Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The Blood of the Best Rivalry in Sports Runs Blue
The moniker "best rivalry" gets thrown around several times a year. When the Red Sox and Yankees clash in October. When Ohio State and Michigan meet in November, usually with the Big Ten title on the line. When the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers meet up at any point during the NBA season. When Sampras and Agassi met at the U.S. Open (or now when Federer and Nadal meet at Wimbledon. And when the two schools separated by eight miles of US highway 15-501, meet up to do battle in February and March. All of these rivalries have a claim as best in sports, and a sport having such rivalries makes it that much better.
Indeed, rivalries in and of themselves are one of the best elements of sports. Every athlete wants to win every game they play. But when the opposing team is your rival, it gets kicked up a notch.
As a fan, the intensity and occasional hatred between rival fanbases is even more palpable. Whether is be high school football, college basketball, or professional baseball the allegiance to your team is increased tenfold when its gameday against your rival. The Cleveland Browns have been consistently bad since re-entering the NFL, but on game day against the Steelers, they may be the most passionate and venomous fanbase in all of sports. The Red Sox spent years losing to the Yankees in big games, but every time the teams met the Boston fanbase was in full force.
Since all good rivalries have a strong sense of passion from each fanbase, it becomes somewhat arbitrary to declare one is the best in all sports. It is pretty clear that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is the best in baseball, and that the Carolina-Duke rivalry is the best in college basketball (I know the Louisville and Kentucky fans will have something to say about this, but the large majority rules when I say that UNC-Duke is best). Still, I would argue that the UNC-Duke rivalry is in fact the best in all of sports.
UNC and Duke are two schools that simply don't like each other. Yet for all their differences, some striking similarities exist. Both are part of the research triangle, and are regarded as some of the best institutions of higher learning in the south, as well as the nation. Both schools have contributed to major breakthroughs in research, especially in the fields of science and medicine. And both are among the top programs in the history of college basketball. I will not go into the history of how the rivalry started, because I was not alive for this period. Thus this argument will be mainly based on the rivalry during my lifetime, and my firsthand experience over the past three years as a UNC student.
The first thing that makes any rivalry good is the fans. While this seems somewhat ironic, as they are not the ones out playing the game, the atmosphere they create is instrumental in the greatness of a rivalry. In the case of Carolina and Duke, the animosity between fanbases is, to put it lightly, intense. This stems not only from the wars that occur on the court, but the differing ideologies between the universities. Carolina students view Duke as a snobbish university, deeply invested in being considered the Ivy league of the south, with students whose outward academic competitiveness give off the stench of nerdiness. Duke students most likely view Carolina as an inferior academic university, and feel Carolina students are cocky and too caught up in seeming cool. Duke is private and tries to attract the valedictorians of prestigious high schools across the east coast, UNC is public and looks to enroll the best students in the state of North Carolina. Carolina's has beautiful girls, Duke has uh....beautiful gothic buildings.
When the two teams meet, fans at Duke will camp out for weeks (even risking meningitis) in order to get tickets. In the stadium, Duke students heckle Carolina players by doing their weird hand waving thing and taunt Carolina players whenever they get the chance (which led Ty Lawson to yell "F*** you" to Cameron's student section). It's even claimed that the Dookies first invented the term "Air Ball" when when a Carolina player hit nothing but nothing years ago. Carolina fans will be just as relentless in letting the Duke players hear it in the Dean Dome and will wear shirts saying things such "Dook Blue is Just Past Tense for Dook Blows," and making signs like this one. As much as the fans hate each other, they need each other to exist. To put it this way, I would not be that upset if we didn't play NC State every year, but I could not imagine not getting to play Duke twice each year.
The legacy of both teams also makes Carolina-Duke great. Both teams have produced some of the best players in college basketball history such as Jordan, Laettner, Jamison, Hansbrough, and as much as I really don't want to say it, Redick. Also, the best player in NBA history (and one of, if not the only one to have a leading role in a movie), came from Carolina. Yes, THE Michael Jordan. Oftentimes players who do battle against each other, are actually good friends and will talk amicably throughout the game. While they all may not be bitter enemies, you don't get the feeling that much love is lost between the players of UNC and Duke. Elbows have been thrown and Pauluses have been teabagged.
The coaching legacy is just as great with two of the best to ever coach the game (Dean Smith and Coach K.), alongside another well on his way (Roy Williams). Even the styles and approaches clash as UNC runs a fast-paced offensive attack, while Duke's strategy involves tough defense, perimeter shooting, and strategically falling down. Coach K. has no qualms with being caught cursing while Roy Williams finds it necessary to apologize for approximately 31/2 hours for dropping one F-bomb (Seriously Roy, we're all adults, and your goshdern, gee-willikers approach becomes quickly tiresome).
What puts this rivalry past its college football equivalent (Ohio State-Michigan), is the national interest. While many people tune in to watch the Buckeyes and Wolverines on the gridiron, most outside the midwest really don't have a strong rooting interest in either team. This is in direct contrast to UNC-Duke. Duke has built up one of the largest non-rival hater fanbases in the nation. If you don't go to Duke and care about college basketball, there is about a 75% chance you hate them. UNC on the other hand is a little more well liked by many who did not go to UNC, including famous rapper and View From the Student Section's favorite sports fan Lil' Wayne. That said, a large contigent of UNC haters do exist, most whom's wrath is focused on Tyler Hansbrough. The UNC-Duke game is always hyped up on ESPN, and, love him or hate him, Dick Vitale has become an iconic announcer for his coverage of the games.
The games usually live up to the hype, too. From Jeff Capel hitting a half-court buzzer beater to send the game to overtime (UNC went on to win), to Duhon's reverse layup to take down the Tar Heels, to a UNC freshman named Tyler Hansbrough making the national player of the year cry on Duke's senior night, this rivalry has produced some epics. The last one I mentioned was the most watched college basketball game ever. And those are only the ones that immediately came to mind from my lifetime. The overall series lead is held by Carolina 127-97 (as of March 4, 2009), however Duke was 14-5 against UNC from 1997-2003 (a period we would prefer to forget here at UNC). Additionally, for the past 124 meetings, at least one team has been ranked in the top 25. Regardless of ranking, when the two teams play each gets the others best shot.
All of these things make UNC-Duke stand above all rivalries save one. The big one. The behemoth. Red Socks-Yankees. There is no doubt that the two baseball powers have larger fanbases than Duke and UNC, and may even have an edge in fan passion. I could go the cheap route and say that the Yankees and Red Sox play more times, making each meeting less meaningful. But that would be a cheap way out, and not a good argument. When the Yankees and Red Sox meet in the playoffs, the intensity and hatred is just as strong if not moreso than UNC-Duke. So why is UNC-Duke better? Two words: Player Allegiance. Once a Tarheel, always a Tarheel. Same goes for Duke. You would never see a former UNC player cheering for Duke, and you would NEVER see a Carolina player transfer to Duke. This is in stark contrast to the Johnny Damon effect that occurs in professional baseball. Damon, with his Jesus-esque facial hair, led the amazing playoff run to break the curse in Boston and win the World Series. What did he do shortly after? He shaved, and left for a big contract with the rival Yankees. Many other players have switched between these two organizations as well. This could and would never happen with Carolina-Duke, and for my money, is why UNC-Duke is the best rivalry in sports, above Red Sox Yankees, and why I'll feel so privileged to be in the seats of the Dean Dome Sunday night.