The Battle of the Blues: Could North Carolina’s Basketball Rivalry Backfire?

Rivalries are fun, but often obscure the reality that rivals may have the same nemesis

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Ellen Ozier / Reuters

Duke fans attempt to distract the University of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes as he looks to make an in-bounds pass during the second half of North Carolina's NCAA basketball game against Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, March 3, 2012.

The Florida State Seminole men’s basketball team knocked off not one, but two of the colleges that claim they are the only true blue in the Carolinas. I live in the “Triangle” in North Carolina, and the region was shell-shocked to witness FSU beating Duke in the semi-finals of the ACC tournament, then UNC-Chapel Hill in the finals. This accomplishment is almost like Hailey’s Comet, apparently.

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It also became clear that despite the neighborly possibility of support for all teams local, it is against protocol to turn around after your team’s defeat and root for the other blue team in the next round. It is therefore better that the out-of-state Florida State Seminoles take the title before your down-the-block arch-rival wins.

As a newly minted resident, my lukewarm passion for blue is not acceptable. In fact, apparently, there is no such state as “lukewarm” when it comes to your college sports loyalty in this part of the country. It matters not that you didn’t attend any of these schools. If you set foot in this neck of the woods, be prepared to stick your neck out and choose.

Given that I live in Raleigh and not Chapel Hill or Durham, it would make sense that I would follow the team blocks away, the red-colored NC State Wolf Pack. When I first arrived, I figured proximity is an acceptable reason to be loyal.

But not so fast. Carolinians dispel that concept as pure myth. Despite completely different city cultures in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, you are essentially living in the same sovereign region where sports lines blur into hard and fast commitments. There are no voting districts, there are no borders. The Carolina map is color-coded by fandom and each party would be happy to have it all be in their color by sports war, if necessary.

One would think this is color hairsplitting. Both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill wear blue but entirely different shades of blue. Carolina has that baby blue, Duke has a richer blue reserved for royalty. Infant baby boys better watch their back when swaddled in baby blue around Duke loyalists. It is that serious.

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This kind of tribalism means that you arrive at the strange place that if your team does not win in the early part of the tournament, you still cannot root for the other team in the area. And yet, as we saw with Duke and UNC’s losses to FSU, this can backfire. It, in effect, allows the state enemy (like a team from Florida) to have bragging rights over the complete area instead of just your blue municipality.

I have been a part of numerous rivalries over the years. I saw a city divided in my heyday in Chicago where a line separates the Northside Cubs fans from the Southside Sox fans. It was and has always been a sports town that clearly lets you know that there is a Civil War going on and you need to pick a uniform.

Certainly rivalries have a fun side. It can feel purposeful, and put you in a timeline of history as the players in such contests become an indelible part of rival lore, whether it was NC State’s magic season with coach Jimmy Valvano’s 1983 won by the buzzer beating clean-up shot by the late Lorenzo Charles, Duke’s miraculous last second shot by Christian Laettner in 1992 or Michael Jordan’s ’82 jumper in the corner for the Tar Heels.

But rivalries often obscure the reality that rivals may have the same nemesis, and often need each other. As we enter into March Madness, Duke and UNC can avenge those losses to their common foe, FSU, under a single banner for the state. Then, when bragging rights are needed, a head-to-head match up could happen, which is the only true  way to say that you are the best blue on a given day.

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