CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Few people understand what it’s like to have a foot in both shades of blue like Theo Pinson, a one-man house divided, a Duke fan growing up and right until he committed to North Carolina, where he will play the Blue Devils for the seventh time in his career Thursday.
It’s different on the inside, where the bitter intensity of the on-court battles give way to a wary respect off the court. That’s one of the great misunderstandings of this rivalry, the hidden secret underneath the hype.
The fans hate each other.
The players, with the exception of 40 minutes two or three times a year, generally get along with each other.
And behind the scenes, there’s a collegiality between the schools born of the knowledge that only a handful of schools in the country know how hard it is and what it takes to be this good this consistently for this long.
Only players who have lived it truly understand the fishbowl that these games are played inside.
“Everybody in the game is just taking advantage of the moment,” Pinson said. “You’re blessed to be in this situation, to play in this game. You watch it your whole lives. The fact that you’re able to play in this game, it’s an honor. It’s a blessing. We just go out there and battle it out and see what happens.”
That, as much as anything, binds North Carolina and Duke together as much as geography, and just as inextricably, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
“The bottom line is, there’s a tremendous amount of respect,” Williams said. “I think no one has more respect for what Mike Krzyzewski’s done at Duke than Roy Williams. Does that mean we agree on everything? No. But on almost anything, every major issue, for 30 years, we’ve agreed on almost every major issue, even when we were on the board of the (coaches association).”
It wasn’t always this way.
Long after Art Heyman and Larry Brown battled for the 15-501 heavyweight title, Krzyzewski’s rise at Duke was predicated, in part, on leading the rebellion within the ACC against Dean Smith’s empire.
Blood has been spilled as recently as 2007, with Gerald Henderson’s amateur rhinoplasty on Tyler Hansbrough.
But Krzyzewski and Williams are colleagues more than enemies these days, drawn even closer as allies in the old ACC’s fight against the Big East usurpers.
The two most important seniors in this particular iteration of the rivalry, Grayson Allen and Joel Berry, played on the same AAU team.
Allen and Berry and Pinson have known each other for years, long before they arrived on campus.
The schools recruit from the same pool of players; Williams talked as much about Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. on Tuesday as he did any of his own players.
The groundswell of empathy after Smith’s death three years ago Wednesday seemed to cement that underlying tone, with Duke fans wearing T-shirts with “Dean” written in Duke blue in the Duke font and players and coaches from both teams gathering at center court for a moment of silence before the game — a moment that would have been unthinkable during Krzyzewski’s insurgency, but he now occupies the same lofty perch Smith once did.
“The rivalry goes back before I’m coaching here,” Krzyzewski said. “I think you could see a difference in me, as a young coach trying to develop a program and how you’re fighting for everything. And in the ’90s, how both of us were really good. I think that’s where it started, for me, to change. I think I had a lot more empathy living it every year like Dean was living it every year, going through what he had to go through, and oh, now I’m going through that.”
Duke and North Carolina have more in common now than ever before.
Everyone from administrators to trainers communicates regularly with each other, because only the other side can really understand the particular requirements of playing on this stage.
When Duke is headed to the Final Four, at least one administrator sends a good-luck note or email to his counterpart at North Carolina, and vice versa.
Even such a mechanic as basic as scheduling press conferences is done through mutual agreement, with North Carolina holding its availability Tuesday and Duke on Wednesday.
That may not sound like much, but that kind of coordination isn’t always as easy as it may seem. Last month, before North Carolina hosted N.C. State, the schools scheduled their pregame availabilities on the same day one half-hour apart. N.C. State refers to North Carolina as “UNC-CH” in all of its official materials in all sports, over North Carolina’s objections.
There’s none of that pettiness with Duke and North Carolina, where combat on the court long ago gave way to cooperation off it.
“We should both be mature enough to understand we’re the caretakers of our programs, and we’re the guys who are in this spot right now, but we don’t own it,” Krzyzewski said. “We don’t own it. We’re privileged to be able to be in that position. In that respect, I think we see a lot of things like that the same way. Look, he wants to beat our program and we want to beat his, but we understand there’s a bigger world out there.”
None of that has taken away from the traditional spirit of the rivalry, with Williams jabbing Duke for its alleged appropriation of North Carolina’s beloved “family” with its #TheBrotherhood hashtag on social media, or players talking about how this game is unlike any other, from how the fans approach it to how the opposition approaches it.
Allen even described his final trip to the Smith Center on Thursday as “bittersweet.”
“Because I don’t have to go back there and get booed, but it’s an amazing place to play,” Allen said. “It’s always fun to go there and guys love to play in those types of crowds. It’s just such a big game. There’s such a great atmosphere around the game and around the rivalry.”
But the only way to truly understand that is to go through it, and once you get past your own brotherhood, the only other people who have that same knowledge is the family on the other side. And vice versa.