DURHAM, N.C.-- --Interstate 40 stretches from California to North Carolina. You could say it's like an asphalt belt wrapping around the country's midsection, but I look at a small stretch of it and see something different.
From Durham to Memphis, Tenn., I-40 is lined with tradition-rich basketball universities, their logos and mascots dangling off the freeway like charms on a bracelet. Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Wildcats, Bulldogs, Tigers and several more.
My journey - which will measure 750 miles before I'm finished and should cross paths with not only some of the nation's top teams, but also some of its most unique characters, programs and fan bases - begins off Ninth Street. The sliver of I-40 that cuts through central North Carolina is famously known as Tobacco Road, and on this day, one of its teams, North Carolina, is playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game. So what better place to start than at a Duke bar?
The national anthem is still playing when I find my seat at Charlie's Neighborhood Bar in Durham. More than a dozen blue Duke jerseys hang on the walls - from Heyman to Hurley to Hill.
Up on the flat screens, Clemson and North Carolina exchange early baskets. I can't help but notice that some people are rooting for the Tar Heels. The guy next to me is visibly annoyed by this fact. "They should find another place to watch the game," he says.
His name is Lucas, and he's in graduate school. I can't tell you his last name because his girlfriend thought he was working, and he doesn't want to get in trouble. "She doesn't understand," he says. "She's from Boston."
As the half progresses, the score remains tight, and I wander to the other side of the bar, where Travis Hill is cheering every North Carolina basket right here in enemy territory. "I'm OK here," he says. "There are definitely places I would not go and root for Carolina, though. Not unless I had a gun, a Rottweiler and an army with me."
Hill sips a light beer and fiddles with a pack of Newports. At its heart, the rivalry isn't a geographical conflict, he says, as much as a socioeconomic one - Duke will always be privileged and North Carolina always working class. Whether you buy into such stereotypes or not, everyone has to choose a side. "Around here, it's decided at birth who you gonna root for," he says. "You know before you even leave the hospital."
Clemson takes a one-point lead at the half. While Duke fans find the restroom, I slip out the exit. My destination for the second half is Chapel Hill, which is only three turns, a couple of strip malls and about 20 minutes away. The two campuses might be separated by generations of pent-up hatred, but on MapQuest, they're just 10 miles apart on U.S. 15-501.
I find a place on Franklin Street that's standing room only, missing just the first couple of minutes of the second half. The packed house could be a snapshot from the Dean Smith Center. These are the exact kind of people most of us avoid on principle. As perennial powers, fans of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels inevitably remind me of kids who receive a new car on their 16th birthday. They've never had to go without.
At the bar, some shouting breaks out. There's one Clemson fan in the place, and he has been spotted.
"No, you are!" a Tar Hell fan yells.
"No, you are!" the Tigers fan volleys back.
Billy Sentelle is the Clemson fan. As his team falls behind, he passively accepts the verbal abuse and nurses his beer. His tormenter is wearing a blue No. 50 jersey. The sides of his head are shaved, and the top is crafted into a mohawk. He's nursing a milk in a sippy-cup. Five-year-old Terry - he's called "Psycho T" in here - makes sure everyone knows the Tar Heels are No. 1.
His aunt, Melissa Stewart, says he has never known anything different. Around here, you're raised knowing that hating other teams is as important as loving your own.
"The rivalry may be a way of aligning oneself with larger philosophic ideals - of choosing teams in life - a tradition of partisanship that reveals the pleasures and even the necessity of hatred," is how Will Blythe, the author, explained it.
"We're the best! You're not!" is how the 5-year-old Psycho T explained it.
On this day, he's right. North Carolina beats Clemson and, later, receives a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
They will open tournament play later this week near the eastern end of Interstate 40, in Raleigh. My journey will take me in the other direction, where there are a lot more teams and a lot more basketball waiting.
With the NCAA tournament beginning this week, the sporting nation's attention turns to basketball. For five days starting today, Sun columnist Rick Maese is traveling the Interstate 40 corridor from Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., to Memphis, Tenn., taking in the sights and sounds from a part of the country rich in basketball heritage.