Loving North Carolina, detesting Duke - and trying to figure out why


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

HarperCollins / 357 pages / $24.95

If this book were a ballgame, ESPN would proclaim it to be an "instant classic." Dick Vitale might finally be at a loss for superlatives. One can only hope.

Before I gush further, a disclaimer is in order: Like author Will Blythe, the former literary editor at Esquire magazine, I am a Tar Heel through and through. As if that bias were not enough, it should additionally be noted that, like the author, I favor progressive politics, secular doubt, the scented glories of a Chapel Hill spring, and the smoky virtues of Allen & Son barbecue. In fact, even though I have never met this Blythe fellow, it is quite obvious from a close reading of his rather fabulous book that, emotionally speaking, we are practically twins.

Believe me, that is no compliment. This becomes evident from Page 1, when the author informs us in his opening line: "I am a sick, sick man." Our common malady is not so much our love of the Tar Heels but our corresponding hatred of all things Duke, a passionate negativity that compels us to indoctrinate even the most innocent of children with such vital lessons as, say, the resemblance of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's facial expressions to those used by the Fuhrer while exhorting Nuremberg's torchlit mobs - which, come to think of it, were early prototypes of Duke's purportedly lovable "Cameron Crazies."

Perhaps I should get a grip for a moment. Obviously not every reader will share this joy for Carolina or disdain for Duke (although many thousands of Terrapins surely will understand the latter). No matter. Blythe's writing is so joyously insightful, and his reporting so quirkily thorough, that his book provides a long-awaited American answer to the British instant classic, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's confessional of addiction to the Arsenal soccer team.

But in America, of course, it's not enough simply to love your team. You also have to hate someone else's. Think Orioles-Yankees, or Yankees-Red Sox. Gloat versus envy. Adulation and scorn as the bookends of life. A yin for every yang.

As with Hornby, Blythe brings great wit, style, and insight to the task. Any rabid fan will instantly recognize himself or herself in Blythe's description of the mood-altering effects of victory. Having just watched a Tar Heels triumph on a barroom television in Manhattan, he emerges into the streets seeing everything in a suddenly benevolent light.

Observing the scene later from the vantage point of relative sanity, Blythe writes of himself: "He smiles at a mother wheeling her twins in one of those 18-wheeler strollers that he so hates for their presumption of public space. He transmits sweetness and light in all directions. Hello, you lovely East Side shrew! Let me pin myself against this building so that you may pass with that truckload of future Nobelists. Good afternoon, officer! Have you lost weight? Hi, kids! Would you mind turning up the volume on that new Kelly Clarkson single? It's as if he had gone to church, made his confession, and come out on fire with happiness, an apostle of possibility. His church being basketball, he sort of has."

Amen. But as any baseball fan who has celebrated a Yankee failure in the World Series can tell you, the next-best thing to a blissful victory is a cathartic vanquishing of your enemy. Being an otherwise intelligent and rational guy, Blythe wonders why this is so, and whether it might even be, well, somewhat bad for the soul to indulge so happily in hatred.

So, he sets out from New York for his boyhood home of Chapel Hill at the beginning of the basketball schedule, determined to find the answer over the course of a season, even if it means coming face to face with Evil itself, the Coach whose name must not be mentioned (and certainly can't be spelled), which is why everyone just calls him "K," like a character out of Kafka.

Perhaps I should again get a grip. In following the arc of the season to its conclusion, Blythe manages to visit all manner of entertaining geeks, heroes and hangers-on in the overheated universe of Duke-Carolina. There are some particularly nice (and even poignant) scenes involving Baltimore's Melvin Scott, a likable kid from Southern High who survived the mean streets of 20th and Barclay to play a key role in the Tar Heels backcourt. There are also finely wrought meditations on Blythe's late father, a Tar Heel who could never quite fathom all the fuss over basketball - except when Duke was the foe.

The timing for his journey could not have been better, and frankly I suspect ulterior motives. He just happened to set sail for his heart of his darkness - "paddling up the Nile of my Duke hatred, looking for its source," as he puts it - last year, when the Tar Heels went on to win the national championship, and Duke was bounced from the Sweet Sixteen. But, of course, that makes the reading all the sweeter.

Dan Fesperman is a Sun reporter, currently on leave, and an author. His most recent novel is "The Warlord's Son."

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