Cam Johnson has been a visiting player at the Smith Center and a visiting player at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He has played at Louisville, where the fans were, he said, “pretty harsh.” He has played in the Carrier Dome, funky and different.
Feeling the ire of both sides of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry is all part of a pretty wide range of experiences the Pittsburgh grad transfer brought with him to North Carolina for his lone season with the Tar Heels. None of that, his new teammates have told him, can prepare him for Thursday night, when he will play for North Carolina, at home, against Duke.
“You can play at Carolina, you can play at Duke, at a different university,” Johnson said Tuesday. “But apparently it doesn’t compare to being at one school and playing against the other.”
It does not.
There’s no question that the Smith Center half of the Duke-Carolina rivalry isn’t quite as intense as the Cameron half, a function of architecture more than anything else. But the atmosphere Johnson will experience in his adopted home court Thursday will be different than anything he has experienced so far, as a visiting Pittsburgh player or as a North Carolina player, and it will be unlike anything he experiences in the rest of his career.
His teammates keep telling him that.
There’s really no way to prepare for this. North Carolina and Duke players all find that out as freshmen, and some find out anew when they see their first playing time. Johnson is different because he’s a senior going into this game for the first time under rather unusual circumstances, but historically speaking, this particular awakening cares not.
It is new for everyone, regardless of age or experience.
“The only way you can experience this and know how it is, is just being a part of it,” North Carolina’s Joel Berry said. “I’ve been a part of it for three years, and my first year, I didn’t really understand it. I’m from Florida and I’ve seen it on TV, and I’m just like, this rivalry, people take it pretty seriously.”
Berry, a master of understatement, is not the only one to give Johnson that particular speech, especially the part about going over to Durham.
“You see, I’ve heard that a couple times now,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard that it’s nothing that you’ve seen before, no environment that you’ve played in before. I’d agree with that. I don’t really have any expectations coming in. I just expect to go out there and play basketball. I’ve been talking to the guys that have been around a little bit about it. Their excitement, the people in Chapel Hill’s excitement, the people affiliated with both universities’ excitement, it speaks for itself.”
Which isn’t to say Johnson has been living in a cave. Even in high school in Pittsburgh, basketball practice would end early on the nights North Carolina and Duke played. Like Berry, he isn’t from here, and may not have been born to it, but that doesn’t mean he’s the kind of person who previously dismissed the rivalry as a product of ESPN hype as some detractors do, even within the ACC.
“Never,” Johnson said. “It’s such a classic matchup, such a classic rivalry. It’s one of the best, in my opinion, in sports. It’s not something that I necessarily get tired of. It’s always an exciting game.”
Thursday will be his first time on the inside, his first introduction to what it actually means to those who actually play it. That’s an exclusive fraternity, one that includes all-Americans and national champions and Hall of Famers, some of whom consider their games – their wins, typically – against the other half of this rivalry among the high points of their entire basketball careers.
Johnson will join that fraternity, even if he’s one up on his freshman teammates: He already has a win over Duke (in 2016) and is .500 for his career against the Blue Devils. (He went 0-4 against UNC; if you can’t beat them etc.) That will mean nothing Thursday. It’s all going to be new, and Johnson knows he doesn’t really know what to expect.
“I never was under the assumption that I knew,” Johnson said. “I never was like, ‘Ah, I definitely know what it’s going to feel like,’ because I don’t. I’ve never played in it before. I’ve trusted (my teammates). I’ve listened to what they had to say about it. I’ll find out pretty soon what it’s all about.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Duke at North Carolina
When: 8 p.m., Thursday
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill