2015: North Carolina vs. Duke

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US Map.

North Carolina — North Carolina vs. Duke

College Basketball — February 18, 2015 — 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Also, March 7, 2015.

It may seem funny that we chose a regular season college basketball game as the biggest sports event in North Carolina for 2015. The thing is… we’re right. There is no bigger sporting event in North Carolina than when Duke University and the University of North Carolina play in men’s college basketball. Indeed, it would be easy to make the case that there’s no bigger college basketball game all year than when these two teams play.

It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt and Duke and North Carolina are a prime example of this. The two schools are only eight miles apart and have played against each other at least two times a year since 1920. For people who live in North Carolina, it’s hard to remain uncommitted to one side or another. You’re either a Blue Devil (Duke supporter) or you bleed Tar-Heel Blue (North Carolina’s nickname is the Tar Heels and they wear baby blue but don’t call it that… 😉 ) It’s a rivalry that cuts through race, class, and family. The Wikipedia article on the rivalry has two wonderful quotes which together paint a wonderful picture of sports antipathy.  The first is from Will Blythe’s book about the rivalry, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever:

To legions of otherwise reasonable adults, it is a conflict that surpasses sports; it is locals against outsiders, elitists against populists, even good against evil… The rivalry may be a way of aligning oneself with larger philosophic ideals.

The other quote is from former U.S. Congressperson Brad Miller, who actually told an AP reporter this in 2012:

If Duke was playing against the Taliban, then I’d have to pull for the Taliban.

What’s the plot?

With Duke and North Carolina, there’s a macro plot about the rivalry as a whole and a micro plot about each edition. We’ll start macro. Like many great college rivalries, the one between Duke and North Carolina can be characterized easily as a rich private school against a public school. Duke is the elite, private school. If you know it mostly for its sports teams or don’t know much about it at all, it’s easy to not realize just how elite it is. Duke accepts only 10% of its undergraduate applicants and 4% of its graduate level applicants. It’s regularly listed as one of the top ten colleges in the country by all sorts of organizations that do that type of ranking. It has an enormous endowment — over $7 billion — and it spends a lot too — over a billion dollars in 2012 on research alone! Duke students and alumni are quite reasonably proud of their school and that pride translates for many of them into obsessive rooting for their school’s sports teams, men’s basketball first and foremost. North Carolina plays the role of the public school. The university is, indeed, a public school, as you can tell from its size — 18,000 undergrads and 12,000 graduate students compared to Duke’s 6,500 and 8,000 — and from its admission stats, which are much more forgiving than Duke’s. Other than that though, the mantle of public schools falls a little uncomfortably on North Carolina’s shoulders. Like Duke, North Carolina is sneaky elite when it comes to academics. North Carolina is consistently sited as one of the top five public universities in the country and claims its place as one of the “public ivies.”

Likewise in basketball, the similarities between the two schools are greater than their differences. They both have incredible histories of winning with no apparent plans to stop any time soon. They are number three and four in all-time wins. Together, they account for nine championships and 33 Final Four appearances. Since the beginning of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that they both play in, the two teams have won 79% of the regular season titles and 59% of the conference tournaments. They both win. A lot. They’ve also been lucky enough to have two of the top three most well regarded coaches of all time. Dean Smith, who just died recently, coached at North Carolina for 36 years. My favorite story about him, which illustrates his stature and character the best, is that he was so well loved and respected by his former players, including basketball greats in their own right like Michael Jordan and Larry Brown among others, that they continued to call Smith for advice on any important life decision, well into their forties, fifties, and even sixties. Smith would get calls from former players asking for his advice on engagements, house purchases, etc. Duke’s current coach, Mike Krzyzewski is the current holder of the best coach in basketball mantle. He’s coached for Duke since 1980 and, with 932 victories, is the all-time winningest coach. Although he’s rejected countless offers to coach in the NBA, he has coached the USA Basketball team for the last ten years. In a rare but touching show of inter-rivalry solidarity, many Duke fans will be wearing a shirt honoring their late rival, Dean Smith.

