Duke-UNC: Rivalries are better when they have some pettiness

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When Duke’s assistant basketball coach Chris Carrawell strode past UNC head coach Hubert Davis and refused to — in time-honored fashion — shake his hand after Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, I thought it was a petulant, shameful and disgraceful display of poor sportsmanship.

And I loved every second of it.

Yessir. You see, “Richard” isn’t the only petty I love.

Here my buddies and I were, debating whether the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry could retain its unrepentant nastiness without the snarling Coach K to cheer and jeer, when along comes the next generation to show that the rivalry’s animosity abides now, henceforth and forevermore. Right on!

Barry Saunders
Barry Saunders

As the teams prepare to face off Saturday for a chance to play for national title, the mutual rancor and disdain between them won’t be a bit higher than it would be for an early February regular-season game: rancor would exist between the schools if the only thing on the line was a half-chewed pack of Hubba Bubba and a six-pack of Yoo-Hoos.

Carrawell and fellow Duke assistant Nolan Smith were seething not only over losing the game in Durham, but over UNC’s refusal to honor or acknowledge Coach K’s retirement when the teams played in Chapel Hill earlier that month. It was the coach’s last visit to the Dean Dome and his assistants apparently felt he deserved to go out with a flourish.

Alas, there was nothing, not even a coupon for a free side order of nanner pudding from Mama Dip’s.

What, precisely, did they expect UNC to do — present K with a rocking chair during pregame festivities while fans serenaded him with “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”? Fat chance.

Decades ago while I was in Las Vegas, a pal scored tickets to see insult comic Don Rickles onstage. Wanna go? he asked.

“Nay,” I said. Here’s why: First, I had tickets to see The Coasters and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes — without Teddy Pendergrass, but still.

Second, Rickles routinely spent his entire show spewing contumely onto audience members of every nationality and ethnicity. He was a real equal opportunity bile spewer which – in the minds of many – made his shtick acceptable.

It would have been acceptable, had he not ended each performance with a maudlin, treacly apology along the lines of “We’re all brothers under the skin and everything I say here is with love.”

Had UNC held a pregame celebration honoring K after 40 years of booing him, it would have rang just as inauthentic as Rickles’ post-performance platitudes.

Psssst: Between you and me, Duke and UNC players don’t dislike each other. They often go to the same barbershops, malls and parties, and both schools recruit the same players. (I guarantee you there’d be a Christian Laettner statue on Franklin Street if he’d hit that shot against Kentucky while wearing Carolina Blue.)

Charles Scott, my second favorite Tar Heel ever — Larry Miller is the first — told me how well Duke students treated him when he was being recruited to play there. Some even took him to see Otis Redding at the Stallion Club in Durham. Now, how could you dislike someone who takes you to see Otis at the Stallion?

When Durham’s late, lamented Pan Pan Diner was gloriously serving up cheesy grits, fatback, sausage and eggs 24 hours a day, it wasn’t unusual to see players from both schools harmoniously greasin’ together, or at least in close proximity, in the wee, small hours.

Every Duke player I’ve ever talked to — yes, even Laettner — came across as a decent bloke and was impossible to personally dislike, and former Duke head coach and raconteur extraordinaire Bucky Waters remains one of my favorite humans on earth.

Even the cantankerous Coach K was an engaging guest speaker at a Durham Rescue Mission graduation ceremony I attended a few years ago.

But I still didn’t want to see UNC honoring him.

Maybe it’s because I’m petty.

Columnist Barry Saunders is a member of the editorial board and founder of theSaundersReport.com.