What Happens When College Basketball Rivalries Reach the Pro Ranks?
Sometimes rivalries are dictated by great players fronting great teams. Sometimes they’re divisional wars. Sometimes they’re about a proximity effect. But no matter who you root for, in professional sports players know few allegiances. Jacoby Ellsbury ditched Boston this offseason and set his eyes on Yankee Stadium. Ray Allen also left Boston for the warm weather, beaches, and a few championship rings in Miami. Vlade Divac was entrenched in a Kings-Lakers rivalry then promptly switched squads midway. In college, things are a little different. Recruits visit campuses, dine with coaches and players, and when the day comes, they pick a hat, don it, and boom, welcome to the institution you’ll be identified with forever. Oh, did you sign with Ohio State? Looks like you’re a Buckeye for life!
That’s why college rivalries are the strongest in sports. It’s not just teams that have history with each other — it’s the players, too. The fans are committed, in part because most of them attended said school and have a connection to the campus, the stadium, the players. And at a sport-centric school, it’s hard to not cheer for the Spartans or the Cardinals or the Wildcats when that’s the only thing on the agenda for game day. So, what happens to athletes who play in competitive leagues in high school, get recruited to top colleges, then make the jump to the pros?
Well, in a fun twist of fate, both Los Angeles–based NBA teams feature players from two of college hoops’ biggest rivalries: the Lakers’ Kendall Marshall (UNC), Ryan Kelly (Duke), Nick Young (USC), and Jordan Farmar (UCLA); and the Clippers’ Antawn Jamison (UNC), Reggie Bullock (UNC), and J.J. Redick (Duke).
Though the three Clippers played in college at different times — Jamison from 1995 to 1998, Redick from 2002 to 2006, and Bullock from 2010 to 2013 — there’s plenty of locker-room banter to go around. For Kelly and Marshall, the rivalry is even stronger because they overlapped for two seasons (and somehow managed to keep things friendly).
Young and Farmar have an even deeper history, from being AAU buddies to high school opponents to college rivals and to now finally playing for the same team.
We spoke with Marshall, Kelly, Jamison, and Bullock to get the lowdown on the Tobacco Road rivalry, and Young and Farmar about the biggest rivalry on the West Coast. These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Let’s start at the beginning. Reggie, Antawn, Ryan, you all grew up in North Carolina. How familiar were you with the rivalry?
Bullock: I always knew how big the Duke-Carolina rivalry was, and I always wanted to play in that game. Growing up, I was a Carolina fan and wanted to play for Carolina.
Jamison: I’m from Charlotte, so every time they play, the state was shut down. When I was getting recruited, I went to both campuses, and I definitely knew about the rivalry, but from the outside looking in, you can’t really grasp it or put it into words until you’re part of it. It’s unbelievable.
Kelly: I was recruited by all of the schools in-state, and so I had to make the decision where I was going to go. For as much appreciation as I got from Duke fans, I got just as much if not more hate from Carolina fans because I didn’t end up there. At my school in North Carolina, I had much more of my classmates go to Carolina than Duke, so I heard a lot from them. And when I did get to play in those games in Chapel Hill, I heard a lot from the fans as well.
Kendall, you went to high school in Arlington, Virginia, which is a few hours north of the Triangle area. How familiar were you with the rivalry?
Marshall: I knew how big the rivalry was, but you aren’t aware of how big it is until you get down there, live down there, and see North Carolinians on a daily basis and how much despise there is between the fans. They really take the rivalry to heart.
Let’s fast-forward to game day. What is it like going out there? Is it as crazy as you expected? More so?
Bullock: I played in the Carolina-Duke game for three years. It’s great games, and you’re boys with the players off the court, but once that game is going on and leading up to the game, you’re enemies. You’d do anything for your team to win. All of the fans in Carolina are tuning in to the game, and there’s a lot of momentum and a hostile environment that build up.
Marshall: The vibe is way different. The student body on game day, you can feel it. It’s really fun. You walk around campus, students act like they’re playing in the game. They’re excited about it. They’re concentrated. Even if you’re playing at Cameron Indoor, when you take the bus ride, from when you get on to when you get off, it’s like being in two totally different countries. You go from being loved to being hated.
Jamison: As players, we got along with the Dukies. It was some kind of respect, but the students, they’re going around egging the university. They take it personally, and you know, you can just tell. The day of the game, people are just, well, it’s always on their mind. Beat Duke. The school shuts down, and it’s an unbelievable feeling. The whole week you’re going to practice, there are tents lined up miles from the Smith Center to try and get into the game. It’s a great rivalry with the anticipation and all of the things involved. The whole week is unbelievable.
