The Most Heated Rivalry in College Basketball
The morning after I saw Mike Troy, I logged on to the website
The prototype for the site had been built in 1996 by Ben Sherman, then a 16-year-old Carolina fan in the unlikely outpost of Newtonville, Massachusetts. He couldn't quite say what resulted in his having a crush on a team eight hundred miles south, but it emerged at about the same time as consciousness. "I hated Danny Ferry as soon as I started watching TV," he said. Naturally, he applied to North Carolina for college, where, as was so often the case with out-of-state applicants, even ones with good grades and high test scores, Sherman was rejected. He headed south anyway, to the University of Richmond, where in August 1998 he established a new base of operations for his Carolina website. The site had since evolved into a sort of vast cybernetic encampment, in which hardcore Tar Heel fanatics could gather to express their tribal affiliations.
"The way I look at it, it's a grander scale of when me and fellow Carolina fans get together, just screaming and yelling and throwing things. After the game, if you're pissed off . . . you vent. And a message board is a place to vent. It's so ecstatic after the win, so devastated after the loss. Sometimes it boils down to the chance for somebody to say: I hate this."
The Duke--Carolina rivalry burned perpetually on the
In the hours I spent each day rummaging around the site, I'd gotten to know the personae of many posters. Ironically, one I'd come to appreciate was a Duke supporter, Lpark, everyone's favorite Blue Devil for his generally balanced and occasionally self-deprecating commentary on both programs. What was he was doing so far away from home, spending hours a day on the Carolina message board, suffering the jibes and taunts of his declared enemies? I couldn't say. Penance, maybe.
But from time to time he appeared just sane enough that the flaming partisans of
This was entirely too reasonable a response, and thus doubly annoying. He accused the
His polar opposite in sectarian terms (although equally possessed of intelligence, long memory, and the capacity for ripping new assholes in irksome posters) was the poster known as ManhattanHeel. She displayed a saucy, take-no-shit manner. One of the most visible and respected (and even feared) of the site's posters, Manhattan, or MH as she was often called, reminded me of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton's campaign team in 1992. Post an opinion about Duke, especially one that admitted even a speck of favor, and she arrived on the scene instantly with a definitive rebuttal, a one-woman quick-response team.
Here, for instance, is a post of Manhattan's occasioned by Donald Trump's visit to Cameron for the second Duke--North Carolina game of 2004. It serves as a fine example of the withering, take-no-prisoners tone Manhattan deployed against the Duke universe, or anyone who so much as sat cheering in a ringside seat at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I drank deeply from Manhattan's bottomless pool of vitriol. There was something tonic about it. On
That's because the
All of this suggested why ManhattanHeel was such a star. Her writing -- reliably tart, deeply invested in the subject, and suffused with a long, poisonous memory, especially in regard to all matters Duke -- charged the board with the vicious electricity of partisanship. Like American political culture these days, where being right or left meant never having to say you were sorry, sports websites thrived on polarity, especially when it was flamingly theatrical.
As a sassy gal in a guy's world, Manhattan attracted a lot of attention. My pulse raced a little faster whenever she landed on a thread. She was all that and she hated Duke. I decided I had to meet her -- for sociological reasons, of course. And so with the assistance of Ben Sherman, I made contact. Her real name was Sallie Beason.
Just from her posts, I had gleaned a little bit of her history. She'd lived for a while in New York while employed by some sort of financial services company; hence her board handle. But she had actually grown up down south and had returned home. She was married, and she lived in Charlotte, North Carolina's largest city, where she worked in real estate capital markets for the Bank of America. One Saturday, I went to see her.
