TOBACCO ROAD: DUKE, CAROLINA,
N.C. STATE, WAKE FOREST,
AND THE HISTORY OF THE MOST INTENSE BACKYARD RIVALRIES IN SPORTS
By Al Featherston
April 4, 2006
North Carolina took an early lead as (J.R.) Reid and (Scott) Williams dominated down low. (Mike) Krzyzewski took exception to that domination, screaming at UNC's Williams after what he perceived as an unnecessary elbow.
(Dean) Smith, who had engaged in a similar verbal exchange with Kentucky's Rick Robey 12 years earlier, responded by leaping off the bench and screaming at Krzyzewski, "Don't talk to my players!"
Coach K answered, "F**k you!"
By Al Featherston
April 4, 2006
North Carolina was not about to take Duke's emergence lightly. Dean Smith had fought off similar challenges in the past, overcoming Frank Mc-Guire's great Roche-Riker teams (at South Carolina), surviving Norm Sloan's David Thompson-Tommy Burleson juggernaut (at N.C. State), outlasting Bill Foster's Banks-Gminski-Spanarkel challenge (at Duke), even triumphing over Ralph Sampson's threat at Virginia.
The Tar Heel coach added the weapon he thought he needed to quash the Krzyzewski challenge in the spring of 1986.
FERRY, REID ELEVATE DUKE, UNC
A year after Duke landed (Danny) Ferry, the top-rated player in his class, Smith beat out his old friend John Thompson at Georgetown for J.R. Reid, the top-rated player in his class. The Virginia Beach, Va., big man replaced (Brad) Daugherty in the middle of the Tar Heel lineup, and the imposing freshman became an immediate sensation. Not only did Reid play well, averaging 14.7 points and shooting 58 percent from the floor as a rookie, he had a charisma that made him a fan favorite.
Reid was a star from the moment he stepped on the court at Carolina. It took Ferry two years to realize his prep potential. Just as Michael Jordan made the leap from solid supporting player to superstar between his freshmen and sophomore seasons, Ferry made a similar leap before his junior year in 1987-88.
The 6-10 DeMatha product began opening up facets of his game that he had only hinted at before. Always a tough, bruising inside player, Ferry began to play more and more on the perimeter, where his jumper (38 three-pointers) and extraordinary passing skills (139 assists) made him a matchup problem for opposing defenses. He anchored what was essentially a position-less team that also featured 6-5 center Robert Brickey and 6-6 defensive ace Billy King.
The Tar Heels answered with the powerful post tandem of Reid and 6-10 Californian Scott Williams. With Jeff Lebo handling the point and a number of talented wings available, Smith had a deep, balanced team. His shooting guard was a hometown product from Chapel Hill who demonstrated how deeply basketball had penetrated Tobacco Road culture -- African-American guard Ranzino Smith, named for white N.C. State All-American Sammy Ranzino.
The Tar Heels showed off their depth by beating No. 1 Syracuse in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic, despite the one-game suspension of Reid and Englishman Steve Bucknall for an offseason confrontation with an N.C. State student at a Raleigh nightclub. Redshirt freshman Pete Chilcutt, an Alabama product who had picked UNC over Duke, and true freshman Rick Fox, a Bahamas native who had played high school basketball in Indiana, started in their places and helped UNC beat the team that had eliminated the Tar Heels from the 1987 NCAA Tournament.
It was on that afternoon in Springfield, Mass., when ESPN commentator Dick Vitale first dubbed Smith "the Michelangelo of college basketball coaches."
Michelangelo appeared to be painting another masterpiece in 1988, leading his team to 13 wins in 14 games and a No. 2 national ranking. That's when Duke rolled into Chapel Hill and the Reid-Ferry duel began to dominate Tobacco Road.
Statistically, the UNC big man played one of his best games against the Blue Devils. He outscored Ferry 27-19 and out-rebounded him 13-10. But Ferry also contributed seven assists and hit a free throw with 52 seconds left to give Duke a 70-69 lead. In that final, interminable 52 seconds, Ferry's defense kept Reid from touching the ball as the Tar Heels missed three shots and a tip-in. Finally, Brickey rushed to the corner and tipped away Lebo's potential game-winner to give Duke just its second victory on UNC's court in 22 years.
A month later, Ferry clearly outplayed Reid in Cameron as the Devils broke open a close game at the half and coasted to a 96-81 victory, giving Krzyzewski his first regular-season sweep over Smith -- and the first for any Duke coach since (Vic) Bubas swept the Heels in 1966.
