Duke vs. UNC: a Reflection

Below is a column I wrote for Rival magazine this April. I adapted it from an earlier blog post titled “The Better Shade of Blue?” Most of my retelling of the game is exactly the same (apologies for the redundancy), but I included more of my thoughts looking back.
For me, this semester has been sort of an identity crisis: temporarily renouncing my affiliation to my alma mater in order to devote myself to its biggest rival. I’ve done my best to walk the line, but it’s almost impossible to accomplish, and no matter what I always seem to disappoint someone. You will never hear me saying, “Go to hell, Carolina,” but I have no problem saying, “Go Blue Devils!” Depending on who you are, one of those is guaranteed to be problematic.
The ultimate tricky situation was the Duke-Carolina basketball game this spring.
Numerous sports commentators have declared UNC-Duke the biggest and best sports rivalry in America. From what I can tell, it’s mostly because of the two schools’ a) proximity and b) comparable success. Last year I wrote a Daily Tar Heel article about the history of the rivalry. But—in its most elemental and intense form—I experienced the rivalry for myself for the first time on February 13 in the student section of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After weeks of camping out, I proudly wore the plastic wristband that guaranteed me entry to the game— along with a neutral white t-shirt. I lined up with my (now dear to me) tent group in our well-earned spot #46, three hours before tip-off. Everyone was using the time to paint up: Many people painted their arms, legs and chests, as well as their faces. I did my best to avoid the dark blue paint all around me, but in the end got attacked by my friend Ryan, who successfully painted my right eye, the corner of my mouth and an obscure spot along my hairline. I tolerated it because I felt it would be clear to my UNC friends that the paint was involuntarily applied, while the presence of dark blue color on my face would be enough for my Duke friends to stop pressuring me to paint up.
Finally, it was our turn to rush into the stadium and be forcibly packed together by the line monitors on Cameron’s rickety student risers. The energy was contagious, and I enthusiastically joined in with any cheers and song that weren’t directly anti-UNC. Util the game started. When the teams actually started playing, I realized how deeply my allegiance to UNC runs. With UNC in the lead the entire first half, I could barely contain myself, quivering at the thought of jumping in my car immediately after the game to drive straight to Franklin Street and join in the mad festivities when we won. There it was: that small but hugely telling word,“we.” Even when trying to fit in at Duke, when trying to assimilate entirely, I still couldn’t let go of my original position in the “us vs. them” dichotomy.

I’ve never been more invested in any sporting event in my entire life. I’ve watched games I care about, I’ve played in games I care about, but never has it seemed to matter so personally. Despite my white t-shirt proclaiming neutrality, I struggled to muffle my moans and cheers in favor of the Heels. “You’re giving yourself away,” scolded a friend who stood next to me during the game.

But then, of course, Duke gained the lead and the Heels couldn’t get it back. At the end I didn’t feel happy for the Duke victory the way I thought I might before the game started. Despite my new fondness for this school, I had no wish to celebrate. I trudged back to my room to write a paper I had previously hoped I might have an excuse to put off.

Was the game worth it? Absolutely. Every freezing second in that battered tent, every miserable early-morning tent check, every exasperated taunt from UNC friends for my efforts: It was worthwhile without a doubt. Not only did I love the novel experience of Kwzyzewskiville tenting, I loved getting to know and becoming friends with my Dukie tent-mates. And being at one of the most-watched games in college basketball in the middle of the infamous Cameron Crazies was more fun than I had ever imagined a basketball game could be. The entire epic experience is something I am infinitely glad I chose to do.

I like to imagine there is no better shade of blue, because the challenge is what makes the rivalry fun. It’s incredible that I’ve been able to experience it on both sides. I realized my deepest allegiance at that game, but I am happy to know that when I go back to Chapel Hill I’ll still have another home in Durham. Though I may have been living behind enemy lines, I’ve found that I am surrounded by friends all the same.