We met for an early lunch on a Saturday morning so we could catch up later with her husband, Gary, and watch a game early that afternoon. The Mexican restaurant we had chosen was empty of customers. I asked her how much time she spent on
Her interactions with Duke graduates had only reinforced her perception of the school as a magnet for snobs-in-the-making. "I've just found all of them to be pretty smarmy," she said. "Maybe I'm guilty of a preconceived notion, but I'll give you an example. After finishing at Wharton, I went to Wall Street. I was working for what was then Paine Webber from 1997 to September of 2001. I'm a vice president of my group. We were always recruiting and interviewing associates, and once we got this kid whose father knew somebody. Someone came to my office, handed me a resume, and said, 'You need to interview this kid.' The first thing I see is that he was a Duke University grad. Honest to God, the first thing that ran through my head was that here are 30 minutes of my life that I'm never going to get back because I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to hire a Duke kid. And I knew that before even meeting him. Now is that fair? No."
"True," I said. "But that's life."
"But then the kid comes in. And we actually got along pretty well. He had played soccer at Duke. And he was a smart kid. So it was going pretty well. And I actually said in my head, 'Oh, my God, this guy's pretty good'."
"That was really messing with your worldview."
"It was causing me a conflict," she said. "So we kept talking. And he wasn't from North Carolina. Shocker. He was from -- not New Jersey -- Virginia or somewhere. He said something about North Carolina. I said I actually grew up there. He said, 'Oh, did you go to school there?' I said, 'Yeah. I went to UNC.' He goes, 'I'm sorry.'"
"I know he felt like he was trying to be funny. But I'm like, okay, dude . . ." "This interview is over."
"You're a kid interviewing with the vice president of a group and you insult her. Before I even met him, I knew I wasn't going to like him and guess what happened: He confirmed that."
The Duke basketball players struck her similarly -- as monsters of striving and entitlement. "I was at Carolina when Bobby Hurley was playing at Duke. I couldn't stand him. Those guys are always such media darlings, too."
"Like Wojo," I said. The name immediately sprang to mind. How could it not? Steve Wojciechowski stood in for every obnoxious, overachieving white point guard who ever played the game. In order to show the coach how psychotically into playing he was, Wojo was the kind of guy who ran to every huddle like Nutty Buddies were being handed out there by the Good Humor ice cream man. He was the sort of lead-footed guard who commentators like Dook Vitale were always saying made up for lack of native talent with hard work. Vitale and his media brethren shilled Wojciechowski right into being named National Defensive Player of the Year for 1998.
The truth was that Wojo played with such effort and intensity largely because he was so slow! It required vast expenditures of energy for him just to catch up to the play and the man he was guarding. Wojo slapped his defender around like a girl in a catfight.
His style was so antithetical to physical grace that he made you think about inequalities of scale, of the fundamental unfairness of the universe when it came to the distribution of gifts, in this case physical talent. Worse, he made you wonder why white players tended to be perceived as hard workers and black players as naturally gifted. He made you see the lingering taints of race when all you wanted to do was watch a basketball game. None of this was exactly his fault, either. But his desperate, handslapping, knee-to-the-thigh scrappiness still rankled.
"I hated Wojo," she said. "And now," Beason said, "JJ Redick is starting to be that way. My husband called it. We were watching Duke play Georgia Tech. JJ hit a shot. He started talking so much shit. He was mouthing off while he was running backward. Gary's like, Holy shit, look at Redick talk. He's just like the rest of them. And you know what I say? It's like their birthright. They think that they've got Duke on their chests so they can act how they want. That comes from their coach.
"I don't know if this is like Carolina fans just being delusional, but I really think that our program is run very differently. I'll use as an example when Matt Doherty is in the huddle at Cameron and he makes a joke about the Duke cheerleaders being ugly. He apologizes publicly for that. Then you look at things that happen in K's program that are 80 times worse than that and it's like -- " She turned her palms upward and shrugged.
"In the end, it's the sanctimony," she said. "Trying to seem better than they are. That's the reason that Duke hate is nationwide now. It's not just Carolina fans. I guess the Dukies can say they're hated because they've won so much, but have they really won so much? In the ACC I can understand that view, but they have only one national championship since 1992. But the Dukies like that they're hated. It validates them."