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A look at N.C.'s kings of the courts


Imagine that students and alumni from Towson State, University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland College Park arose tomorrow with a tremendous antipathy toward each other, fueled by nothing more than what happens on a basketball court.

Multiply that hostility many times over, and you'll only scratch the surface of feelings in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. There, the passions of college basketball at three proud schools run deep.

"Three Paths to Glory" is a fascinating exploration of a year in the lives of the men's basketball programs at Duke, North Carolina State and North Carolina, and how the fortunes of those programs rule the emotions of an entire region.

Author Barry Jacobs covers Atlantic Coast Conference basketball for the New York Times. He explains in the first sentence of the introduction that he is a Duke graduate, a seemingly unnecessary piece of information.

Yet, his admission introduces, and provides context for, the conduct of the participants.

As "Three Paths" indicates, there is no middle ground in the Triangle. One is a fan of Raleigh's N.C. State Wolfpack, Chapel Hill's North Carolina Tar Heels or Durham's Duke Blue Devils -- with no shades of gray in between.

"You live with the rivalries every day," says Woody Durham, who, despite his last name, is the loyal radio voice of the Tar Heels. "A guy comes into this state; he went to school in the Ivy League. He went to Dartmouth. He works in the Research Triangle Park. Becomes a basketball fan. Doesn't care who wins. He can't do that. We force him to choose sides. That's just the way we do it, and that's why we've got the tremendous interest we do."

As the book opens, with the first practice of the 1992-93 season, there is a decided pecking order among the three schools, or at least in a basketball sense.

Duke, the private Methodist school that fancies itself the "Harvard of the South," has won two consecutive national championships and advanced to five straight Final Fours. That record challenges the superiority of North Carolina, the gleaming public school. It has won two NCAA titles, but none since 1982, although the Tar Heels have won more games than any other college basketball program.

Then there's N.C. State, the well-meaning but underappreciated stepsister to moneyed North Carolina. The Wolfpack have won two titles but haven't done well lately, through poor recruiting and scandal.

Added to the mix are the coaches of the schools. North Carolina's Dean Smith is one of the most respected coaches in the profession, one who has, in more than 30 seasons, gotten players to succeed in the classroom as they have on the court.

He's been challenged on both counts by Mike Krzyzewski, who in 11 years has revitalized the moribund Duke program to bring it on par with North Carolina's. That doesn't sit well with the folks in Chapel Hill, 8 miles from Durham.

Les Robinson of N.C. State, who is beginning his third season at his alma mater, has a Herculean chore. He must clean up the academic reputation of the program that was tarnished by his predecessor, the late Jim Valvano.

Using this backdrop, Mr. Jacobs weaves particularly effective analysis and context for what happens through a tumultuous season. It includes a player suicide at N.C. State, early postseason elimination from the NCAA tournament by Duke, and a national championship at North Carolina.

Mr. Jacobs receives surprising access to the normally private Duke and North Carolina camps, and throughout the book he does a fine job of examining the private and public personas of the three coaches and their players. He also discusses side issues related to the game, such as the introduction of big-city players to a smaller, less urban area.

To his credit, Mr. Jacobs never allows perceptible partisanship for his alma mater to mar this work. That's a nice counterpoint to what passes for sports journalism in the Triangle, where reporters -- many of whom attended North Carolina and Duke -- openly wear their affections at press row and in print.

Mr. Jacobs ends the book in two natural spots. One is in the $33 million privately financed Dean Smith Center on the North Carolina campus, where the championship celebration is taking place. The other is on the Duke campus, where the destination panel on the front of a transit bus condenses the passion of the basketball passions of the Triangle into four simple words:

"Go To Hell, Carolina."

(Mr. Kent is a sportswriter for The Sun.)


Title: "Three Paths to Glory"

Author: Barry Jacobs

Publisher: MacMillan

Length, price: 397 pages, $20

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