Kelly: Obviously I understood a little bit of what that meant, but nothing is quite like putting that jersey on or knowing you were going to put that jersey on and just the feeling that surrounds that game. Everything is so intense. As a player you try and do your best to keep every game the same and to know that for every game, one win is one win, no matter who it’s against, but it just has an unbelievable intensity around it. You can really feel it the week leading up to it.
Now that you all are in the NBA and play with someone who went to a rival college, how do you deal with that?
Jamison: It’s kind of funny, the last, four, five years straight, I played with a guy from Duke. We all have a certain amount of respect for each other because we’ve all been through it and we all know what it’s like, so it just depends on who has the better team. You have to go back like “I only lost to you one time,” “Well, I averaged this amount,” talk like that. Carolina guys stand by Carolina, Duke guys stand by Duke. They have Coach K, I had Coach Smith, it’s Roy Williams now, you know, it’s a friendly debate that goes on. The best coach, the Duke guys have been pretty good about it. I think the Carolina guys, the old-school guys, because we were so dominant, we really laid it on thick. But sometimes we just say stuff like, “J.J. acting like a Dukie over there.” We always tell our stories, things of that nature.
Like friendly jabs?
Bullock: It’s definitely joking. [Redick] is definitely going to pull for Duke, me and Antawn are going to pull for Carolina. Every player that leaves their college is definitely going to pull for their school. I grew up watching J.J. play for Duke, he was knocking down a lot of shots. I was like, I want to play in a game with him, and I was finally blessed enough to play.
Kendall, Ryan, what about you guys? Your experience is a little more special since you actually played against each other in college.
Marshall: Honestly, I expected not to like him because he went to Duke. But Ryan’s a great guy, and I love playing with him. You can see hints of Duke basketball. It’s sort of a personality thing, and it’s kind of the brand of basketball that they created over the years. He’s very fundamentally sound and can shoot the ball for a stretch 4.
It sounds like you’ve definitely had a change of heart. Ryan, what about you? Any trash talk at first?
Kelly: I think at first we were joking but being a little serious about our college records. I would say my record was a little better, and Kendall tended to play great against us, so he always had that to say. Now that we’ve gotten the opportunity to play with each other for a while, it’s easy to like Kendall because he’s such an unselfish ball player. We can both say that we’re both pretty good guys and we like each other.
That’s great that you guys are friendly and all, but what about when it’s time for the Carolina-Duke/Duke-Carolina game? Any bets or watch parties planned?
Marshall: I end up usually sitting on the couch walking around in Carolina shorts, but me and Ryan are going to have a little bet on the game. The standard bet when teammates’ colleges play each other is usually $100, but Duke-Carolina may go a little farther.
Kelly: I haven’t made any plans yet. I’ll probably ask Kendall what he’s doing, since we’re usually right there next to each other so we can talk trash. I just recently lost a bet on the Syracuse game, so at the moment, my Twitter background and avatar are Syracuse-related, so I can’t afford to lose another one.
Reggie, Antawn, what about on your end?
Bullock: We’ll probably have to get some bets going between me, J.J., and Antawn, and I’m hoping Carolina pulls away with the win.
Jamison: Oh, it’s a guaranteed bet anytime a school plays each other. You have to bet. We’re playing at Carolina, so hopefully we can pull it out. Last time we beat Duke, we had Kyrie do something crazy. There’s always bragging rights, things of that nature. You have fun with that game, you brag about that, it’s all good. I broke a couple of TVs watching the game with my remote though.
Wow, you’re pretty far removed from your Tar Heel days. You’re still that frustrated and upset when the team isn’t playing well?
Jamison: Oh, yeah. I have kids, and my kids come in here, they ask, “So where did you go to school? Duke? Oh.” That stays, it’s in your blood. The older and older you get, the more important it is to you. It’s just something about like this is where it started off for me and my first taste of competition, my first taste of rivalry. It’s been 16 years, and still to this day I’m cussing, throwing stuff, stuff like that. If I ever have an opportunity, I go back to talk to the kids, hang out with them. I think the older you get, the more important it becomes to you.
It’s amazing how long that rivalry stays with you and even crazier how you get more into it as you get older. Do you think that has to do with this rivalry being one of the biggest in —
— college basketball?
