A lot of rivalries get called the best in sports, but Duke versus North Carolina — whose latest chapter kicks off tonight at 9 on ESPN — is the best, and it's not even close. Last week ESPN conducted a "best rivalry" poll during SportsCenter; Duke-UNC finished third with 21% of the vote, ahead of Bruins-Canadiens (10%) and Celtics-Lakers (18%) but behind Ohio State-Michigan (24%) and Yankees-Red Sox (27%).
All that poll revealed was that 79% of voters are misguided dummies who don't understand Duke-UNC.
What makes a rivalry great is not any number of iconic moments or big shots, or even the presence of legendary players — every rivalry has those, including Duke-UNC. What makes Duke-UNC the best rivalry in the world are these seven reasons.
You've probably heard of "Tobacco Road" and imagined a lush stretch of land upon which four prominent North Carolina universities sit amid fields of tobacco. That may have once been true, but since Wake Forest and North Carolina State (until recently) are relatively irrelevant, "Tobacco Road" more accurately refers to the stretch of North Carolina route 15-501 that spans the eight or nine miles between the city of Durham and the town of Chapel Hill.
It's hard to overstate how closely intertwined the lives of Durham and Chapel Hill residents are. Many people live in Durham and work in Chapel Hill, or vice versa. Some Duke and UNC students attend morning classes at one university, hop a bus and arrive in time for an afternoon class at the other. UNC and Duke people date each other, and sometimes they even get married and create hybrid rivalry children. You can't drive anywhere within the Triangle or even visit a supermarket or restaurant without being reminded of the rivalry by bumper stickers or wall murals. Whereas Ohio State and Michigan fans, or Yankees and Red Sox fans, typically live in pockets of solidarity separated by state boundaries, Duke and UNC people live and mingle amongst each other each and every day, which creates a sort of tangible daily tension lacking in just about every other rivalry. Duke-UNC forces itself upon North Carolinians 365 days a year whether they like sports or not.
2. The coaches are perfectly hateable foils.
Roy Williams isn't much better. He also screams a lot and once let his starters head to the locker room before opposing fans stormed the court, leaving his walk-ons to fend for themselves.
3. The games are never, ever boring.
Why are the games never, ever boring? Because the fans whip themselves into a primal rage for two hours and celebrate every single play like it's a game-winning half-court three, regardless of team rankings. You can't say that for Michigan-Ohio State during the former's recent down years, and you couldn't say it for Red Sox-Yankees last season.
It's an advantage of basketball over baseball or football that the games are shorter and more action-packed by default, but the atmosphere at a Duke-UNC game truly is unique, not just because it's loud but because it's never not loud. Watching the games as an interested observer, even on television, causes actual physical exhaustion. Watching Yanks-Sox during the regular season causes sleep.
4. Gerald Henderson punched Tyler Hansbrough in the face during the middle of a game.
5. Fans stormed the court after a buzzer-beater...in last night's game between student managers.
6. Seriously, this is the bloodiest rivalry since the Civil War.
7. It isn't just a sports rivalry.
This is what sets Duke-UNC apart from the rest, though it admittedly may be hard to grasp unless you've spent time on either campus. Duke-UNC is bigger than two games per year: It's a rivalry between universities that also happens to have sports teams that play each other regularly, and that's a pretty big distinction. It's not just that basketball fans want to have bragging rights. Admissions officers from UNC want to admit smarter kids than those at Duke. Frat bros from Duke want to throw cooler, frattier parties than the frat bros at UNC. Duke president Richard Brodhead wants to have a bigger parking space and fewer tutoring scandals than UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. That sort of thing.
Bonus social media smack talk for tonight's game: Phoenix Suns point guard Kendall Marshall's Twitter barbs.
I went to Duke. Marshall's comments are not entirely innaccurate. Nonetheless, tonight, he and North Carolina will taste the pain.