(Author's note: the Duke-UNC men's basketball rivalry resumes Tuesday night. Today's post deals with my introduction to the rivalry. Tomorrow I'll discuss my post-collegiate shift toward becoming a college basketball generalist, in a time when Duke hatred runs rampant.)
I grew up near Charlotte, and was slow to develop an interest in any sport that wasn't kickball. I was in elementary school when Dean Smith won his first title, not that I knew anything about that. My understanding of collegiate sports in 1982 was limited to the logos on clothes my classmates wore: almost all Tar Heel gear, and an occasional Wolfpack mention. Wake Forest and Duke did not exist. (Charlotte is pretty much the same way now.)
We moved to the Atlanta area in 1983, and I gradually became aware of basketball through friends who were fans of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. (Bear in mind that Dominique Wilkins was in his prime, and we had reason to believe the Hawks had a future.) For me, college basketball came much later; I didn't watch a Final Four until 1989. My high school years coincided with the rise of Georgia Tech, who I followed avidly in 1990 and 1991.
So I was not a Duke fan when they defeated UNLV and Kansas to win their first title. But then, no one at my high school was. Going back to clothing statistics, I would guess that allegiances split evenly between UGA and Georgia Tech, with some Alabama love. But April 1991 became an interesting month: I watched Duke become national champions, and a week later I received an acceptance letter from them. To be fair, I was also accepted by UNC, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and a few non-ACC schools.
My father and I took a trip to Winston-Salem and the Triangle area, where we visited the campuses (and spoke to the financial aid advisors). The visits were illuminating. I spent about 10 minutes exploring UNC's campus before deciding that it wasn't for me. I liked Wake Forest, but liked Duke a little more. With my family's geographically uncertain future, I had no compelling reason to stay in Georgia. After speaking to a family friend who'd advised me against Cornell, my 16-year-old mind was made.
I saw myself as an ACC fan when I arrived, believing that I could still follow Georgia Tech and not have to convert. That didn't last long. My exposure to Duke happened to coincide with their 1991-92 season, with the second straight title, the wire-to-wire #1 ranking, and the legendary regional final against Kentucky. Weirdly, Christian Laettner was obsessed with an arcade game on our dorm floor, so we saw him all the time. Regardless of how you felt about him, you couldn't help but be a little starstruck.
College friends can attest that I was never one of the Cameron Crazies. During those years I attended a handful of home games, including one against UNC, but the lack of fresh air was bad for my health, and I preferred sitting down to standing in a giant cluster of bodies. So instead I watched the games on TV. In retrospect, my free access but non-presence at games seems like a waste, now that every home game seems to have its share of invited celebrities.
Sportswise, I learned two things in college: an affection for Duke and a hatred for Carolina. The latter wasn't hard. Dean Smith was still very much in power, and Carolina was the more established program, mixing some dorky players (King Rice, Eric Montross, and Kevin Salvadori, to name a few) with some frustratingly good ones (like George Lynch and Hubert Davis). Then there was the Dean Dome, a large and quiet venue compared to Duke's rickety Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the home to what Florida State's Sam Cassell famously called a "wine and cheese crowd." (Having attended a game there, I don't disagree.)