Jamison: Wait, in college basketball? I’d say it’s the biggest in professional sports, too. Even certain things, you’ve got like the Lakers-Celtics, Celtics might not be as good now. But with that, year after year, it doesn’t matter who’s the most dominant team. It always equals itself out, the competition is there. This is the best rivalry in all of sports. You’ve got the Yankees and Sox, but the Yankees might not be good this year. Duke and Carolina are separated by nine miles, they play each other twice, maybe three times in the ACC tournament. Of all the professional rivalries, this is definitely the best rivalry.
On Wednesday, when Carolina was scheduled to play Duke at home, Marshall went on a Twitter spree, trash-talking Duke fans, because in his own words, “today, only one thing matters.” The game was later postponed because of inclement weather and rescheduled for February 20.
Marshall and Kelly also starred in a video for the Lakers talking about the rivalry.
Kelly wouldn’t stay silent the whole day, though, and responded with this:
Nick, Jordan, let’s talk red, blue, and gold. You’re both from Los Angeles; how big was this rivalry to you growing up?
Farmar: Very. I’m from here, so it was very prevalent.
Young: Well, being from L.A., you know, you just feel it in the air. You know it’s USC or UCLA. But it’s kind of crazy because my mom was a UCLA fan, and my mom and dad would go back and forth.
So which team did you support? I’m guessing USC since you ended up there.
Young: I grew up a USC fan, but at the time [I was being recruited], I was wavering a little bit. UCLA had a good sales pitch, and then also Jordan was going in, and I loved playing with Jordan and all of that.
Interesting! Jordan, what about you?
Farmar: I was an Arizona fan. I wasn’t a big UCLA fan. I am for sure now. UCLA had everything that I wanted in a school. I kind of wanted to get away and grow up, but aside from that, in terms of prestige, education, basketball, and potential, it had everything I wanted in a school, and it was a challenge. The challenge was to try to restore the program to what it should be at all times and get an amazing education in the process. Plus it’s nice to be home, be close to friends and family, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to play at the next level.
Hm, I get the “UCLA was the whole package” thing, but there must’ve still been part of you that wanted to be a Wildcat, especially since they’re both in the Pac-12.
Farmar: I mean, I loved Arizona at the time, but Lute Olson was on his way out. That was one of the reasons I loved them so much. He was on his way out, and it was just a change, a transition period for me to go there. Him not being there kind of changed my decision.
What was it like being a part of the rivalry versus seeing it as a spectator?
Farmar: You hear a lot of rumbling around the city, but for the most part, on the basketball side, we’ve had it for a while. We were really confident, and we hold our end of the bargain in terms of the rivalry. Here on campus, you see people get excited, and it’s nice to be able to have bragging rights, definitely.
Young: Well, students will be waiting outside, and they don’t normally wait for our games. Our football games at the time were really big, but they didn’t have the F-UCLA shirts on, and [here], you could just feel it. People would just be out there and just boo when they see people with UCLA jerseys on campus.
That sounds intense, but not as insane as, say, football between Auburn and Alabama. Do you think this is one of the biggest college rivalries?
Farmar: I definitely do. Because we do compete really well in a lot of sports, not just the major ones, but across the board, there’s a lot of attention. In a huge market like Los Angeles, before the Clippers got here, it was the Lakers then USC football, UCLA basketball, then the Kings, Dodgers. So that was kind of like you knew you were one of the five major sports teams in this huge media market.
Young: I think it’s most definitely one of the biggest, if not the biggest in college. You know about Duke-Carolina, you know about UCLA-USC. Pretty much when they say rivalry week, you gotta put USC-UCLA out there. It just depends on whose conference is better that year.
So, your teams met for the second time this season last weekend. Did you guys do anything special? Make any bets?
Young: You gotta make that bet, that’s a guaranteed bet. We were looking up old stats on the games, see who had the most points, talking trash. They won more games than us, they got us, but they never really blew us out, so it was always a close game. He’s always trying to get me to wear his UCLA stuff, a jersey or a small little money bet, that’s pretty much all. Whoever wins talks trash.
Farmar: We kind of did. He didn’t want to pay his bet, and he didn’t want to wear my jersey, but it’s cool. He paid for my valet, took care of my concession stuff with me and my daughter. It was a wash, bragging rights were good enough. We took our kids, and it was just a good time.
Filed Under: College Basketball, Rivalry Week, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, USC, ryan kelly, Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, Antawn Jamison, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers