On Jan. 29, The Daily Tar Heel interviewed former UNC men’s basketball player Antawn Jamison regarding the significance of the UNC-Duke rivalry. Jamison was the unanimous 1998 National College Basketball Player of the Year and his No. 33 jersey was retired in 2000. The former Tar Heel forward played the Blue Devils seven times while at UNC and won five of those games. Jamison then played 16 years in the NBA after entering the 1998 NBA Draft. The interview has been edited for clarity.
DTH: What is the meaning of the UNC-Duke rivalry to you?
Antawn Jamison: It’s like no rivalry you can ever compare. You hear people talk about Red Sox-Yankees at the professional level, Celtics-Lakers. To me, at the age of not knowing what you were getting yourself into and just the atmosphere to see the former players all come back and give their support. If you live in the state of North Carolina, it seems like everything is shut down for that game; either you’re pulling for Duke or you’re pulling for Carolina.
For me to be a part of that rivalry for three years and to have some success, as well, it’s one of those things that you cherish, and the memories just never go away. Just sitting here looking at the (Daily Tar Heel) book, and I remember those moments, and as you get older it just brings you back to 20 something years ago when this kind of directed your life into what it is now. So for me, it’s pretty much the highlight of my basketball career. And I have kids now, so I was able to bring my boys here a couple of years ago and, look, this is what it’s all about. I loved it, man, and just fortunate to be a part of it.
DTH: So, stepping on the court first time for that UNC-Duke game. Do you remember what’s going through your head?
AJ: Can’t lose. I remember that year they had Trajan Langdon, they had (Chris) Collins, his dad was a coach. I just knew all the hype built up for this one game and guys like Jeff McInnis and Dante Calabria were like, ‘All right young fella, we know you’ve been doing pretty well but we need you tonight.’ You hear about it the weeks to come, that week of, everywhere you walk around, the Pit and things of that nature, people are like, ‘Good luck’ and so forth. Of course, you heard those things throughout the regular games, but it was just something special. And then just the atmosphere once you took the court. It was unbelievable. I mean, I never heard the Smith Center that loud. Each possession, every play, the attention to detail, it was on a whole 'nother level.
For me, it was important to win the game, but once you start playing, it was the most fun I ever had playing the game of basketball. It was a lot of excitement, a lot of buildup to this one special game. And then you would think, ‘OK, this happened at home,’ and then we go to Duke. You know how that atmosphere is. I’m walking on the court, and I’m shooting a free throw and they’re yelling ‘Your mom can’t spell,’ and this and that. It was special, and then you would feel like after your freshman year you kind of get used to it, but you never do. You still have that excitement your sophomore year and junior year and so forth. I can’t put in words what it meant to be a part of that game.
DTH: What is that reception like now when you go to Cameron?
AJ: They look at me like, ‘Why are you in here?’ I go to more Duke games than any other place, and to me, it’s uncomfortable because you’re in these small bleacher seats and I’m like legs across and people are looking at me. Finally last year some woman was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I’m here scouting, I work for the Lakers,' and so forth, and she was like, ‘Oh, so when you play you beat us, and now you’re trying to take our players away. You might be bad luck.’ But it’s fun because it brings you back to the days you played. To see these kids that have the opportunity and the talent to make it to the next level, and you actually have an input on their talents and how it will translate to the next level — it’s my job. So it kind of gives it an importance of even though I don’t want to be here, I walk up.
It’s funny, too, because when you go up, whether it’s the security guards or people taking your ticket, there’s Tar Heel fans over there, as well. I walked out, and a police officer was like, ‘Hey, go Tar Heels.’ So my first time I was like, ‘OK, it’s not too bad.’ And people working inside are like, ‘I’m a Tar Heel at heart, I just have to work,’ so it was kind of surprising to see that. But once you walk in there people are just looking like what am I doing in there, so that kind of got some getting used to, but other than that it’s fine.”
DTH: So what’s your excitement like now when preparing for a UNC-Duke game? How is it different?
AJ: It doesn’t change. I’ve done a great job as far as raising some diehard (boys), so their blood is just Tar Heels. We would sit there, we would yell, we would jump up and down like I’m on the bench, and I can’t play anymore. That part will never go away to the day I die. It’s been 20 something years, and that game has just the importance as it did when I played.
Since I retired I don’t think I’ve missed a Duke-Carolina game, at home especially. I won’t go over there for a Duke-Carolina game, but it’s part of my duty to be there and give that support and I know what they’re going through. I know how difficult it is. I know all the pressure built up to that game so I get to relax a little bit. But like I said, it hasn’t changed. In my house, we are glued to the television and we’re pulling for the Tar Heels, we’re yelling like we’re in the stands and we’re enjoying it.”
DTH: Your last home game against Duke, 35 points, you won 97-73. What does that mean now just being able to look back and know that was your last game at the Smith Center?
AJ: You don’t really get the gist of it until years later, but that was a dominant game. And normally, no matter who’s ranked higher or who has the better team, normally when those two teams play together, it’s always a close game until the last couple of minutes. But I just remember as a team our focus. You know, Coach Smith had just retired that year and Coach Guthridge, we didn’t want to let him down. It was just something that we were just geared up, and we dominated from start to finish. We played in some games where we were really dominant, and it was kind of like an easy win. That game just stands out. I have that game recorded. The kids come over and I’m like, ‘Hey man, watch your dad.’ It just makes me excited to know that I was, not only myself as an individual performance but as a team, and the guys I played with, we have a bond that will never be broken.
You know Brad Frederick is a coach here, and we talked about that game when they did the dedication to Coach Williams this summer, and every time we get together, Shammond Williams and those guys, we always talk about the Duke-Carolina rivalry. All of us were on a group chat, and you would be amazed at all the guys who played when I played, after me, before me, are giving out support and just giving our insight at what we see. It runs through our blood. It’s special to be a part of that and every year you look forward to the Super Bowl, you look forward to the All-Star Game. But that Duke-Carolina rivalry, especially in the state, and global, too.
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