DEFENSE WINS 1988 TRIPLE CROWN
But it was to get better for the Blue Devils.
North Carolina cruised into the ACC Tournament title game a week later in Greensboro, while Duke needed a late jumper by Ferry to edge N.C. State 75-73 in the semifinals. The media, pulling out all the old quotes from (Everett) Case and McGuire about how hard it is to beat a good team three times in a season, generally predicted a UNC victory in the championship game.
Smith expected one, too. The Tar Heel coach sensed that there was more riding on the 1988 ACC title game than mere pride. North Carolina had offered its home court as a site for NCAA Tournament play. At that time, teams that hosted NCAA events usually got to play at home, although there was growing criticism of the practice. Smith couldn't know that the NCAA selection committee had penciled in the ACC Tournament champion for Chapel Hill and the runner-up for Salt Lake City and the West Regional, but he had to suspect that it was possible.
To clinch the home court for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Smith and the Tar Heels needed to beat a Duke team that was beginning to turn up the defensive pressure.
"They are awesome," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said after a February loss to the Devils. "Duke's defense is the best I've seen in years."
That defense was on display in the ACC title game, limiting UNC to 33.3 percent shooting, while forcing 20 turnovers. King, who would be named the national defensive player of the year, shuffled from Lebo to Bucknall to Kevin Madden, harassing them all. Ferry once again shut down Reid, limiting the Tar Heel star to seven points in 33 minutes, while scoring 19 himself.
Duke was ahead 61-59 when Ferry rebounded a missed free throw and scored to push the lead to four points. Carolina got back within two and appeared to be on the verge of a tie when freshman guard King Rice broke ahead of the pack and raced toward the basket for an uncontested layup. But Duke's Quin Snyder caught him from behind and blocked Rice's shot, protecting the lead and allowing the Devils to hold on for a 65-61 victory.
Duke students already were wearing T-shirts proclaiming their "Triple Crown" -- celebrating three victories over the Heels in a single season.
What made it even sweeter was getting the No. 2 seed in the East and the chance to play two NCAA games on UNC's home court. That would provide the Blue Devils with a relatively easy path to the regional final. Duke coasted past Boston University and SMU in the Smith Center, then knocked off Rhode Island in the Meadowlands to set up a game with No. 1 Temple, the top seed in the East. The Owls of coach John Chaney featured a tenacious matchup-zone defense and relied on spectacular freshman guard Mark Macon to key the offense.
Krzyzewski asked King to take on the Temple star.
"I watched film. ... I had a lot of tapes," King told New York reporter Dick Weiss. "I knew that whenever he looked to score, he always dribbled left. If he went right, he always came back to his left to shoot that stop-and-pop jumper. I tried to push him out of his range. I wanted to contest everything. I was just so focused."
Macon launched 29 shots against King. He hit only six, as Duke won 63-53 and returned to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
North Carolina, which matched Duke's early NCAA success with wins over North Texas State, high-scoring Loyola Marymount and 10th-ranked Michigan, couldn't keep up with No. 2 Arizona in the West Regional final in Seattle. The Tar Heels led the favored Wildcats by two at the half, but foul trouble to Reid, Williams and Bucknall proved fatal in the second half as Arizona pulled away for a 70-52 victory.
Duke, so lucky in the NCAA pairings early, drew some bad luck in the Final Four and fell to "Danny and the Miracles" -- the Danny Manning-led Kansas Jayhawks -- in front of a hostile crowd in Kansas City. Still, even the team's disappointment in Kansas City couldn't spoil a surprisingly successful season. Ferry, who beat out Reid for ACC player of the year honors and added the Case Award as the ACC Tournament MVP, had finished with a narrow, but clear, edge on his rival.
GAMES, WORDS INTENSIFY RIVALRY
But their duel wasn't over. Both big men returned for the 1988-89 season, and they picked up where they left off.
Ferry started especially hot. His 23 points led Duke past Kentucky in the Tip-off Classic. Then, in early December, he exploded for an ACC-record 58 points in a 117-102 victory at Miami. Duke won its first 13 games and climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings.
A loss to Missouri in the Preseason NIT and upsets at the hands of Iowa and Virginia left No. 13 UNC regarded as a big underdog when the Tar Heels traveled to Duke to take on the top-ranked Blue Devils in the middle of January.
