Duke vs. UNC, a Rivalry With Character

A Powerful Message

We often hear sports rivalries described as “bitter”. Players will say “We don’t respect them, and they don’t respect us”. Some fans will view a refusal by participants to shake hands at the end of the game as a sign of competitiveness, and the “all or nothing” mentality needed to defeat a rival. Fans can feel entitled to belittle and disrespect supporters of the opponent.

This week, we saw two incidents in which support for a team was used to express racist behavior. We saw an ugly example of that from a group of Chelsea FC fans before the club’s match against PSG in France. Racism also was in evidence at a high school basketball game in Texas.

This Rivalry is Different

Contrast those two stories with Wednesday night’s Duke-North Carolina basketball game. The game was played at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, and it was a classic. The Blue Devils rallied late in regulation and went on to defeat the Tar Heels in overtime 92-90.

The Duke vs. UNC basketball rivalry is one of the fiercest in all of sports. In poll-after-poll, it ranks in the top 3 of sports rivalries in the U.S. The series has been remarkably close. In the last 88-meetings, each team has won 44-times.

Every game played between the two schools is a hard fought battle of wills. But, while the intensity gets ratcheted-up to a fever pitch, there is an underlying level of respect in this rivalry. It’s not talked about. It’s barely acknowledged by any of the fans. But it is there just the same.

That doesn’t mean there are never any behaviors that go over the line. There are, but they are more the exception.

Before Wednesday’s game, a moment of silence was held for Dean Smith, the legendary coach at North Carolina who died earlier this month. You could have heard a pin drop. No one booed. And, no one yelled out something inappropriate to turn the solemn occasion into a partisan fan moment.

The game was cleanly played. The two teams and their fans mostly were respectful of the game and the players.

After the game ended, North Carolina coach Roy Williams talked about what a great game fans had a chance to witness. He congratulated Duke, saying the Blue Devils deserved the win. He didn’t complain about a late non-call in regulation that benefited Duke. He showed grace in defeat. That fact doesn’t mean that Roy Williams isn’t passionate about winning, or that he cares less than a coach who rants and raves after a game.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski exhibited class and humility in victory.

It can be this way in the fiercest of rivalries. Competing respectfully and honorably makes sport better.

A Teammate to Admire

Another positive on display in the game was the example that has been set this season by Duke senior guard Quinn Cook. He is an excellent player. His back-court teammate is freshman Tyus Jones, who is even more talented than Cook. That senior-freshman dynamic has played out on countless numbers of teams, often resulting in conflict. But, not in this case. Instead of resenting Jones, Cook is among his biggest supporters. Rather than trying to one-up Jones, Cook revels in the contributions made by his younger teammate. In the game against UNC, Jones was outstanding in crunch time and Cook was quick to deflect any credit for his performance by focusing attention on Jones, calling him the best guard on the team.

What a great teammate. Aren’t these qualities you would want to see in your son or daughter? Talk about a team-first mentality. How many seniors would be so selfless?

A Quality We Alone Control

This is character. It is not dependent on money, talent, or good looks. Character is a choice.

We can go through life being disrespectful and petty, belittling the accomplishments of other people, or we can choose to be respectful, honorable, and compassionate with others.

It takes desire and courage to have integrity. Standing on principle when it costs you something significant, isn’t easy. But, anyone who wants it, can have it.

It’s entirely up to each of us.

Photo Credit: Trever Tinker via Flickr

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