This would never have happened in the media room at Cameron, I thought glumly as the second ice cube hit my head. Two more landed on the bar, clattering over the ledge and leaving wet streaks on the wood.
The moment the clock on the television read zero, “Sweet Caroline” played over the loudspeakers at Four Corners in Chapel Hill, a sports bar just a few feet from North Carolina’s campus. Tar Heels fans had packed it to the gills, and the story was the same up and down Franklin Street. This was one of the two biggest nights of the year for them, and the first had ended in disaster. The Carolina faithful were out for revenge, spring break and bad memories be damned. I was one of four Duke fans in a crowd of at least 250, and though I came in semi-disguise (Eli Manning jersey, Yankees hat), my cover had long since been blown.
A little less than a month ago, Duke’s Austin Rivers buried a glorious 3 at the buzzer to deal Carolina a stunning 85-84 defeat at the Dean Dome. Tar Heels fans, believing rightly that they had the stronger team, had been dreaming of the rematch ever since. The world had to right itself, and one devastating loss deserved another. They had their satisfaction and then some, as Carolina dominated Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium to beat the Blue Devils 88-70 and win the ACC regular-season championship. Elation for them, misery for me.
They didn’t want me at Duke, and they didn’t want me at the bar. Not that I was complaining. It was my choice to come to Four Corners with a group of friends to use as a buffer (an unfortunate reality of my life is that the vast majority of my friends are Carolina fans), and I would have been disappointed to receive warm treatment. For camaraderie, I only had to drive 10 miles down the road to Durham. There, I’d find my people, or at least people wearing my colors. But I had my reasons.
This was penance. Nothing comes for free, including unforgettable moments like Rivers’s miracle. That day, I stood in an arena of stunned Carolina fans, awash in their silent shock and my silent exuberance. It was only right that I pay the karmic price at Four Corners, watching a game I was reasonably sure Duke would lose. I had to endure the pain they’d felt to satisfy the debt. And I have to say that until the ice cubes flew, the fans in the bar were alternately angry, mocking, and cold, but thugs they were not. A few were even friendly — but only a few.
I arrived early and watched the crowd stream in over the next four hours. Exactly five Duke supporters came through the door before gametime. The first two, a husband and wife I met last summer, were raucously booed, and the man’s hat was hat flipped off as he walked the gauntlet. Feeling the need to offer support, I stood on the lower rungs of my bar chair, applauded them, and then shook their hands. (That’s how I blew my cover, incidentally.) I didn’t get a look at the second pair, because after enduring the boos and the chants of “Dukies Out!” they retreated like cowards into the unfriendly night. The Tar Heels cheered like mad as they left. The fifth, a friend of mine, was surrounded by a group of Carolina fans and held captive for about 30 seconds, like one of the unfortunate people who gets sandwiched in SNL‘s “Night at the Roxbury” sketches, while the crowd heaped abuse on him. He persevered.
And they had their victory, those Heels. After the final whistle, while the powder blues danced and sang to Neil Diamond, I weathered the second ice cube projectile and spun around. A leering little man sat at a table against the back wall, staring me down. I couldn’t help but grin back. I stood up to exchange pleasantries with him, which I figured was the least he deserved. His friends rose too, drunk on victory and whatever else. I heard vague warnings from the friends behind me, and realized I should probably be feeling a little more afraid than I was. Instead, all I could think was, this is good. This is what’s supposed to happen. Pay the full price.
Hard as it was to remember in the moment, I knew Carolina deserved this revenge. It was their right to gloat, and our lot to lose. We confined our hatred to words, and I left the enemy’s den unscathed. Everyone in the bar had this coming, myself included.
But damn, man — on top of everything else, did they have to play a fucking Red Sox song?
There were some signs early on that things wouldn’t go well. Aside from the fact that Carolina had the superior team, and Duke had survived two straight games against the dregs of the ACC (Wake Forest, Virginia Tech), the hours leading up to tip-off provided a slew of bad omens.
