DURHAM — In the waning moments of his 66th birthday, only minutes after going back above .500 in his career against his most heated rival, Mike Krzyzewski took a moment to say thanks for a few things, most notably his family, but that rivalry between Duke and North Carolina was not far behind on the list.
“Part of that is being a part of this rivalry,” Krzyzewski said. “The fans don’t always handle it so well, but the players and coaches do. There’s a supreme respect.”
It was the concluding statement of what amounted to a two-day lobbying binge in support of the rivalry by the Duke coach, who both before and after the game delivered some of his most eloquent, heartfelt and persuasive statements on the true nature of this most unusual series.
Perhaps it was the game falling on his birthday for the first time. Perhaps it was returning to doing battle with North Carolina after another summer spent doing battle with the world. Perhaps it was merely a man, 66 years old, who sees so much of what he loves falling apart around him and is ready to fight for it.
“This game, right now, is so good for college basketball with all the conference realignment and the so-called forgetting about traditions,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday. “This is why you have to be careful when you’re making all these decisions about where you go and what you do. You don’t get rid of anything like this. This is a priceless event.”
The context is obvious. Duke’s next opponent is Maryland, which has had its own moments with Duke over the years. The Terrapins are leaving the ACC, a conference built, above all else, on basketball rivalries: Duke and Carolina, of course, but also N.C. State and Wake Forest and the Big Four; and Maryland and Georgia Tech and Virginia, particularly when those schools were going to Final Fours and challenging for national titles.
As the Terrapins depart, to be replaced by teams with geographic and spiritual ties elsewhere, Krzyzewski is right: This rivalry has never meant more to the ACC than it does now.
It’s the shared respect, the commonality of purpose and tradition and geography, that distinguishes it. That was apparent during the brief timing error that delayed the final buzzer Wednesday night. While the players exchanged hugs and backslaps on the court, Krzyzewski and North Carolina coach Roy Williams stood with the officials at the replay monitor, less opponents than custodians of something bigger than themselves, making sure it ended right.
Sure, there was P.J. Hairston barking at the Duke bench during North Carolina’s early run, but this rivalry always has the potential to turn a little rough around the edges. The truly ugly moments over the years helped build the fire, no question about it, and the clean, well-lighted hate between the teams’ fans keeps it burning. Yet it’s the shared history that unites the two schools at the same time it pits them against each other.
“At some time I won’t be here and certainly I wasn’t here all the time – coach (Vic) Bubas, (Bill) Foster, and there will be somebody after me and there will be players,” Krzyzewski said. “But Duke and Carolina will be there forever. Those are the things that, when you do play, you’ll be conjuring up memories of ’86, ’94, whatever.
“That’s the cool thing about it. It’s like the Masters, what golf does with the Masters. The NBA doesn’t do it. We have to be careful that we don’t fall into trying to compete with what they do, because we’ll lose it. Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo, they come back year after year after year. What comes back year after year here is Duke and North Carolina. It’s much better. It’s much better.”
Buried in that reverie is a clear warning. Despite nights like Wednesday, when the mere presence of one team on the court can bring the absolute best out of the other, this rivalry is a fragile thing at a time of change and upheaval in college sports. This too can be lost.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947