayed for this day not to come my entire sports fan life. It’s the first time the two b-ball behemoths have met up in the NCAA tournament, and on top of it all, it is Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last season. It’s not that the game won’t be great. It almost certainly will! But it is a spectacle best enjoyed by those less invested in its outcome.
Tobacco Road is about to implode. The people of North Carolina are going through it.
“The air is heavy here,” said another childhood friend. “It’s all anyone talks about.”
Duke and UNC, two powerhouse programs separated by just 10 miles of highway, are nonetheless so thoroughly cleaved by hatred that to this day I am hesitant to wear light blue. I am in my 40s and I still make wardrobe choices based on my most tribal of allegiances, established the year I was born, when Krzyzewski was emerging from obscurity to take the helm in his first season at Duke.
I grew up in Durham, N.C. in the ‘80s. My beloved hometown was known for three things — “Bull Durham,” disproportionate crime rates, and Duke basketball. I became a fan of the latter. One of my first memories is being slightly confused as to which man was the President of the United States— Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, or Ronald Reagan. They all had dark hair, were frequently on TV, and were of equal importance in my home state.
At 6, my parents made me go to bed early before the championship game against Louisville. They woke me up the next morning to tell me Duke lost— the first in a string of heartbreaking Final Four losses before the 1991 team took its revenge against UNLV in the semifinals to move on to down the Jayhawks for a first National Championship. It was the first time I remember crying with joy.
This week, I don’t know what to do with myself. None of us do. I used to have one t-shirt I wore all tournament long, but as the responsibilities of a job and kids crept in, some of my superstitions had to give way. I still have the stuffed Blue Devil my parents gave me for my birthday in 1988. He long ago lost his nose and mouth to a family dog leaving only a little goatee and two soulless black eyes that I imagine represent the Duke program to legions of haters.
I texted a few friends back home to see how they are coping. Actually, I wrote, “I’m sorry, but how are we to live through this game on Saturday?”
“My heart can’t take it.”
Another friend shared a meme that spoke for all of us: “This is the most serious college basketball game to ever take place. I am going to be alone sitting in my bedroom on the edge of my bed with the lights off living and dying on every possession.”
I feel sick to my stomach just writing about it.
It’s truly a privilege to be a part of a rivalry where the hate is so primal and the proximity unbearable. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less connected to the players on each team. The college game has changed, they move on more quickly. It’s not like when they were my actual neighbors, idols I ran into at the mall. Durham has changed, too. There’s a bustling downtown and the mall is gone. But if I’m honest, my hatred still burns, as does that old feeling.
The certainty that one is never safe from a rival this real. The existential any-given-dayness of it all. The devastation of the loser. The memory of walking into school after a loss, head held high in the agony of defeat as the taunts of the other team’s fans echoed down a middle school hallway. I remember the highs and the championships, but those moments still sting.
And that’s really what it’s about. Both team’s fans know that this is the big one, the biggest one, the one we’ll never forget or live down. The risk/reward is paralyzing. People often say to those on the losing end of a tough game, in the tourney, several overtimes— “Hey, but it was a great game,” as if that’s some kind of consolation. All it means is that you’ll be watching one of the worst moments of your life in highlights for the rest of time.
The only person I know who is genuinely excited about the match-up and also a giant fan is one of the giantest fans, literally. Kenny Dennard, is a 6’8” power forward from Krzyzewski’s first Duke team, whose personality is as big as he is.
He was in attendance along with almost 100 other Duke basketball alumni when UNC took the shine off Coach K’s final home game moment, upsetting the Blue Devils on Coach K Court, 94-81. Dennard found himself in the strange position of rooting for the Tar Heels as they faced the St. Peter’s Peacocks.
“The winner of the St. Peter’s game should be a wonderful opponent for Duke,” Dennard said in his weekly newsletter to friends. “I don’t know about y’all, but I want revenge for the final home game.”
Maybe that’s the difference between being a player and a fan. Kenny wants the ball, whereas my skills are relatively worthless in a high-stakes basketball game unless someone needs the sign they painted for the stands vetted for extraneous apostrophes.
So, the two teams will meet up Saturday as they have for all these years, many miles from home, in New Orleans, in a moment that is big but anything but easy. Dick Vitale will have an aneurism. Tobacco Road will burn. And Duke and UNC fans are for once united… in dread.
I would say “Go to Hell, Carolina, Go to Hell,” but we’re all already there together.
Mary Katherine Ham is on Twitter at @mkhammer. Her profile reads: “CNN, Immune to Mommy shaming & mobs. Damn Good Dawg. Author of ‘End of Discussion,’ I have resting smirk face, & disagree w people for a living.“