My favorite memories from the Duke-UNC rivalry don’t involve basketball.
None of them involve anything that happened on the court. Honestly, of the 7 games I watched in person, not a single play or moment on the floor stands out in my mind. Instead, I vividly remember the events leading up to, and following the game. Maybe its because by the time the game started I was completely exhausted from the preparation and anticipation that, up until tip-off, surrounds the contest. But then the ball is tossed, and all the weight leaves your shoulders and once again it just becomes basketball. Two teams, shooting at baskets on opposite ends, trying to score more than the other, the repetition of running up and down the court that occurs thousands of times during the course of a season.
It’s the only time that Duke-UNC takes on the form of a normal basketball game, and calling it a normal game is a stretch, its more of an event. Maybe I blacked out into writer’s mode once the game commenced. Maybe I wanted to forget about the paint covering my shirt and pants that flaked off the sweating fans jumping behind me, or the spit that was sprinkled over my notes from the same screaming fans.
Following the game, even more relief takes over. A beer is opened. A blank word document or a blank Final Cut timeline waits to be filled with highlights. But again, this is easy. I have done this hundreds of times before. Repeat it. The stage is just slightly bigger, the audience more engaged.
My first year, in 2009, Duke lost both of its contests with UNC. The Tar Heels were a better team and would go onto win the National Championship. The first game that season was played in Cameron, and preparation for the event began months before the Tobacco Road Showdown. Duke’s video director, Brad Jones, decided to blow out the website on gameday with all day coverage, a new video or article every hour leading up to tip-off. Reporting and research began early, with us grabbing every former or current player who passed through the building’s hallways for an on-camera interview. We ended up with hours of interview footage from Jay Williams, J.J. Redick, Coach K, commentator Mike Patrick and a list of others. We had strapped a camera to the hood of my car (with bungee cords of course) one afternoon and made the 8-mile drive from Cameron to the Dean Dome and back to document the short trip that existed between the two campuses. Of all the preparation that went into being ready for game day, nothing would compare to the excitement and work that went into finishing everything the day before the game, locked in The Cave. With no internal server, Brad and I passed back hard-drives to one another with the footage we needed, putting the finishing touches on all the videos, surviving off Mike & Ike’s, Dunkin Donut’s coffee and a trip for dinner to our favorite Chinese restaurant.
When we were finished, it was 3:30 in the morning. The first video was set to go online in 4 hours. I remember the mix of exhaustion, excitement, relief, and Mike & Ike’s pulsing through my body as we walked into the crisp February air. We were on the verge of cracking, mentally exhausted, not wanting to think about ‘a single basketball game’ anymore, and not wanting to have to see each other again in just a few short hours. We had forgotten this was suppose to be fun...
…But then we were reminded, this is college athletics, this is college basketball, this is about college kids playing a game, this is about two schools located 8 miles apart, this is the biggest night in college basketball and this is about the fans. It’s fun.
As we exited Cameron that night, we witnessed three UNC fans, one with a water balloon launcher, running toward the parking lot adjacent to Cameron. Several Duke students, who were camping out in Krzyzewskiville in anticipation for the game, were chasing them from behind. The Duke students were soaking wet. They had just been victims of a water balloon attack by UNC. The UNC students rushed into a waiting car and sped off, accelerating over two large speed bumps, as the Duke students chased after them in the middle of the night.
It was the perfect ending to the day, or I guess the perfect start to one. If it had not been for us working that late we would have never seen that. Brad and I laughed at the urgency the Duke students chased after the UNC students, actually thinking they were going to run down a car on foot. Even some of the brightest young minds in college were prone to react off of emotion instead of intelligence. They were fans first. We spoke to the Duke students, huffing and puffing from their short chase, briefly, and then headed home.
That event put what we were doing into perspective – the creating, fretting, tinkering over the smallest details into the wee hours of the night was fun - and it was suppose to be. At that point, it didn’t matter to us what anyone else thought of the work we did. We didn’t care. We were proud that we had pulled it off and did something that hadn’t been done before. We did it for the people who sleep outside for months to go to a single basketball game, for the people who water balloon fans of the opposing team and for the fans that will chase back…
… And we did it because some thought we couldn’t. Some thought it was too much to take on. I think we liked that aspect of it the most, this challenge of taking on more than we should have, more than people thought was worth, and then pulling it off.
I don’t remember much about the actual day of the game. Duke lost. I had prevented a Brad blowup earlier in the afternoon. Everything was a success on the website. I drank a lot of coffee. My lasting image of the day came postgame. It was in the Duke locker room, the media hovering around the players asking questions. I remember seeing Greg Paulus sitting on a stool, answering questions from reporters with a towel around his neck. He was trying to hold back the emotion that was naturally coming out of his voice as he talked about the last time he would get to play UNC in Cameron, having never beaten them on Coach K Court. He cared so much, even more so than the students who were sleeping outside and chasing UNC fans in a car down Whitford Drive the night before.
I would be part of 6 more Duke-UNC games. Each one with a similar event surrounding the actual game that stood out more than basketball. Like in 2011, my final Duke-UNC game in Cameron, as we pulled off a live online pre-game show. Then after, watching former MLB pitcher Kevin Millwood, wearing a Marvin the Martian t-shirt, play horse in Cameron into the wee hours of the night, airballing 15 footers; My boss shaking hands with Chad, who replaced Brad, and me and telling us good job. A simple gesture, but much appreciated.
Then heading back to my office, leaning back in my chair inside The Cave, computer on my lap, beer can open, staring at a blank word document. Relieved that Duke won, relieved that the show was a success, proud that my last game in that building was special for the right reasons, not because of the outcome, but because of the people I got to share it with.