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On The Eve of the Apocalypse

by M. Burke Koonce, III

It was inevitable, I suppose, the same way good dogs get old, Polaroids fade and rock drummers spontaneously combust. For decades, it looked like the ultimate clash of civilizations might never actually occur. The basketball gods seemed to have deigned that the world was just not ready; that the earth’s crust might crack, freeing some kind of noxious gas or that the atmosphere would be blown away into space. The world was just not ready, and would likely never be ready, for a Final Four matchup between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But sometime prior to last weekend, the gods changed their minds, or at least the NCAA selection committee and the good people in the advertising department at CBS. For years, the committee was careful never to place Duke and Carolina where they might play each other before the final game. This year, with the Twelve Month Parade of Coach K’s Farewell Tour coming to a close, I assume somebody did the math and determined that manipulating the brackets so that the two schools could face each other in the semi-finals was a maneuver worth taking. It would raise the odds of the apocalypse from extraordinarily low to just plain low. And like they say, a butterfly flaps its wings in Indianapolis and soon enough Roy Williams spits in the Mississippi River.

Of course, Roy Williams is no longer the coach at North Carolina. Neither is Matt Doherty, Bill Guthridge, or the legendary Dean Smith. It’s first-year coach Hubert Davis, a former UNC player and assistant coach (and, full disclosure, my classmate at Carolina). Duke’s coach, as has been the case since March 18, 1980, is Mike Krzyzewski, now the winningest men’s basketball coach of all time, as much as it pains me to say. For perspective, Dean would coach almost exactly half his 36-year career at UNC against Krzyzewski, who has now gone on to coach Duke for another 25 years since Smith retired in 1997.

I suppose over the course of 41 years, during which time Duke vs. Carolina became one of the greatest, if not the greatest rivalry in sports, this could have been expected to happen. And now, on the eve of K’s retirement, which will either be tomorrow night, inshallah, or Monday night at the latest, it has come to pass.

By midnight tomorrow night, as many have written, one side will have eternal bragging rights, and the other will be forced to walk the earth like Jacob Marley’s ghost.

It’s a wager that few of us here on Tobacco Road would ever make; it’s a bit like Russian Roulette. The risk/reward payoff is highly asymmetric and skews sharply negative. For those of us who grew up or attended school between the Haw River to the west and the Neuse River to the east, this is the basketball equivalent of the Ghostbusters crossing the beams, or putting Mentos in Coca-Cola, or making an alopecia joke in front of Will Smith.

But as renowned social psychologist and North Carolina product Ric Flair used to say, “whether you like it or not, learn to love it.” We must summon the wisdom of the ages to come to terms with this.

But how?

This rivalry covers more ground than the taproot of a Carolina pine and is woven into the fabric of my own family’s history like perhaps no other strand. My mother went to Duke and was a passionate basketball fan and my father went to UNC and played football there. So we had the incredible good fortune to have season basketball tickets in both Cameron Indoor Stadium and Carmichael Auditorium, and, later, the Dean Dome. I was on hand with my mom and dad, sitting in Section 16 in Cameron, when Coach K won for the first time against the Tar Heels. He has since won 49 more against Carolina.

As a Carolina graduate and fan, I suppose I should feel pretty good that despite Duke’s (and Coach K’s) wild success that the Blue Devils have only averaged 1.2 wins per year against the Heels in the four decades since, but then again each one felt like someone kicked my dog, some more than others. There was the Austin Rivers shot, the Duhon layup, a half dozen doses of J.J. Reddick, and then of course, Laettner. Duke finally reached the apex of the sport when they knocked off UNLV in the national semi-final in Indianapolis in 1991, the last time Duke and Carolina were both in the Final Four. Duke went on to beat Roy Williams’ Kansas team to win its first national championship. I even pulled for Duke—I was there in Indianapolis sitting next to my mom, of course, but that was the last time. As soon as Duke won, the “Go To Hell Carolina” cheer went up, and I abandoned my dual citizenship on the spot. After all, I was a UNC student at the time.

Fortunately for me, the gods would soon again look favorably on Chapel Hill. Duke would win it again in 1992, but Carolina would win it again for Dean Smith in 1993, in New Orleans, where Michael had given Dean his first championship in 1982, and would go to the Final Four five times in the 1990s. I mean, the Stackhouse/Wallace/Jamison/Carter era was an embarrassment of riches.

Since the famous Jordan shot in 1982, Carolina has won five national championships, and so has Duke. Twice, the two programs have won the title in succession, which exemplifies what has made this rivalry so great—it’s obvious the two programs have made each other better. When K arrived, Dean Smith ran the ACC. It was up to Coach K and the late great Jim Valvano to challenge him. Then the crown went to K. Even though Carolina was neck and neck with Duke, the game was changing in Duke’s favor.

Dean Smith famously lobbied for Krzyzewski to take the reins of USA Basketball, and K did a masterful job with the Olympic team. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, this, and an academic scandal in Chapel Hill, led to a slight but definite recruiting edge that made Duke perhaps the top collegiate launching pad for future NBA superstars. Ironically, Carolina’s inability to attract the “diaper dandies” helped Roy Williams build veteran teams that could make deep tournament runs for years, but K’s talent edge was persistent.

Unfortunately for Duke and for college basketball in general, the Duke teams, among others, became something of a revolving door for NBA talent, and soon enough, the only Blue Devil I could identify well enough to scream at was Coach K himself.
Which brings us back to the apocalypse. After his year-long farewell tour, K will be exorcised one way or another within about 72 hours. There is another young coach in the league, on the trail of the undisputed king. Will the old lion roar once more, or will the young lion have his own day?

In a sense, this is a game we have seen before. No matter who wins, we are witnessing the changing of the guard in a tradition that has forged the finest that college basketball has had to offer for four decades. And whether you’re a Duke fan or a Carolina fan or just a college basketball fan, your life has been enriched by it. Think of the countless hours of joy and anguish and passion we’ve all felt over the years, and then consider how many hours of practice and preparation the coaches and players put into it. It’s astonishing and humbling.

I hope like hell that Hubert Davis, my old geology lab partner, leads the Heels to victory tomorrow. But no matter what, I am grateful to have been able to watch this extraordinary geyser of human achievement and competition-fueled passion that has erupted virtually every year since I was a child. I thank Mike Krzyzewski for continuing to make both Duke and Carolina better.

For making my life better.

Now, please, Hubert, make him go away! And Go Heels!