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by Jason Byassee

Holy Hoops

The quasi-religious basketball rivalry between Duke and North Carolina.

The air has turned. The heat is gone, cool is here, cold is coming. This can only mean one thing: college basketball is on its way.

In advance of this quasi-liturgical season (at least for those reared in North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, and other enlightened places) let us ponder matters metaphysical. I have evidence for the existence of a merciful God. Proof, almost: Duke and North Carolina have never met in a men's basketball Final Four. How could heaven compare to the joy of winning such an apocalyptic contest, or hell to losing it? If bonfires and naked revelry erupt when the two meet in regular season games, what manner of destruction and mayhem would accompany a title game between the two?

They almost met in 1991, but God sent an ill spirit upon Carolina star Rick Fox's shooting touch, and the eschaton-inducing title match was averted. God used me to bring this about actually. I was in a video arcade on Franklin Street in my native Chapel Hill (video arcades were just barely still cool, or even open) when Fox appeared behind me at the pop-a-shot game. I had a stack of quarters, so just to get to play he challenged me. This was an error. Whatever advantage he held in height or athleticism evaporated when the goal was 6 feet high and 5 feet away. Surely the humiliation of this defeat at the hands of a teenager wearing a Duke shirt was responsible for Fox's personal debacle in the Final Four.

The Carolina/Duke rivalry is always personal. One would think that only sports fans, or just basketball fans, or more narrowly still Duke or Carolina fans, would care about a book on the history of this rivalry. Even a very good sports book like Art Chansky's Blue Blood suggests as much by its subtitle: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops (St. Martin's, 2006). But Will Blythe's wonderful title truthfully announces how much more widely applicable his work is: To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry (HarperCollins, 2006). Here is Blythe, a grown man, a successful writer for Esquire and the New Yorker among other esteemed publications, who still shouts at the TV when these two lock up. What do these lingering childhood neuroses mean? And can he or we even get rid of them?

The delight in the book is Blythe's hand as a wordsmith. Interestingly (from this Dukie's perspective) some of his greatest phrases come in begrudging praise of Duke players past and present. A crucial three-pointer fired in crunch time by Ichabod Crane lookalike Mike Dunleavy brought this delightful curse: "If the shot didn't fall cleanly through the hoop and stab me in the heart like the sneakiest cheatin' girlfriend." Bobby Hurley was a "New Jersey white kid" who used to "blaze up and down the court like a Chevy Camaro about to throw a rod." And more recent Duke great J.J. Redick would weave his "ceaseless figure eights around the court, rubbing defenders off big men down low, darting for the cover of successive screens like a roach desperately seeking a hiding place." It's only natural that his greatest turns of phrase come in praise of his mortal enemy. For the hatred has become second nature to him—he needs to hate Duke—and when he spends a year following players and coaches from both teams he finds himself disconcerted to be liking some of the dark minions. Just a little.

But Blythe wields a powerful pen praising the Tar Heels as well. Shooter Joe Forte could launch jumpshots that fell "into the net like groceries plopped into a bag by a pimply checkout boy." When all-time great Michael Jordan dunked the ball, he would "throw it down as if punishing it for insubordination." And when Sean May almost single-handedly defeated Illinois for the national title, he did so by "fouling out every big man in the state of Illinois, including ones not yet born." The gentle giant had magnificent hands: "Watching him shoot was akin to watching a bear dine on salmon with a knife and fork—such unexpected refinement captured one's notice."

But it's not just great sports writing with applications to other spheres of life that make this book jump off the shelf. As a southerner himself (and a Chapel Hill native like me), he can't escape religion. He's tried—he lives in New York City, where worship of hoops and God are both very much optional. But neither is optional back home. And Blythe's sports-watching habits have had an impact on his particular blend on not-quite-faith, raising the troubling question of whether they do for the rest of us. As he stands in the receiving line in the Presbyterian Church fellowship hall after his father's funeral, the pastor sidles up beside him to whisper this nugget of compassion amidst grief: "UCLA by ten. But it's early." Blythe reflects, "If only all parsons ministered to their flocks like this, I might still be a churchgoer."

Blythe's mother "tried to placate the New England God of her youth, that stern Congregationalist who frowned upon too much celebration." So she didn't celebrate wins too much. Blythe, on the other hand, asked hard questions about the providence of God and prayer for sports victories: "It was clear to my 11-year-old mind that if God didn't care about who won the basketball game, then who was to say He gave a shit about an individual sparrow falling from the sky?" His front-row seat for a year of Tobacco Road basketball yields this observation about one of the Culture War's verbal grenades: "`Hate is not a family value.' That depended on whose family you were talking about."

One family not at all built on hate that Blythe follows most closely is that of Melvin Scott. He'd been an urban basketball legend in Baltimore, and that was his ticket out of a risky neighborhood. He'd had decent success at Carolina early on, but in the year Blythe writes of, 2004-2005 (in which the Heels eventually win the national title) Scott's role on the team steadily declined. His friends back home in Baltimore told him to shoot more, take charge more, like he did back in the day. But Chapel Hill's caramel drawls and kind strangers and palatial basketball life had softened him, melting the chip right off his shoulder. Nevertheless he graduated from a great state university (loathe as I am to call it that), and forms the warm heartbeat amidst the book's rollicking humor.

Blythe even finds humanity in Duke's coach Mike Krzyzewski, "the dark prince," or the "rat," as he likes to call him (the latter an unkind reflection on K's visage). He is wary the rat will charm him. Dictators and fiends are often charming: "The killer in his cell was so gracious, so mannerly, so calm. It was hard to believe that he had eaten an entire family of Icelandic farmers." Even so he is charmed. Coach K comes from a Polish immigrant family in Chicago, so he can take the state of North Carolina's disdain for his élitist school, all the while smiling that he makes them learn how to spell the very name his father once anglicized. Pretty soon the author and the rat are crying about their respective mothers during their interview. "The world was too damned complicated. Man, this hatred gig was tough."

Still, Blythe manages to sustain it against all odds, coming full circle back to the view that Duke is the domain of self-righteous, egotistical rich kids whom Carolina fans are fully in their rights to despise. So he'll hang onto the "eternal-toddler" manner of sports. Where else can an erstwhile Presbyterian cut loose? Sports fans, especially Christian ones, will love watching him do precisely that in these pages.

Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at The Christian Century. He is the author most recently of An Introduction to the Desert Fathers (Cascade).

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