Tobacco Road Prepares for Basketball Nirvana — or Apocalypse

The tobacco industrialist Washington Duke, whose fortune helped finance what became Duke University, made a final proclamation on his deathbed in 1905, according to Durham lore: “Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell.”

Yes, there are rivalries. And then there isthe rivalry between North Carolina and Duke, which inspires the type of obsessive fandom only passed through geography, genetics, and the exchange of jubilation and devastation spanning generations.

The hyperbolic terms used to describe the men’s Final Four matchup on Saturday between the neighboring universities — fairy tale, colossal, gargantuan — somehow fail to capture the totality of the long-awaited meeting.

The teams, separated by about eight miles along Tobacco Road, have played 257 times and combine for 38 Final Four appearances and 12 national championships (let it be noted that North Carolina has seven and Duke five).

Somehow, amid all that tangled history, Saturday is the first time they will play for a berth in the championship game.

Not enough tension for you? Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski will be attempting a storybook ending to his illustrious career against North Carolina’s new coach, Hubert Davis, who soured Krzyzewski’s final appearance at Duke’s Cameroon Indoor Stadium with a stomping less than a month ago.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, joined by his wife, Mickie, was emotional after his final home game.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

“This is a basketball lover’s dream,” said N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, a Duke graduate. “Two schools steeped in tradition, an all-time rivalry and a legendary coach finishing his career on the biggest stage in college basketball. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Gov. Roy Cooper saluted Duke as an educational bastion, vouched that many of his friends are alumni and praised the talents of the young Duke graduates who worked on his campaign.

But come Saturday, he will be in New Orleans, rooting for North Carolina, his alma mater.

“Yes, I’m a Tar Heel,” said Cooper, who on Thursday issued a proclamation naming North Carolina the center of the college basketball universe. He added: “When it comes to basketball, you’ve got to be with your team.”

For many Carolinians, battle lines are drawn early. Will Blythe, a Tar Heel and former editor at Esquire magazine who wrote a book on the rivalry, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, recalled his father telling a joke in his childhood: “A Duke man walks down the street like he owns the world. A Carolina man walks like he doesn’t give a damn.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an author and associate professor at North Carolina, said one of her earliest childhood memories is of her stepfather pointing out Michael Jordan on the court for North Carolina.

Michael Jordan (23) and Coach Dean Smith at the N.C.A.A. tournament in 1984.Credit…Joe Holloway Jr./Associated Press

The view of Duke as a private university attended by wealthy outsiders and North Carolina as the state’s public university of aspiration feeds the wedge among fans, McMillan Cottom said.

“Duke stands for what this country is,” McMillan Cottom said. “Carolina stands for what people hope this country can be. In the Southern context, Duke is the elite Southern aristocracy.”

Krzyzewski, the son of Polish immigrants, grew up in Chicago. He recruited and coached four-year stalwarts who defined college basketball during their eras, including Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski and Shane Battier.

In recent years, he pivoted to accommodate one-and-done era players like Jabari Parker, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson.

“I do remember that Coach K once told me if Duke were the state university, there would be statues all over the place honoring him and his team,” Blythe said.

This, of course, is a rivalry that predates Krzyzewski.

Beyond Washington Duke’s dying declaration, many point to the brawl between North Carolina’s Larry Brown and Duke’s Art Heyman in 1961 as its true catalyst, at least on the court. It intensified throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, when both teams started a sustained run of national prominence and titles.

“When you have all of that consistently at a very high level with two schools that are so close together, you’d like to bottle it,” said John Swofford, the former A.C.C. Commissioner and North Carolina athletic director. “I’m sure everybody in the country would like to bottle it, because it’s really healthy for those schools and it’s been really healthy from an A.C.C. standpoint.”

It’s not as healthy for fans of the country singer Eric Church, who canceled his sold-out concert in San Antonio on Saturday to watch the game.

“As a lifelong Carolina basketball fan, I’ve watched Carolina and Duke battle over the years, but to have them match up in the Final Four for the first time in history of the N.C.A.A. tournament is any sports enthusiast’s dream,” Church said in a statement, calling it the most selfish act he had ever committed.

The Blue Devils celebrated their 79-53 victory over North Carolina in the the A.C.C. Tournament in 2001.Credit…Craig Jones/ALLSPORT, via Getty Images

Jay Bilas, an ESPN commentator who played for Krzyzewski and lives in North Carolina, has had discussions with fans who would rather see their team eliminated early in the tournament than journey deeper and lose to their archrival.

“You kind of ask yourself, ‘Is this a rivalry game that just happens to be at the Final Four or is it the Final Four that just happens to have a rivalry game?’” Bilas said. “What’s first in this thing? And for a lot of fans, it’s the rivalry first.”

Lines have been crossed occasionally. Kenny Dennard played for Duke in the 1970s. He battled against North Carolina 14 times and even went onto trademark Washington Duke’s dying declaration, now a Duke rallying cry no matter the opponent.

Yet, he is eternally grateful to Dean Smith, the renowned North Carolina coach. Dennard listed Smith as his first reference on his job application after his playing days ended.

“I thought if I had my biggest rival coach, one of the best coaches in the world say good things about me, that may be good on a job interview,” Dennard said. “He said he’d be happy to.”

Many players say their experiences in the rivalry are etched into their memories forever. Marvin Williams hit a game-winning shot against Duke in 2005 to provide North Carolina the conference championship. He said it was the biggest of his basketball life, surpassing any taken during a lengthy N.B.A. career.

North Carolina’s Marvin Williams celebrating on the floor of the Dean Smith Center on March 6 after the Tar Heels defeated Duke, 75-73, in Chapel Hill.Credit…Gerry Broome/Associated Press

“We just want to beat those guys so bad no matter what it’s for, whether it’s for the regular season championship or a regular-season game or the national championship,” Williams said.

Likewise, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough said he is reminded every week by fans of the elbow he took from Duke’s Gerald Henderson in 2007 that left him bloodied.

“I think it’s actually funny,” Hansbrough said. “‘Did it hurt?’ Hell yeah, it hurt. It was a top moment. But as far as adding fuel to the fire, these are one of the moments that get fans fired up. It gets players fired up.”

No matter the outcome, Cooper, the governor, plans to remain in New Orleans for the championship game on Monday night. A team from North Carolina, after all, will still be playing.

And, as Dennard predicted, the Duke-North Carolina semifinal will go down in infamy whatever the final score.

“One team’s going to remember it forever either way,’’ he said, “and the other team is going to try to block it.”

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