HELLER: Tobacco Road to perdition

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For decades now, the North Carolina-Duke rivalry in men’s basketball has been one of the most intense in sports. Yankees vs. Red Sox in baseball, Redskins vs. Cowboys in football and Army vs. Navy in everything are just as heated. But none of these adversaries is located eight miles from the other, as are the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.

In the latest edition of its prize-winning “Sports of the 20th Century” series, HBO premieres “Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina” on Monday night at 9. While the one-hour documentary effectively captures the antagonism between these schools, one is left wondering if a lot of folks in North Carolina don’t need to get a life.

Such passions are good for sports, generally speaking, provided they don’t get out of hand. There is ample evidence that this one has.

The word “hatred” is seldom used on the HBO show, but apparently that’s what many combatants and fans feel. Nowhere does anyone step up to say, “Hey, folks, it’s just a game.”

Some babies are clothed practically from birth in Carolina blue or Duke’s darker shade. Children and adolescents are encouraged to detest one or the other. And a lot of people who never set foot on either campus find their emotions roiling into high gear when the teams meet two or three times a season.

Mitch Kupchak, a former Tar Heels star and now a Los Angeles Lakers executive, talks about witlessly wearing a Duke T-shirt on the Chapel Hill campus one day when he was a freshman.

“There was a bang on my door, and the next thing I knew, there were 10 Carolina basketball players carrying me down the stairway and into the pool out in front of the dormitory,” Kupchak says. “At that point, I realized there was something different going on here.”

Good, clean fun? Or total overkill?

There are reasons besides proximity for the antagonism. UNC is a public school whose student body is mostly homegrown; Duke is a private institution with a substantial enrollment from the New York area. Carolina attracts middle-class citizens; Duke is perceived by some as “elitist.” And so on.

Michael Jordan, the greatest Tar Heels star of them all, insists Duke players “never become great players in the pros because they don’t have that in their blood. … To this day [a feeling] is ingrained in all Carolina players: There’s no way you’re going to like anything about Duke.”

On the other side, ex-Dookie Grant Hill describes matters this way: “You can win the national championship. But if you lose the head-to-head matchup*, the national championship doesn’t mean anything in the Raleigh-Durham area.”

So far this season, things have been lopsided in favor of Roy Williams’ Heels over Mike Krzyzewski’s Devils. Entering the weekend, third-ranked North Carolina was 24-2 and had won 10 straight, including a 101-87 rout of Duke on Feb. 11 in Durham. The No. 9 Blue Devils were 21-5 but had lost three of their past five. They teams meet again March 8 in Chapel Hill, the final regular-season game for both.

Over the years, the balance has shifted several times. UNC leads 129-97 since 1920, but the series has been much closer (34-32 UNC) since Krzyzewski arrived in Durham in 1980.

Both programs rank among the nation’s top five all-time. Carolina has won 17 ACC tournament titles, Duke 16. The Heels have appeared in 17 Final Fours, Duke 14. Carolina has captured four national championships, Duke three. How close can a bitter rivalry get? Particularly one that transcends sports?

“[In a] social landscape touched by secession, reconstruction, segregation and civil progress, modern history has been altered by young men with jump shots,” HBO narrator Live Schreiber intones.

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