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The passionate rivalry behind tonight's historic UNC vs. Duke matchup


The state of North Carolina takes center court tonight, and for the first time in NCAA tournament history, the men's basketball teams for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University will meet in post-season play. They'll tip off in tonight's Final Four game in New Orleans. But it's the eight miles between Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C., where students, alumni and fans of both schools have put their entire lives on hold today to don the correct shade of blue and root for the other side to lose.

Will Blythe was born and raised in North Carolina. He went to UNC, and he's the author of "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting And Occasionally Unbiased Account Of The Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry." He joins us now to help us grasp just how big of a deal tonight's game is. Will Blythe, thank you for joining us.

WILL BLYTHE: Thank you for having me.

PARKS: So today, North Carolina is the, quote, "center of the college basketball universe." That's according to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. Can you explain why this game tonight is such a big deal?

BLYTHE: I think there are multiple reasons. And there was a quote yesterday that I read from a professor, Tressie McMillan Cottom, who actually happens to be a professor at UNC. But she was quoted as saying, "Duke stands for what the country is. Carolina stands for what people hope this country can be." And Duke, she said, is the elite Southern aristocracy. And there used to be a commercial, a UNC commercial, where the journalist Charles Kuralt called UNC the university of the people. And I think there's a vibe there that insinuates itself into the basketball games. And it's public university versus private university, in-state students versus out-of-state students - that'd be Duke.

PARKS: So it's basically - this goes way beyond did you attend the school or not? It almost feels like these are two different sides with two completely different worldviews, almost.

BLYTHE: Yes. It's not just sports. It's cultural. And the fact that the universities are only eight miles apart - I mean, it would be like if you had the Boston Red Sox eight miles from the New York Yankees, you know, or Michigan and Ohio State eight miles from each other. It's just - there's something about the difference, both between the schools and then between the teams. And they're so, you know, proximate to each other, and yet there's such a profound difference between them. I think it just makes for a very passionate rivalry.

PARKS: Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is retiring this year. He has the most wins in men's college basketball Division 1 history. Can you explain a little bit more what winning this game would mean for him and Duke? And then on the flip side, I almost wonder, does that specific fact, the idea of beating Coach K, mean more to North Carolina fans than even, like, winning the national championship would?

BLYTHE: (Laughter) Yes. I think that - you know, it makes me - I ask the question, is there even a game on Monday, the national championship? I mean, that's how huge this game is tonight. But in regard to Krzyzewski retiring, he once told me when I was interviewing him for my book, he said to me, I'm on a continuum. He said, for me, there's never an event that's an ending.

But tonight, at long last, there is an event that will be an ending, and it's going to be either a win or a loss. And it's going to remain that way forever. And I think that Mike Krzyzewski knows that and feels that in an almost unbearable way because he's a guy who, like any coach, like any player, he wants to win. But I think for him, there's an intensity that is actually very distinctive. And so the fact that this is his last season - I mean, tonight, the final ending of this particular narrative.

PARKS: Can I ask, like, how much of this is in good fun? Like, I know that at the ends of a lot of these games, there are legitimately camera shots of fans crying. I mean, I guess, like, how much of this is just a silly game, and how much of this, like, really matters to people?

BLYTHE: It matters so intensely that I remember the reason I got my book deal in the first place was that the editor happened to see me watching the Duke-Carolina game. And it wasn't going well, and I was actually lying on the floor in total despair. And I think that's not an uncommon position. And I think that both - fans on both the Duke and Carolina side feel such intensity that they will, for instance, attempt to remain in the same posture if their team is doing well.

PARKS: Do you have any sort of way that you're planning to watch the game tonight? How do you expect to kind of experience this?

BLYTHE: Yes. I'm going to watch the game tonight in the exact same position, in the exact same posture, on the exact same spot on the sofa that I watched the Duke-Carolina game on March 5 - for Mike Krzyzewski, his last home game ever and happened to win by 13 points. So I'm going to watch in exactly the same fashion and see if that has any similar effect.

PARKS: That was author Will Blythe. He has a new take on the rivalry published in Garden & Gun Magazine, and he's also the author of "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting And Occasionally Unbiased Account Of The Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry." Will Blythe, thank you for joining us, and also good luck tonight.

BLYTHE: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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