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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The modern myth of the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry

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North Carolina sophomore Tyler Hansbrough is checked on by teammate Dewey Burke following an intentional foul by Duke's Gerald Henderson that left the Poplar Bluff, Mo., standout looking like Eric Montross. Coach Roy Williams said that Hansbrough's nose isn't broken, but that he doesn't look good. UNC defeated Duke 86-72 in the Smith Center on Sunday, Mar. 4, 2007. DTH File/Beth Ely. 

Literature professor and mythologist Joseph Campbell defines his concept of the "monomyth" as such:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Immediately makes one think of UNC-Duke basketball, no?

Now, I know what you're thinking: here's some semi-intellectual idiot on the internet, framing a dumb sports game in loosely academic terms to make himself feel better about dedicating large portions of his life to people shooting a ball. To that I say ... well, just hear me out anyway.

From a Tar Heel perspective: A hero (Tyler Hansbrough) ventures forth form the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (a packed Dean Dome): fabulous forces (Gerald Henderson elbows) are there encountered and a decisive (86-72) victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons (alcohol-induced elation) on his fellow man (student).

It goes beyond one game though. Styles make fights; UNC-Duke is an ideological battle. Private school versus public. Three-point shooting and patient offense versus dominant big men and infinite fast breaks. Rich, spoiled Jersey brats (that's the stereotype, at least) versus homegrown, good-hearted Carolina kids (that part is totally true). 

At the risk of sounding like an overzealous English major, there's a reason why UNC-Duke is a national, or even global, affair. It's a myth, a story of monumental proportions on the level of "The Odyssey," or "Hamlet" or "Star Wars." It captures our imaginations and etches itself into our memories.

Chuck Klosterman once wrote that everything can be framed in terms of the definitive NBA rivalry of the 1980s: you're either a Lakers person or a Celtics person, and there's no in-between. 

I posit that actually, you're either a North Carolina person or a Duke person. And there is definitely — with no apologies whatsoever to N.C. State fans — no in-between.

Squint hard enough and you can see the archetypal through lines: Roy Williams, the country kid forever indebted (in his mind) to the magisterial Dean Smith, versus the royal blue evil empire. Or, alternatively, the self-made Coach K who regularly does battle with the common hicks down the road.

The lines in the sand are clearly drawn. Now that we see that, it's worth asking: What kind of coward, if asked who they wanted to win, Tar Heels or Blue Devils, would say "Oh, I don't really care"?

Shut up. Of course you care. You have to. Ask the least sports-obsessed person you know — or a five-year-old, for that matter — to watch a UNC-Duke game for five seconds and they can tell you which team they prefer, if only because of the color of the jerseys or who happens to be winning or the look of a particular player or coach.

Myths used to exist to explain natural phenomena, like rain or tornadoes or shitty crop yields. Now, in the context of sports, they serve a more important purpose: making us really invest in something, anything, without reservation.

Sports isn't war, or politics or religion. The stakes are comparatively low. It divides us, but in a harmless way. It lets us create an identity, point to something massive and lofty and bigger than ourselves and say, "That. That's me."

That's Duke versus UNC: an ever-evolving myth, with new chapters written annually, that tells us about ourselves and those who are definitely not ourselves. It bridges the eight-mile gap between the proverbial us and them. 

And while we don't necessarily have to make peace with those across from us, we can at least look at them and say, "Yup. There they are. Those bastards."


@DTHSports |

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