UNC's chances of ending its three-game losing streak to its rival seemed slim when Smith announced that Lebo (the starting point guard) would miss the game with a pulled muscle. In his place, the Tar Heels started Rice, then a disappointing sophomore. The powerfully built guard from Binghamton, N.Y., had arrived in Chapel Hill the year before touted as the nation's best point guard prospect. But ACC opponents soon learned that while Rice was quick and strong with the ball, he was a terrible shooter. They backed off him, taking away his driving lanes and turning him into an ineffective offensive player.
Krzyzewski refused to change his in-your-face pressure defense for anyone, even Rice. As a result, he turned the Tar Heel backup into the star that he once was projected to be. Rice played 34 minutes, scored 14 points and passed out seven assists, mostly to Williams, who led all scorers with 22 points. Reid (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Ferry (14 points, six rebounds, six assists) cancelled each other out, but the Tar Heel big man had his first victory over his rival in two years.
Ferry was far more effective in the rematch at Chapel Hill, with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but it was the return of Lebo to the point that helped Duke pull out an 88-86 victory. While Lebo, the son of a prep coach and an excellent shooter, was a better all-around player than Rice, he was the wrong point guard to play against Duke. He lacked the quickness to beat the Blue Devil pressure and lost for the fourth straight time as UNC's starting point guard against Duke.
The Duke-North Carolina duel had so mesmerized the ACC that few noticed that N.C. State actually had edged both for the regular-season title. That seemed a fluke, especially after the Wolfpack flamed out in the first round of the ACC Tournament in Atlanta, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8. Maryland stunned the Pack 71-49, a lopsided upset that was so surprising that it almost seemed appropriate when Terrapin coach Bob Wade was carried off the court after suffering a mild heart attack.
North Carolina disposed of the Terps 24 hours later, setting up the championship game rematch everyone wanted to see: Duke against UNC, Ferry versus Reid.
Three days before the championship game, Smith threw gasoline on the flaming rivalry. Reid and Ferry were once again at the center of the controversy.
Smith's ire was raised during UNC's visit to Duke earlier that year. In the stands, he spied signs that said, "J.R. Can't Reid." It wasn't the most original work by the Cameron Crazies; similar signs had been in evidence at a variety of places since Reid's arrival two years earlier. But somehow the sight of those not-so-clever signs at Duke fired the anger of the Tar Heel coach.
"I felt the sign was a racial slur," Smith said. "They were suggesting that J.R. couldn't read because he was black."
To illustrate his point that the racial stereotypes were wrong, Smith told reporters that the combined SAT scores for his black big men (Reid and Williams) were higher than the combined SAT scores of Duke's white post players, Ferry and freshman Christian Laettner.
"We had tried hard to recruit Ferry and Laettner," Smith said, "so I knew their scores, which were very good."
Smith later claimed that he used two players on each side so no one would accuse him of singling out one player. Cynics suggested that the old math major was playing with the numbers -- Reid actually had the lowest test scores of the four, but Williams had the highest score -- thus Smith had to combine numbers to find a formula that would put Reid on the winning side.
Naturally, Duke fans reacted with outrage that Smith would reveal the supposedly private academic information about two of their players. Krzyzewski bit his lip in public, jokingly responding that, "My math scores were better than my verbal. That's because I'm Polish and from Chicago and I still say youse guys.'" Privately, he was infuriated by his rival's comments.
The controversy helped lift the championship game to a level of ferocity not seen since the Art Heyman-Larry Brown duel in the early 1960s. Only now it was Ferry-Reid.
HEELS TAKE SPICY 1989 REMATCH
Ferry, who raised his scoring average to 22.6 points per game as a senior, had claimed his second straight ACC player of the year award, while Reid was left off both the first and second team All-ACC squads. In hindsight, it's hard to understand the perception that Reid's game had dropped that drastically. True, his scoring average had fallen from 18.0 the year before to 16.9 in 1989, but he still shot an astonishing 61.4 percent from the floor and rebounded well.
Although Ferry appeared to have won his duel with Reid in a decisive manner, the Tar Heel big man had one last chance to build his case. Before Sunday's championship game, the Tar Heels got together for a players-only meeting and ironed out their differences.
"What was said is private," Bucknall said. "But no one let anything stay on their chest. There was a lot of stuff said that probably didn't sit well. But everybody took it in stride. Nobody cared about scoring or awards or any of the individual stuff."