This year, Duke is the more highly regarded and ranked team. Duke is currently 21-3 and ranked fourth in the country. North Carolina is no slouch themselves, but they are significantly behind at 18-7 and ranked 15th. Duke is coming off five straight victories. North Carolina has actually lost three of their last four games although two of those losses came in back to back games against highly ranked Louisville and Virginia.

Who are the characters?

Roy Williams — Roy Williams is the current coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Williams was not the direct successor of legendary Coach Dean Smith, but he’s the first one who’s stuck. He was born and grew up in North Carolina and went to the University of North Carolina where he played freshman basketball and volunteered for the Varsity team. After graduation, he took a job as a high school coach nearby and after five years there, returned to become an Assistant Coach under Smith at UNC. He stayed for ten years before striking off on his own to become the head coach of the University of Kansas. At Kansas, Williams succeeded admirably, taking the team to four Final Fours and losing two National Championship games. Still, when the North Carolina job opened up in 2003, Williams jumped at it. In his twelve years coaching for UNC, he’s succeeded even more than at at Kansas — three Final Fours and two National Championship victories. He may still live in the shadow of his one time mentor, but he’s comfortable there.

Jahlil Okafor — For years, Duke seemed to be a hold-out against the trend of recruiting athletes of such promise that they were likely to remain in college for only the one year that is required until they turn professional and enter the NBA draft. Jahlil Okafor is exhibit A that that is no longer a reality. Okafor is likely to be the first overall pick of the NBA draft for this year. He’s listed at 6’11 and 270 pounds. Guys that big don’t grow on trees (they’re so big, perhaps it would be more likely for trees to grow on them?) and to be as polished an offensive player as Okafor is extraordinarily rare. Okafor is deadly when he gets the ball around the basket. Watch for Duke to try to get the ball to him close to the basket so he can overpower or out-skill his defender. Okafor’s only weakness is that he’s not a great defender. North Carolina may try to attack him on that end and hope that the refs call a few fouls on him, forcing Duke to limit his playing time.

Who’s going to win?

Duke. Duke should win. They have the best player on the court and the best coach on the sidelines. It is a rivalry though and rivalries bring out strange performances, especially from college kids, so who really knows?

Federer – Nadal For the 33rd Time

We take a brief break from Olympics previews and Super Bowl hype to talk about a tennis match that’s going to be played on Friday morning at 3:30 a.m. ET in Australia between two rapidly aging tennis players. Why is this worth breaking into our regularly scheduled programming? Because for almost 14 years, since the first time they played, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been the most compelling personal rivalry in sports and there’s a chance that this could be the last time they play until they’re both on the senior exhibition tour. So grab your television remote, program your DVR for ESPN at 3:30 a.m.. Don’t make any mistake about it — delete some stuff, add an hour or two to the scheduled end time, and make sure nothing else supersedes it. Then figure out how to call out of work on Friday.

What’s so Great About their Rivalry

nadal federer
Federer, regal, Nadal, resolute.

[Editor’s note — I wrote another post about Nadal and Federer way back in 2011. It’s still available here.]

There’s many factors that play into a rivalry. One is the consistent excellence of both players in comparison to the rest of their competition. During the heart of their careers, from 2003 to 2011, Federer or Nadal won 26 of 32 grand slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open) tournaments. More impressive in a way is that for their careers, all but three of their losses in Grand Slam finals have been to each other. From 2005 through 2010 either Nadal or Federer was the number one tennis player in the world and the other was second.

As remarkable as those numbers are, they are augmented by the ease with which Nadal and Federer’s rivalry can be translated into narratives. Federer is almost five years older and was established as the number one tennis player in 2004. For three years beginning in 2005, Nadal sat in the number two spot. Able to surpass all his other competition but not Federer. Then in 2008, the younger Nadal finally overtook Federer. Time takes its toll on everyone, right? Not so fast — Federer battled back to be number one in 2009, only to have it stolen back by Nadal in 2010. The story would have been great if it had just been “younger great player overtakes older great player” but the back and forth, the rallies by each player that mimic the rallies within a tennis match, make it epic.

