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Tuesday April 13th

For legacy players on UNC men's basketball team, the Duke game is a family affair

<p>K.J. Smith and Kenny Smith pictured together after UNC's 116-67 win over Elon on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo courtesy of Josh Reavis/UNC Athletics.</p>
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K.J. Smith and Kenny Smith pictured together after UNC's 116-67 win over Elon on Nov. 9, 2018. Photo courtesy of Josh Reavis/UNC Athletics.

UNC head coach Roy Williams has said he never looks ahead when it comes to the men’s basketball schedule. He prepares for who his team is playing next, and that’s it — even when it comes to what most people regard as the greatest rivalry in college basketball. 

“I’m telling you the gospel truth, I have no freakin’ idea who we play next and I never look down the schedule,” he said at a press conference on Jan. 22.

Maybe the famous Duke-UNC rivalry game is the same old, same old for the longtime coach — but for the legacy players on the men’s basketball team, it’s a moment some of them have been thinking about for almost their entire lives.

It’s more than just a date circled on the calendar. It's more than just an event that will flood millions of TVs across the nation. It’s even more than taking part in a historic feud that dates back to the 1920s.

For legacy athletes, it’s a family affair.

“Since I knew about Carolina and about my dad, I knew about the rivalry,” first-year guard Creighton Lebo said. “It was one of those games we definitely always had to watch. Our whole family would sit down and cheer on the Heels.”

On Saturday, Lebo will step onto the court in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in his collegiate career, 32 years after his father, Jeff, graduated from UNC.

Lebo can’t even recall his first memory of the rivalry. It’s just always been part of the 6-foot-1 point guard’s life – and it’s a game he’s been waiting for since he decided to attend UNC. While Lebo is preparing for the strangeness of a noiseless Cameron Indoor on Feb. 6, he still made sure to talk to his dad about what he should expect for his first experience against the nearby rival.  

“He said it was one of the most intense games he’s played in his whole entire career,” Lebo said. “Everyone was trying to win that game more than any game of the year. He loved playing in that atmosphere, loved playing in Cameron Indoor.”

For redshirt senior guard K.J. Smith, the Duke-UNC rivalry game is an exciting reminder of when his father etched his name into Smith Center history.

It was early January 1986 when the Blue Devils made the short trip from Durham, in what would be the first night two teams would ever face off in the historic arena. Kenny Smith had a special goal in mind going into the rivalry game: he wanted to score the first bucket in the Smith Center. 

While Kenny would eventually have to settle for notching the Smith Center's first assist by feeding a pass to center Warren Martin – his first of many before he ultimately graduated from UNC as the school's leader in career assists – he helped secure the win and his place among the memorable moments in both Tar Heel and Smith family history.

K.J. always watched the game with his dad throughout his childhood, calling plays and listening to anecdotes about former head coach Dean Smith and K.J.’s eventual head coach, Williams. But now, it’s K.J. who honors his father by wearing his same jersey number.

And it's K.J. who gets to reflect on the raw emotions and intensity surrounding his first experience facing Duke in the Smith Center. Even though he never entered the game, the atmosphere of the moment wasn't lost on him.

“Everything felt so surreal,” Smith said. “That first Carolina-Duke game, I was just sweating through my suit. It gives me chills just thinking about it. The Smith Center with 22,000 people filled up, screaming and chanting. Those moments before the tip, you’re really like, 'Wow, this is the biggest rivalry in sports, and I’m a part of it.'"

Cameron Indoor won’t be rocking with fans, blaring music or buzzing with the excitement of thousands of Cameron Crazies, nor will big-name personalities like former President Barack Obama and director Spike Lee grace the sidelines.

But there will still be two important onlookers for Lebo and Smith: their fathers.


@dthsports |


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