A Tar Heel Gives the Devils His Boo

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, March 14, 2006


A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry

By Will Blythe

HarperCollins. 357 pp. $24.95

As the 2006 NCAA Basketball Tournament gets underway today, grown men and women from coast to coast will be reduced to catatonic states as teams representing colleges and universities from which they graduated centuries ago advance -- or fail to advance -- toward the new American Paradise, the Final Four. Having gone through 12-step recovery more than a decade ago, I am no longer afflicted with this strange condition but certainly can sympathize with those under its spell -- for I am an alumnus of the basketball school to beat all basketball schools, the University of North Carolina.

Yes, for some years it has been formally known as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- to distinguish it from the 15 other branches in the state's Consolidated University system -- but it is what people around the world mean when they say "UNC," and to those of us old enough to remember it before consolidation in 1963, it is still the only University of North Carolina on the planet.

That it is best known to most people not for its academic programs but for its basketball team tells us more about American priorities than we may really want to know, but there can be no doubt that the success those teams have enjoyed has contributed significantly to the university's reputation. In particular, it is known among sports fans for its rivalry with an institution eight miles away, the faux university known as Duke. As Will Blythe writes:

"The basketball rivalry between Duke and North Carolina has become the greatest rivalry in college athletics, and one of the greatest in all of sports. It is Ali versus Frazier, the Giants versus the Dodgers, the Red Sox versus the Yankees. Hell, it's bigger than that. This is the Democrats versus the Republicans, the Yankees versus the Confederates, Capitalism versus Communism. All right, okay, the Life Force versus the Death Instinct, Eros versus Thanatos. Is that big enough? This is a rivalry of such intensity, of such hatred, that otherwise reasonable adults attach to it all manner of political-philosophical baggage, some of which might even be true. I know because I'm one of them."

Indeed he is. A native of Chapel Hill (his father taught at the UNC Medical School) and a graduate of the university, Blythe went on to a journalistic career in New York. There he "presented two faces to the world: one that of a quiet fellow who liked to read and walk and ponder things, and the other that of an absolute beast, a guy who screamed and ranted and jumped up and down on the floor as he watched North Carolina play basketball." For some years, he served with distinction as literary editor of Esquire, and he now writes for many prominent publications, but Blythe still substantially defines himself not by his journalistic and literary accomplishments but by his insane devotion to a bunch of kids in short pants running around a hardwood floor.

He is not alone. In the mannerly and (so it would have us believe) humble state of North Carolina, people completely lose it when it comes to basketball. Here in Washington, UNC alumni regularly gather to watch games together -- some in prayerful positions, others obviously in dire need of straitjackets -- just as others do in New York and Los Angeles and wherever else two or more Tar Heels have gathered together. Last fall, a mature gentleman of my acquaintance in Beijing was so overcome when I presented him with two DVDs chronicling UNC's 2005 season that he declared it probably the best gift he had ever received.

There are, it seems, partisans of Duke University who harbor similar passions and behave in similarly outlandish ways, though no one in his or her right mind possibly could understand why. The two schools have many things in common (the Duke basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, once said, "We share the same dry cleaners"), and if truth be acknowledged academic excellence is one of them, but they are very different places populated by very different people. According to "the mythology many of us swallowed as we grew up," Blythe writes, "Duke is the university as launchpad, propelling its mostly out-of-state students into a stratosphere of success. . . . North Carolina, by contrast, is the university as old home place, equally devoted to the values of community and local service."

So at least we Tar Heel loyalists believe, though as Blythe made his way back and forth between the two campuses in 2004 and 2005, "this hatred gig was tough" because, unbelievably, some of those Duke people turned out to be, well, sort of decent and, if you can believe it, human . A teacher at Duke Law School with ties to both schools helped Blythe understand that "neither Duke nor Carolina had a choke hold on virtue, that both schools had at varying times been forces for enlightenment, both locally and nationally," and that "at moments, both institutions had succumbed rather too easily to the ugliness of the age."

Precisely what Blythe means by this last phrase is unclear. Certainly Duke went head over heels in the 1980s and '90s for deconstruction and other passing fads -- its English department was a citadel of same -- and certainly Carolina has turned into a mega-university that bears only passing resemblance to the "old home place" that Blythe so fondly remembers (as indeed do I). He is right, though, to acknowledge that monopolies on good or evil rarely exist, that we inhabit a world of gray and that Duke is probably just about as gray as Carolina is.

He is also right to insist that hatred does have its place. He quotes the 19th-century British essayist William Hazlitt -- "Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action" -- and elaborates on the theme. He encounters (and enjoys the company of) a Duke fan who delights in "the purity of hatred," a phrase Blythe finds "as refreshing as bottled spring water." He propounds a theory "that hatred had its uses, . . . that the suppression of good, honest hatred bollixed people up, turned them inside out, and made their niceness somehow mean." Or, as he says a few pages later, after talking with a Presbyterian minister in Chapel Hill: "The outright expression of antagonism was good! Or, at least the outright part was good. A good, honest hatred beat a dishonest love."

In other words, Blythe knows that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is about a lot more than basketball. But he scarcely scants the basketball side of it. Though there's too much play-by-play in his narrative of the 2004-05 season, there's also interesting stuff about Krzyzewski and his famous counterparts at UNC, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. The egregious Dick Vitale of ESPN comes in for a well-earned roasting. Art Heyman, the volatile, outspoken Duke star of the early 1960s, gets a surprisingly sympathetic, nuanced portrait. Chapel Hill is deftly depicted -- "the town liked to indulge a view of itself as a zoo of tolerance, in which the keepers mingled with the animals until you couldn't remember who was an animal and who was a keeper and everybody was very proud of this confusion" -- and so is Durham, the old tobacco town where Duke is somewhat incongruously situated.

You don't have to be a Tar Heel or a Blue Devil to like "To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever" (a mouthful of a title) because it's funny, perceptive and smart. The best book about basketball is still David Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game," but Blythe holds his own in that particular rivalry.

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