I don’t know if people who live in other places love their states the way I love North Carolina. I have never lived anywhere else. It’s in my blood, though, as cheesy as it sounds. I know my mother feels the same way, though I’ve never heard her say it. We love this state, everything about it. The mountains, the foothills, the beaches. The cities and farms. And in North Carolina, that means loving basketball as well. College basketball, to be exact.
I am not sure exactly how my mom chose her basketball team. Three of her four brothers attended NC State. Two of them graduated from there. The other brother . . . well, he went to Carolina. I don’t know what made her decide to be a Carolina fan rather than an NC State fan. Both teams were winning a lot then, so it was just a matter of choosing one. Whatever it was, she passed it down to me. She told me all about Dean Smith and the Carolina Way (praising the seniors and keeping the freshman in check) and Four Corners and Michael Jordan. She told me that we are a Carolina family. And I believed her, I ate it up. My blood bleeds as (light) blue as hers. My brother is not much of a sports fan, and my dad, well, I’ll get to him in a minute. But basketball, for me, is a mother-daughter event.
My mom played basketball in high school, and there’s a story about how, in a close game, she was fouled at the last second and her free throws won the game. My mom still has the newspaper clipping from that game, and my dad used to claim that she would make him kiss it every night before bed. For a young girl with no discernible athletic talent, that’s pretty heady stuff – my mom was a superstar in my eyes. Of course I ate it up.
She didn’t talk as much about Duke – I picked that up on my own. As loath as I am to admit it, there are a lot of similarities in the way that Dean Smith (and now Roy Williams) and Mike Krzyzewski run basketball teams – emphasizing hard work and experience over showmanship. Both incredibly consistent, high profile teams. And yet, any North Carolina fan could point out the differences. Public school vs. private. And thus, North Carolina students vs. out-of-staters. Politically liberal coach vs. politically conservative coach. The everyman vs. the elite. And around this state, to be honest, there aren’t as many Duke fans as there are in other places, which makes it easy to call Duke things like, “The University of New Jersey at Durham.” We went to church in Chapel Hill, and on the Sunday of the Duke/Carolina game, the pastor would say things like, “Duke fans on this side, Carolina fans on this side.” And he was only partly kidding. The youth group sometimes watched games together, and what I remember about that is that people got their feelings hurt. A lot. (And by “people,” I mean “Duke fans,” because this was a period in which we were doing more of the winning in this particular rivalry. I am hoping we experience another period like that again soon.)
I’ve gone through different phases in my Carolina obsession. At the height of my fandom, in 1993, my team won the national championship. And I must confess, I could not watch. I went to bed at halftime, with Carolina ahead over Michigan, comfortable in the fact that, that season, they had never lost a game when they were ahead at halftime. “That’s an easy statistic when we’ve only lost four games,” my mother pointed out. Ignoring her logic, I went to bed, knowing I could not bear to watch. That’s the kind of fan I was – so emotionally invested that I could not handle the stress.
I have taken a few steps back since then, though, when he’s upset about a game, my husband still tells me that I’m not very fun to watch games with. He’s lashing out at me because I made him be a Carolina fan, made it a requirement of our relationship. He didn’t have a team, so I made him take mine, which means I can accept it when he tells me I’m taking it too seriously because he knows he is, too. He does admit now that the first time he saw me hide in a closet after Carolina lost in the NCAAs, he had some reservations about what he’d gotten himself into. But I’ve gotten better, and he’s gotten more passionate. We met in the middle.
So the last few years have been about teaching him things (I took him to the Dean Dome for the first time this year) and about sharing victories with my mom. But there’s one other thing that characterizes basketball for me, specifically the Duke/Carolina rivalry.
Sometime in the late 80s, my dad became a Duke fan. In his defense, I will point out that he became a Duke fan before 1991, before all the winning. So he was, at least, a legitimate Duke fan, not the bandwagon kind that came out of the woodwork after the back-to-back championships. When I was in high school, this meant that we would make wagers about the Carolina/Duke games – whoever had the losing team had to wear the other team’s sweatshirt to church (the ultimate humiliation). This was, of course, the period in which Carolina was doing the winning in the rivalry, and also when we were all wearing our clothes extra baggy. There were many Sundays that my dad had to wear my XXL North Carolina sweatshirt to church. He accessorized by wearing a tie over it, not because he’s a tie man (my dad is definitely not a tie man), but because it would cover up the words. (I must admit that, the one time I remember that Duke won, I was so forlorn that he didn’t make me wear his sweatshirt. I think he wore it himself instead.) He stayed up listening to the infamous double overtime game in Cameron (my family doesn’t have ESPN) and told me about it in the morning. He would bring pictures from the Carolina/Duke games home for me, force me to hug him while he was wearing his Duke sweatshirt, tease me about my team. So, for me, the rivalry is about family. After I moved out, he would call me and talk trash before the games – he’s the only Duke fan I ever talk trash with. That’s just not my favorite part of fandom, unless my dad was involved, because I knew we loved each other enough that none of the basketball mattered, that our feelings, though they might get hurt, couldn’t stay that way for long. If Carolina did happen to win (which has been rarer in recent years, but has thankfully occurred), I would call my mom to celebrate and he would be in the background rebuking me for gloating. Right up until last season, my dad thought he could talk me and my mom into . . . well, if not cheering for Duke, at least not hating them. “I pull for your team when they aren’t playing my team,” he would say. “But your team is coached by the devil himself,” we would explain. It was our thing, the rivalry. It was part of our relationship, part of being father and daughter.
Last fall, my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer. I must admit that I have been dreading the first Carolina/Duke game without my dad to call me and declare that my team is going down. Will the hating be as much fun without him to play devil’s advocate (okay, bad pun, I am sorry)? I honestly don’t know. The holidays were hard without him, but it’s the little things that make me miss him the most. Basketball, for me, is one of those things.
When we were cleaning out my dad’s closet, my husband took my dad’s Duke jersey. I wouldn’t have taken it, but he said maybe he could use it for a Halloween costume. I think he also had the idea that I might want it one day, as a tangible reminder of what my dad and I shared. We can show it to our kids and tell them about my dad, how we used to tease each other, all while raising them to be good Carolina fans. I’m glad we do have it, if only because I like to imagine my dad, gloating in heaven about the fact that I have a Duke jersey hanging in my closet. I am sure he thinks this means he won in the end.
Being a North Carolinian means loving a basketball team, whether that’s Duke, Carolina, State, or Wake Forest. This season, despite my loss, I have still been cheering for Carolina, calling my mom to celebrate our victories and Duke’s losses. My husband and I have still been watching the games. The Carolina/Duke rivalry has never been about going to the games or being part of the overall fandom. For me, it’s been as much about love – of my mom, of my team, and of my dad – as hate.