While we waited for the game, my friend Andrew and I competed in a Buzztime trivia contest at the bar. Andrew is a former Jeopardy! teen champion and probably the smartest person I know, so my main contribution to the team was to convince him to name our team “Rivers.” As it turned out, we were one of the two best teams in the bar. The other? “NoDook.” A classic duel was developing, and I was loving the idea of Team Rivers antagonizing the Heels fans with a win.
We trailed early, but eventually crept back, and were ready to take the lead for good on the ninth question. We knew it immediately, plugged in the answer, and waited to see our name in lights. Instead, we saw a big “0.” Andrew and I looked down in dismay; our console battery had died. The bar had no extras, and NoDook cruised to an easy victory.
Later, with all of our friends gathered around, I thought of a really dumb joke, which is one of my main talents. Another main talent is not keeping stupid jokes to myself. “Justin,” I said to my friend, loud enough for everyone else to hear, “did you hear what Austin Rivers is wearing tonight?”
“Three-goggles,” I said, making the gesture emphatically.
Without missing a beat, Justin replied: “He’s going to look like an idiot wearing three goggles to a JAM SESSION!”
Everyone laughed. It was my jerk store moment. I already suspected Duke would lose, but now that I’d been punked by my friend, the lingering doubts vanished.
At gametime, the lights in the bar dimmed. Justin raised his glass. “For the next two hours,” he said, “I hate your guts.”
About that game: total beatdown. Three text messages I traded with a friend inside Cameron provide an apt description.
6:53 p.m., seven minutes before gametime: My friend to me:
Best atmosphere I’ve ever seen in Cameron.
7:22 p.m., less than nine minutes gone by, Carolina up 22-5: me to my friend:
Ever seen a game that was over so fast?
7:39 p.m., probably near halftime, when Carolina led by 24: my friend to me:
This is no bueno.
No bueno, indeed, though we knew it was bound to happen. By now, you’ve heard the stories. The Cameron Crazies chanted “Tyler Zeller, MVP!” to the Carolina big man, reminding him of his defense against Rivers on the final play during the first matchup. Before the game started, the highlights from that game ran on the video screen, and Kendall Marshall pulled his teammates into a huddle to fire them up. Marshall, who was born to be a point guard, went on to tally 20 points and 10 assists in what might have been the best game of his career, considering the circumstances. Zeller shot 9-for-11 for 19 points and 10 rebounds to exorcise the ghosts of February. The hated Harrison Barnes scored 16 points. John Henson had 13 points and 10 boards to contribute to the massacre.
As for Duke? The one chance Duke has to beat Carolina, or any elite team, is to hit a lot of 3s. Instead, they went 2-of-11 from deep in the first half. Oddly enough, both Miles and Mason Plumlee played competently in the post, and Miles perhaps more than competently on his senior night. They still couldn’t keep Zeller and Henson off the glass, but it’s seeming more and more like nobody can manage that feat, so you can hardly blame them. But the fact that the Plumlees scored a combined 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting proves just how irrelevant their point production is to Duke’s success. Mike Krzyzewski has constructed a team of bombers, and when the bombers ain’t bombing, they don’t win. Ryan Kelly, whose thin frame prevents him from contributing much on the inside despite standing 6-foot-11, hurt Duke badly by going 0-of-5 from 3-point range, and Rivers’ 1-of-6 performance was no great help, either.
Coach K admitted as much after the game. “But again,” he said, “when you base your offense like we do on 3-point shooting you know some say, ‘Don’t,’ but that is who we are, man. That is who we are.”
Even so, there was occasion to celebrate the team’s compelling resilience. In a year full of comebacks, some realized and some of which fell short, Duke put together a late rally that had Carolina fans feeling nervous. With just over five minutes left, Seth Curry had an open 3 to reduce the deficit to eight. He missed, and when Rivers missed the front end of a one-and-one in the same situation a minute later, Duke Nation sagged. Carolina dominated the last four minutes to win by 18, and that was that.