Epic too is the stylistic clash between the two players. Federer is often described as a magician. When he is at his best, he makes creative, surprising shots that no one else would think of, much less have the ability to make; and he makes them seem effortless. Nadal is his natural opposite. He’s a fierce competitor who wears his opponents down by taking their best shots and returning them faster and harder than they were hit. Federer is right handed, Nadal is left handed. Federer dresses himself like the tennis royalty he is, replete with golden insignias and elegant tennis bags. Nadal favors neon colors, sleeveless shirts, and at one point in his career, capris. Federer projects calm and control on the court. Nadal is all furious grunts and obsessive compulsive pre-serve routines.

Although it used to be common, Federer and Nadal have only played each other twice in grand slam tournaments since 2009. This Friday will be the third time in the last five years and there’s a chance it could be the last. Federer is 32 years old, which is quite old for a tennis player to be competitive. Nadal is only 27 but has been hampered by serious knee injuries in the last few years. It’s definitely a “fourth-quarter” competition towards the end of their rivalry. This only makes it more compelling to me. I love it when two players who have such history with each other play. There’s a sentimentality, a respect between the players that is rare; and a deep seeded hatred. Regardless of what they say in public, while they are still playing, these guys want to beat no one more than the other. That this might be their last significant meeting only brings the magnifying glass down a little closer. And based on the weather in Australia these days, things could get pretty hot!

Why Isn't Everyone Tired of Nadal and Federer?

Dear Sports Fan,

Doesn’t anybody ever get tired of watching Federer and Nadal in the finals of every tennis tournament, forever? Is there any reason to even watch Wimbledon now that Andy Roddick is out?

Game, Set, Watch?

— — —

Dear Game, Set, Watch?,

I’m sure that it does get awfully tiring for all the other men’s tennis players, but for sports fans and specifically tennis fans I think it’s something that far from getting tired of, they savor every minute of.

First of all, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s consistency at the top of men’s tennis is really unusual. So what seems like a boring fact of life for the last seven years is a rare anomaly in the context of the last fifty plus years of tennis. And even during the Federer-Nadal years, it may seem like they meet in the finals every tournament, but before this year’s French Open a month ago, they had not played in a final match for over two years!

Tennis fans root for Nadal and Federer to play each other in part because they play with such contrasting styles. Federer is a mix between a magician and a matador. He is a magician not only because he always seems to be pulling winning shots out of his sleeve, but also because he has the slightly smarmy elegance of a magician. Everything he owns is monogrammed with a big RF in an annoying faux-royal font. Federer makes very little fuss on the court. He almost never grunts and he rarely even appears to be sweating. Roger Federer is your older brother who beats you and doesn’t even dignify your efforts by looking like he’s trying hard or cares at all. Federer also had the luck of being profiled by David Foster Wallace in a New York Times Play magazine article that made a lasting impression on the literati; check it out, it is worth reading.

Nadal, on the other hand, is most often compared to a bull. He has even embraced the comparison by adopting a bull logo as his mascot. Nadal is the younger brother. He never, ever, ever, stops trying. He’s a powerful player and his natural talents are defensive. He’s frustrating to play against because no matter how good of a shot you hit, he seems to be able to get to it and return it back to you. Nadal looks more like a cat than a bull. His movements are quick and powerful without being out of control. Every step is aggressive. When the players talk to the chair umpire before the match begins, Nadal bounces up and down on his feet like a boxer.

Would you enjoy Bugs Bunny more if he didn’t always face off against Elmer Fudd? An episodic Star Wars where Luke Skywalker fights against a different bad-guy each hour would surely be less satisfying than his epic contest with Darth Vader. There is something special about watching two people who know that no matter how well they do, to succeed they have to beat the other. The diner scene in Heat expresses this understanding perfectly.

Right now there is a special pathos to the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The normal narrative of the younger player succeeding the older is being challenged. Federer is not diminishing quite as quickly as people expected he would and because of Nadal’s powerful style, there is a fear that his body will break down at any moment. They are two of the best players in history but they are increasingly both vulnerable and mortal.

Enjoy the tennis if you can, I will!

Ezra Fischer