The Ferry-Reid rivalry, the Duke-Carolina rivalry, Lebo's struggles against the Devils, Smith's controversial remarks. They all helped create one of the most intense, brutally contested games ever seen in the ACC. And although it was played in Atlanta, it very much belonged to Tobacco Road.
North Carolina took an early lead, as Reid and Williams dominated down low. Krzyzewski took exception to that domination, screaming at UNC's Williams after what he perceived as an unnecessary elbow.
Smith, who had engaged in a similar verbal exchange with Kentucky's Rick Robey 12 years earlier, responded by leaping off the bench and screaming at Krzyzewski, "Don't talk to my players!"
Coach K answered, "F**k you!"
If anything, the intensity increased as the game went on. Reid was not at the top of his game, scoring 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting. But Ferry, who missed 14 of 20 shots from the floor, struggled even more. Laettner brought the Devils back with one of his best games, but UNC was nursing a 77-74 lead when Williams missed a clinching free throw with one second left. Ferry grabbed the rebound and threw a baseball pass at the basket, 75 feet away.
For just an instant, it looked as if his desperation heave was on line. Smith, watching from the sideline, was afraid it would drop for a game-tying three-pointer. Instead, the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced away.
"The old man could have had a heart attack," Smith said, "if Danny Ferry's shot had gone in."
The tournament victory was Smith's ninth ACC championship, but his first since 1982. More importantly, it was his way of saying that UNC would not give up supremacy on Tobacco Road without a fight.
WONDERFUL CHAPTER ENDS SADLY
Smith got a nasty shock later that Sunday night, as he waited with his team in the Atlanta airport for the return trip to Chapel Hill. UNC sports information director Steve Kirschner was watching the NCAA selection show in an airport bar, and he jotted down the pairings on a cocktail napkin.
To Smith's surprise, Duke was given the favorable seed in the East, while UNC was seeded No. 2 in the Southeast Region. The Blue Devils would get to play two games in Greensboro, while UNC would have to return to Atlanta for first- and second-round games.
"It's ironic that last year Duke beat us in the ACC championship game and played in our building, while we were sent to Utah," Smith said. "This year we beat them in the title game, and again they stay in North Carolina and we get shipped out. The idea in the past has been if you are the best, you stay in your natural region."
Privately, Smith believed that Duke athletic director Tom Butters, a member of the selection committee, had pulled strings to help the Blue Devils. The committee's explanation was that it was trying to balance the field; it didn't want to put UNC, rated the strongest No. 2 seed in the field, in the same region with Georgetown, rated the strongest No. 1. Instead, UNC was put in a region with Oklahoma, rated the weakest No. 1. However, the Tar Heels also were in the same region as No. 3 seed Michigan, a team Carolina had faced -- and beaten -- in both the 1987 and 1988 NCAA Tournaments.
"That was unfair," Smith said. "Their seniors, especially Glen Rice, remembered the two previous years."
Michigan got 34 points from Rice and eliminated the Tar Heels in a Sweet 16 game in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. Smith stood outside the UNC dressing room and complained to two North Carolina reporters, "I'd have rather played Minnesota."
His bitter comment was a jibe at the easy path Duke had to the regional final. The Blue Devils got past South Carolina State and West Virginia in Greensboro to earn another trip to the Meadowlands, where they drew not No. 3 seed Stanford but 11th-seeded Minnesota in the regional semifinals.
Georgetown proved to be a paper tiger in the regional final. Duke handled the Hoyas with surprising ease. The key was Laettner, who laid the foundations of his legendary NCAA status by dominating the much-hyped Alonzo Mourning in the post. Laettner's 24 points, coupled with 23 by guard Phil Henderson and 21 by Ferry, carried Duke to an 85-77 victory and a second straight trip to the Final Four.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, their visit to Seattle turned into a nightmare in the semifinals against Seton Hall.
Krzyzewski's team got off to a 26-8 lead before Brickey went down with a sprained ankle. Laettner, who was playing well, got into foul trouble and was limited to 13 points in 21 minutes. Ferry did his best -- 34 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes of action -- but a five-point halftime lead slipped away early in the second half. With Australian import Andrew Gaze on fire, the Pirates pulled away for a lopsided 95-78 victory.
Although the departures of Ferry and Reid, who was advised by Smith to turn pro after his junior season, would signal a new phase in the Duke-Carolina rivalry, the twin departures were not about to change the balance of power on Tobacco Road.
In fact, the next four years were going to produce the most spectacular run of success the region had ever seen.