Order had been restored. What we knew coming into the season is that if the Heels played up to their heady potential, they would probably win a national title. That hasn’t changed, and they looked magnificent Saturday. And Duke was always a team that would have to scrap for its success. Before the season, I wrote this: “If I had to guess Duke’s fate, I’d say 11-5 in the ACC, good for second place, an ACC tournament title (after Carolina tanks in the first round), and a Sweet 16 exit.”
I don’t think you’ll find any fan who doesn’t think Duke overachieved this year, which is a huge credit to Coach K and the striking, fearless play of Rivers — who, by the way, I will eternally love for his shot at the Dean Dome, whether he goes on to become a saint or a war criminal. I was off by two games in the ACC standings, but not, I think, in the fate that awaits the Blue Devils in the tournament.
Coach K is often villainized by his detractors as a some kind of evil corporate mastermind, but it’s amazing how often he comes through with a perfect, even poetic summation of certain wins and losses. On Saturday, he delivered again.
“It’s like a surprise gift, you know?” he said. “You open it up, and for the most part, it’s been a nice surprise. I never have any idea of what’s inside the present. And today there was nothing. It was an empty box.”
Duke had an empty box, but Carolina’s cup ranneth over.
As Duke struggled to climb the comeback mountain, I broke my vow to remain quiet and started cheering, albeit sort of quietly. My bravery has its limits. It was an ideal position for me, brief as it was, because even though Carolina was the better team with a solid lead, the memory of the comeback in the Dean Dome meant all Heels fans were terrified regardless. When Duke pulled within 11 at the six-minute mark, I couldn’t help reassuring the nearby fans that surely, surely, a late double-digit lead was safe against Duke. A few shouted back, and Justin leaned between us to try to protect me from myself.
But the comeback was short-lived, and so was my time as an antagonist. A fan to my right — who told me he wanted to be called “Cool Guy” if I wrote about him — leaned over to shout something at me, and yelled “that’s a dagger!” when Marshall extended the lead to 13. Cool Guy was right.
The patrons in the bar took up the A-C-C! chant as the game finished, and when ESPN showed a shot of Miles Plumlee looking morose, someone shouted, “Sweet Plumlee tears!” When Neil Diamond came on, there were hugs and high-fives. Everyone, from my friends to the ice cube man to Cool Guy, was celebrating.
The police shut down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill at 9:15 p.m., and the students who hadn’t left for spring break gathered with other fans to start small fires in the intersection of Franklin and Columbia. Chants of “A-C-C!” and “Fuck Duke!” rang out as police looked on and laughed from the sidewalk.
Pushing through the mass, I finally reached the front of the circle around biggest fire. They were burning papers, shirts, a Duke hoodie, and whatever else was expendable. One UNC fan encouraged me to burn my notebook, and a girl nearby told a guy that she liked her shirt too much to burn it. “Take it off!” someone shouted helpfully.
Around the fire, the students were leaping over the flames one by one. I did too, three times, because how often do you ever get to jump over a fire? After one one of the revelers made his jump, his friends said, “Holy shit, man, you’re on fire!” In a panic, the jumper whirled around to check his legs for flames while the friends laughed.
And, though admitting this is tantamount to treason, I felt good for them. The hardest thing to remember, when the rivalry is at its most tense, is the enemy isn’t uniformly a certain way. In the streets, I saw a thousand people to love and hate. In the bar, I met a man who would throw ice cubes at a stranger, and I met someone who went out of his way to find my friend and apologize that his Duke hat had been knocked to the floor.
You get the point. If Duke meets Carolina next Sunday in the ACC championship, I hope they win by 50. If Duke had won on Saturday, I might have been torn to pieces by a raging mob, but I’d have died happy. Still, watching the Tar Heels flood the streets, I knew things had turned out right. Our time was up. They were having their moment — the one they deeply deserved — and everyone else could go to hell.
See you soon, Heels.