A brief preface: earlier this week, I lost my Nana at the age of 94. Loss is always hard, but it’s a bit easier to take knowing that it was a full life lived. And Nana spent the majority of that life being the biggest Duke fan I ever knew, despite never having stepped foot on the campus in any of those 94 years. There wasn’t any real rhyme or reason to her fandom; it was just something that was. Despite that, she still treasured me and even forgave me when I became the first member of my family to go to Chapel Hill.
One of the many great things about this rivalry is that a hate like this can even be shared with someone you love. This piece is dedicated to her; I can still remember the fierce discussion we had about this game.
It’s February of 2014 and I’m in the middle of my last semester at UNC. It had been a journey more unique than most: I had missed getting kicked out of school by the skin of my teeth during a catastrophic sophomore year filled with an inability to attend class, but was somehow still on track to graduate in four years. The fall I started, 2010, was the fall that everything hit the fan and 11 football players missed out on what was almost a miracle win over LSU. We know what that turned into.
I had also experienced maybe the worst run of luck of any UNC student. Lottery after lottery I missed out on my chances to attend the majority of UNC games. I foolishly skipped so many non-conference games, assuming I’d get my shot to see some high-level competition. That chance didn’t come until my senior year, and of course it ended up being Phase 1 Duke tickets.
The journey to get to the risers of that game was just like my journey through Chapel Hill. February 12th, a snowstorm hit the Triangle. There was no word that the game would get canceled, so I planned on heading down eventually. Snow kept falling, and eventually I figured I should get down there before it gets worse. So I hopped on my bike and rode from my apartment on MLK.
By the time I made it there, most of the people have thinned out. Though there still was no official word on the status of the game, we had to pretty much operate like it was still going to happen, unlikely as it was at that point. I mean, look at this:
Big accident adds to woes in I-85 in Durham. Interstate CLOSED in both directions. pic.twitter.com/ogArpWxdMj— WRAL NEWS in NC (@WRAL) February 12, 2014
By that point, most of us were sensible enough to accept that the game wasn’t happening. But every minute that passed with no official word out of Duke, we got more and more riled up. Eventually, we were all packed inside the Aquatic Center in a feeble attempt to keep us in some semblance of a line so that the students who were originally in the front of the line would have their positions honored should the game be rescheduled. As we talked amongst ourselves, packed together like sardines, the issue didn’t really become about Duke being too scared to play, although that was easier to chant about.
It was about the utter lack of communication that kept us waiting and waiting and waiting with no idea what was happening. The bus could have left sooner. The decision to reschedule could have been made earlier. The inconvenient situation that hundreds of students had found themselves in was one that was easily preventable, but still no word from Duke.
Roy, ever the guy to go out of his way for the backbone of UNC athletics (the students), came to visit us in person and let us know the status of the game. Morale, which had gotten pretty low by that point, shot through the roof. The procedure was established, although the details are foggy to me at this point. You provided your name, OneCard, and were assigned your position in line. Whenever the game did happen, you’d get a wristband with your number on it, and it would get you where you needed to go.
We all filed out once that process was through, and it was around 7:00. It was very dark and very much still snowing. I grabbed my bike from the bike rack, hopped on it to head home, and then was stopped by someone flagging me down with a microphone in hand.
It was a WRAL news crew. They were interviewing some of the students about the canceled game, and when the reporter noticed that some idiot was riding a bike in a snowstorm, she had to flag me down.
“You biked down here? And you’re going to bike back?” she asked me.
I answered a few questions on camera, and they got a nice shot of me riding away (it’s my avatar here!). I biked home without getting hurt, bundled up, and watched myself on the news. Man, I guess I really did bike through a snowstorm, huh?
Fast-forward eight days to February 20th. It’s a much nicer day, and I get down to the Dean Dome pretty early, having forgotten that my place in line was already recorded. When I got there, there were only like a dozen other people, but I still claimed my spot in line. Eventually, they came with the wristbands, with numbers to be written on them in silver Sharpie. Mine ended up being in the 150s, I think 153.
Confession time: I wet my thumb and rubbed that last digit off to turn it into a 15. It was still kind of visible, but definitely not at first glance. And I was right around where 15th in line would be anyway. So as they started the Herculean prospect of rearranging the whole line, I waited on pins and needles to see if anyone got wise to my scheme.
Nope. Someone glanced at my thing, noted I was around where I needed to be in line, and I got to stay right where I was. For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear anyone behind me getting caught with another 15. But if you’re out there, I’m sorry. I am not a clever man.
So it’s my first-ever UNC basketball game (I never went to any as a kid because I grew up an ECU fan thanks to my dad). And I’m in the front row of the risers for the Duke game.
The game that night was louder than any concert, alarm, or other noise that I had ever heard. Duke waltzed in ranked #5, and led by double digits with fifteen minutes left. Jabari Parker looked like a professional at times. The sign I was holding was battered, and my puny legs were getting tired. The rest is history.
Students: Thanks for the great energy tonight in a great win! pic.twitter.com/qbORAFEtzA— UNC Student Tickets (@UNCStudentTix) February 21, 2014
The Heels won 74-66, and when the final buzzer sounded I all of a sudden felt one thousand people pushing me at once. My feelings about court storming are complicated: with wins big enough over foes big enough, it’s certainly justified. But at the same time, I felt like accomplished programs should act like they’ve been there before, especially in a rivalry like UNC-Duke.
That said, I forgot about all of that and went out there to hoot and holler, partially because I didn’t really have a choice in the matter but mostly because I was extremely hype.
Still with my war-torn sign, I indeed hopped on my bike and rode home with a joyous crowd. A few people even recognized me from TV. I led the call and response “Tar! Heel!” on the way home. It was a catharsis. In those eight days, the trash talking had gotten ridiculous. That win let us drive home the “they were too scared to play us” jokes till the cows came home. The fashion in which it came made it even sweeter.
It was something that could only be a product of this rivalry. It’s a game I’ll be telling my grandchildren about. But the best thing is that it’s only one chapter of a never-ending story, and another chapter is getting written on Saturday. When that game ends, one team will have finished the season with a win over their fiercest rival, and the other will be taking two straight losses into conference tournament play.
Let’s not act like it won’t be Duke on that skid. Go Heels!