Scott Fowler

4 former stars from UNC and Duke dish on college basketball’s greatest rivalry

Here’s what Christian Laettner told his team to lift them to a victory

Former Duke star Christian Laettner spent a week with the Garinger High basketball team as part of a future reality show for the Olympic Channel. In the one game Laettner helped coach Friday night, Garinger won to improve its record to 4-16.
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Former Duke star Christian Laettner spent a week with the Garinger High basketball team as part of a future reality show for the Olympic Channel. In the one game Laettner helped coach Friday night, Garinger won to improve its record to 4-16.

The second North Carolina-Duke basketball game is nearly upon us, tipping off Saturday night in Chapel Hill. There remains a delicious possibility of a third matchup next Friday or Saturday at the ACC tournament in Charlotte.

To get ready , I interviewed four great former college basketball players who know the rivalry firsthand.

Duke’s Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, as well as UNC’s Kenny Smith and Eric Montross, were all involved in a number of terrific Duke-UNC games in the 1980s and 1990s.

And once you live inside that rivalry, it never really goes away. I talked to Smith and Hill together at a Charlotte restaurant – they were in the city in February for their work as Turner basketball analysts during NBA All-Star Weekend.

When I asked Hill what he thought of Zion Williamson’s explosive playing style, Hill said: “To me, he’s like a 280-pound Vince Carter.”

To which Smith replied: “All those Duke players you’ve got, and you had to compare him to a Tar Heel?!”

Here are some first-person thoughts from all four men about the series.

Eric Montross

Montross played center for the Tar Heels from 1990-94, including the 1993 national champions. He stayed on the court while bleeding from under his eye in one of the 1992 games, providing one of the most iconic images of the rivalry. Montross now works as the analyst on the official radio broadcast for UNC games.

I loved everything about that rivalry, even when we lost. The rivalry was enjoying being picked on, and also picking on. There were all kinds of good memories.

The Duke student newspaper once had a large, empty space on one of its pages the night before the game. It was captioned: “This big, useless white space was put here to remind you of Eric Montross.”

I loved that. I thought it was hysterical.

Another funny one came when we were over playing at Duke, and there was a student who had dressed up as Frankenstein and had on my jersey. He was painted green. He had bolts on the side of his neck. He was staggering around with his arms out and “Montross” on his back. I thought that was hysterical, too.

After the game, my parents were waiting for me outside our locker room. And at one end of the hall, here comes the kid dressed like Frankenstein. My dad kind of bristled – here was someone poking fun at his son. He barked something like: “Hey, get out of here!”

And the student said, “But sir, I just want his autograph.” My dad melted at that one – now he suddenly becomes the kid’s best friend. I gave him an autograph.

laettner better in locker room
Former Duke star Christian Laettner talks to the Garinger high basketball team in 2018. Laettner came to Charlotte for a week to help coach Garinger for a documentary now airing on OlympicChannel.com. Scott Fowler sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

Christian Laettner

Commonly thought of as one of the best players in ACC and NCAA tournament history, Laettner led Duke to national championships in both 1991 and 1992. He was in Charlotte in 2018 for a week to be the guest coach for the Garinger High basketball team. That experiment was filmed by the Olympic Channel and turned into an excellent documentary that was just released and can be seen on OlympicChannel.com.

When I was 15 years old, the Duke-UNC game looked like the funnest game in the world to be a part of. So I chose to make sure I was a part of it for four years, and when I was at Duke, it exceeded all my expectations.

As I get older and older, I just appreciate it more. Honestly, the Carolina games I played in every year were more intense than the national championship games I played in – they had a better environment.

Former Duke star Christian Laettner spent a week with the Garinger High basketball team as part of a future reality show for the Olympic Channel. In the one game Laettner helped coach Friday night, Garinger won to improve its record to 4-16.

When you’re at home for Duke-Carolina, you have a crowd of close to 10,000 around you, loving you. That’s awesome. But it’s also a lot of fun in Chapel Hill, where it’s you, your teammates and your coaches and no one else. I enjoyed the games at Chapel Hill a little more because of that.

As for the players on each side, it seemed like the rule was no talking during the school year, but in the summer we were perfectly friendly. In the school year, though it was all business. We wanted to beat each other. We wanted to kill each other.

Kenny Smith

Known as “The Jet,” Smith played at UNC from 1983-87. He now has a son, K.J., who is a reserve on the UNC basketball team. Smith is one of the higher-profile basketball analysts in the country, working primarily in the studio for Turner for NBA games. He will also have a large TV presence during the NCAA tournament as a studio analyst.

The rivalry has definitely grown since I was in college. And, not to be arrogant, but it’s grown because they’ve gotten better. At one time, our big rival was North Carolina State in the 1970s and ‘80s. And then when Duke became that powerhouse over the last 20 years, that’s helped.

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Turner Sports basketball analyst Kenny Smith played college basketball in the 1980s at North Carolina, where he was an All-American under coach Dean Smith. Turner Sports

When I was at UNC, our school newspaper was a big thing – The Daily Tar Heel. The newspapers were free, and everyone grabbed one from the boxes and opened it up. This was before the Internet rage. Everyone read it. So to be in it, with 22,000 people there, that was pretty big.

But for the Duke game, the Duke students would go and take all The Daily Tar Heel newspapers out and put a fake newspaper in. They’d create these fake articles about us, and about the school. We looked forward to that every year.

Grant Hill

A teammate of Laettner’s at Duke and also a two-time national champion as a collegian, Grant Hill now works as a TV commentator. He also is part of the Atlanta Hawks’ ownership group.

I was a fan of the rivalry before I became part of the rivalry, but I understood quickly anything can happen. The vets always told me: ‘Wait until the Carolina game.’ Not until you were within that game did you get a chance to feel the intensity level. There’s nothing quite like it.

I was on some really good teams. And I played against some really good Carolina teams – like my senior year (1994), when they were stacked. Neither team was scared. There are certain teams, you come on the court, you’re Duke or Carolina, you can feel that they’re just…

(Here Kenny Smith added to Hill’s thought by saying: “They just want your autograph!”)

Yeah. Exactly! There was none of that in Duke-Carolina.

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Grant Hill won two national titles at Duke in 1991 and 1992. He now works as a Turner Sports analyst and also is part of the ownership group of the Atlanta Hawks. EDWARD M. PIO RODA TURNER SPORTS

I don’t think people who don’t live in North Carolina understand how close the schools are. You know, the Fab Five (at Michigan), Maryland, Virginia — we liked all of them. We had no problems with them. But we didn’t like Carolina.

I’d see (UNC’s) Brian Reese at a party, I’d see (UNC’s) Rick Fox and we wouldn’t speak. I don’t know what it’s like now, but that’s what I felt. It was intense.

And if we were fortunate enough to win, then later on that night we’re on campus in Chapel Hill. We’re going to come back just to hang out — and kind of rub it in.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”


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