“Don’t you yell at my player, Mike!”
“Hey Dean, F**K YOU!”
These were the words of Hall of Famers Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski on March 12th, 1989 under the bright lights of the Omni in Atlanta, GA. They came in the midst of the most heated, physical, and emotionally-charged game that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have ever played against one another. The 1989 ACC Championship Game was more than just a conference title game, and it was more than just a rubber match between two teams that had already won on each other’s floors that season: It was the emotional climax of a drama that had been building for years and featured bad blood both on and off the court.
The 1980s had begun with the promise of being the Decade of the Tar Heels. They made the National Title Game in 1981, then won it all in 1982. The decade featured a wave of brilliant Tar Heel talent: Jordan, Worthy, Perkins, Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Al Wood. They were the gold standard in college basketball and a certain coach in Durham frequently claimed it was a “double standard” that the Tar Heels enjoyed from the league officials and the media.
But midway through the decade, a funny thing happened: Lowly Duke, who had struggled mightily in the ‘82 and ‘83 seasons, suddenly developed into a college basketball power. The Blue Devils upset MJ and Co. in the 1984 ACC Tournament, then in 1986 they won both ACC titles and reached the National Championship Game. In 1988, they did the unthinkable: They swept the Tar Heels 3-0 on the season and reached another Final Four. Meanwhile UNC failed to either win the ACC Tournament, or return to the Final Four since the historic 1982 season. Duke had caught up.
In 1989, the Blue Devils started the season as Preseason #1, and ran off 13 consecutive wins. They were led by eventual National Player of the Year Danny Ferry, who was backed by a supporting cast of Quin Snyder, Phil Henderson, Robert Brickey, and freshman Christian Laettner. The Blue Devils were media darlings, with journalists going gaga over their “clean-cut” image and photogenic players.
UNC, meanwhile, struggled at times with consistency, particularly at finding their best rotation. Ten Tar Heels would be regularly used, eight different players would start at least ten games, and six players (J.R. Reid, Steve Bucknall, Kevin Madden, Rick Fox, Scott Williams, and Jeff Lebo) averaged in double figures. They were deep and balanced, but occasionally spotty.
When the two teams met in the first game in Cameron, the storyline was that #1 Duke was a well-oiled winning machine and that #13 UNC was still trying to fit its pieces together. The result? A wire-to-wire UNC blowout, 91-71, to hand Duke its first loss of the season. Reid hounded Ferry into a woeful shooting night and his play should have been the story of the night. Unfortunately, Reid WAS the story, but for a very different reason: During the game, a Duke student brandished a sign that read “J.R. Can’t Reid” for all to see. This would be a joke that others used as the year went on and, beyond the obvious pun, its implication was simple: Reid, with his hulking physique and signature flattop haircut, was made out to be stupid.
Dean Smith was infuriated by the joke being made at an African-American player’s expense and weeks later, after Duke got on-court revenge in Chapel Hill, he was still talking about it. In an interview in which he was asked if he expected Reid to leave for the NBA instead of graduating, he sharply asked why that question wasn’t asked about any of the white players in the ACC. He then called attention to the fact that his starting frontcourt of Reid and Scott Williams (both African-Americans) had higher combined SAT scores than that of Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner (Duke’s white frontcourt starters).
Coach K and the Duke staff were incensed by Dean’s words, saying that bringing up their students’ grades was out of line, and when the two teams ripped through the competition in the ACC Tournament that week, the stage was set for the explosive rubber match in Atlanta.
UNC’s rancor showed immediately: The Heels exploded out of the gate and, led by Jeff Lebo’s shooting, took a 16-4 lead in the opening minutes. Reid, while faceguarding Ferry in the post, inadvertently cut him on the cheek and opened up a two-inch cut (Duke’s very own “Bloody Montross”). When Kevin Madden was tripped up and fell to the ground without a foul called, Dean Smith kicked a chair in anger. Oh yes, these were some pissed off Tar Heels.
But Duke finally began to hit their shots and fought their way back into the game, helped by 15 first-half turnovers committed by the fired up Carolina players. Both teams were jawing at one another by now, and when the two teams headed to the locker room at the half, UNC up 39-35, it came as a welcome respite in what was already a hotly-contested affair. But this was only the beginning.
Early in the second half, with a war breaking out on the boards, Scott Williams gave Laettner a hard foul to prevent a putback layup, sending him crashing to the floor. Krzyzewski and the Duke bench screamed for an intentional foul call but didn’t get one. Coach K then turned his ire on Williams, hollering “That stinks, Scott!” at him as he went by. Dean Smith heard him, and thus began our dialogue from the beginning of this piece.
Hit 21:55 for the sequence (though, I’m afraid the audio of K’s cursing cannot be heard).
Duke drew level at 52-52 right before the under 12:00 timeout. As the teams headed back to their benches, Duke’s Phil Henderson and UNC’s King Rice shoved one another. The benches cleared and the two teams exchanged words before being ushered back to the sidelines. Henderson was given a technical.
The game went back and forth, both teams hammering away at each other, and neither side able to grab much of an advantage. J.R. Reid, who was once again getting the better of Ferry, missed a shot but got his own rebound before finishing over a flopping Ferry in the lane. After the basket went in to make it 62-59 Tar Heels, Reid screamed down at the fallen Ferry. But Duke kept on coming back, tying the score several times in the closing minutes but never able to take the lead. When senior Steve Bucknall completed a three-point play over Henderson, it gave UNC a 69-66 lead with 1:40 to go and Duke began to play the foul game.
The Blue Devils had a number of chances to tie with a three in the closing minute but their poor shooting from the perimeter continued to dog them (they went 3-23 from three on the night). Steve Bucknall hit a series of clutch free throws to preserve the lead and with 10 seconds, UNC led 77-71. Laettner then hit an off-balance prayer to make it 77-74, then Duke (who had no timeouts remaining) fouled King Rice, sending him to the line to salt the game away with a one-and-one with 3 seconds left.
One week earlier in Chapel Hill, Rice had been fouled with 3 seconds on the clock and UNC trailing 87-85. He hit the first of two free throws, but he front-rimmed the second and Duke survived. Now, Rice had a chance to get redemption. But he hit front iron again and Ferry rebounded. He took one dribble to evade token pressure from Kevin Madden, then fired up a full court heave from the opposite foul line...and missed it by inches, bouncing off the back iron.
The Tar Heels celebrated their victory wildly on the court, while a group of Blue Devils huddled up on the sideline, no doubt vowing to use the defeat as fuel. J.R. Reid was named MVP of the tournament, fitting revenge for the indignities of the last month. It hadn’t been pretty, in fact it was vicious and ugly (a total of 49 fouls were called in the game), but the game was etched forever into Duke-Carolina lore. There were a great many rivalries in college basketball, but after that night in Atlanta, there was no question that UNC-Duke was #1.