From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 6, 1995
NOTHING QUITE COMPARES TO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DUKE TIPS OFF against North Carolina. "All the players know what kind of game it will be, even if one team is starting five scholarship players and the other starts five walk-ons," says Tar Heels guard Jeff McInnis. Like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, the two teams can cut each other up in public and then retreat to their adjacent villas and their snifters of brandy, content that they're the very best at what they do.
During the 1993--94 season they met when ranked one-two in the AP poll, and there ensued an appropriately terrific game won by No. 2 UNC 89--78. But on Feb. 2 of this season—with the Blue Devils an uncharacteristic 0--7 in the ACC, their coach, Mike Krzyzewski, out for the year with a bad back and the second-ranked Tar Heels heavily favored—the teams played an even better game: a 102--100 double-OT epic of which the winning coach, Carolina's Dean Smith, who has seen a lot, said, "I've never seen anything like it."
Animated by excellence, informed by tradition and stoked by proximity, Duke versus UNC stands as the one rivalry all other rivalries secretly wish to be. Thus does every meeting take on huge significance. "If you're having a poor season and you beat Carolina, you've had a good season," says former Devils guard Bob Bender. "If you're having a great season and you lose twice to Carolina, you've had a tarnished season. And if you lose three times to Carolina ... well, you've had a tragic season. My junior year we almost played five times: We met them once in the old Big Four tournament, twice in the regular season and once in the ACC tournament. The teams were in the same regional in the NCAAs, but both got beat. Imagine playing a game that intense five times in a year."
Once vested in the rivalry, the players embrace it spiritedly. Before his last regular-season game, in 1981 against the Tar Heels, Duke's Gene Banks put on a tuxedo and threw roses to the crowd at Cameron. A few hours later, with a second left to play in regulation, Banks stuck a thorn of a turnaround jumper in North Carolina to force overtime in a game the Blue Devils would win 66--65. "It was the closest I've ever felt to being next to God," Banks has said. "And I don't mean that to be blasphemous."
Former Tar Heel James Worthy still tells Smith that he never lost to Duke, because a sprained ankle kept him out of a loss to the Blue Devils. But no one recalls minor details like Worthy's absence. "It really is the schools, not the players," says Smith. "Like the end of the 1993 season, when we beat them, Grant Hill was out. But there's no asterisk. Only, 'We beat Duke.' "