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The Blue Divide
Duke, North Carolina, and the Battle on Tobacco Road
By Johnny Moore, Art Chansky
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Johnny Moore and Art Chansky
All rights reserved.
2014: A Storm Is Brewing
The game had just been snowed out, and Art Chansky was on WCHL radio speculating as to why Duke could not navigate the eight miles over to Chapel Hill for the 9:00 pm tip-off. "If their bus couldn't get to campus, all the team had to do is tweet out that they needed eight four-wheel drive vehicles in front of Cameron by 6:00 ... drivers get to sit behind the Duke bench for the game," Chansky said. "I don't think Mike Krzyzewski wanted to play this game in front of 22,000 Carolina students."
Two minutes after Chansky got off the air, his cell phone rang. Johnny Moore, the longtime radio and TV producer for Duke athletics, was on the other end, half laughing and half pissed off. "You hung around Dean Smith for too long," Moore said. "That's the way he always thought about things like this. What's the angle? Honestly, no one over here is that smart. Trust me, they just couldn't get to the damn Dean Dome, okay?"
— JM and AC
The February 12, 2014, renewal set for 9:00 pmin the Dean Smith Center marked just another Duke-Carolina week with all the typical media hype and fan frenzy. All the prized jerseys, balls, and hardware on display — at the Dean Dome and Carolina Basketball Museum at UNC and at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center at Duke — were under heavy security. Call it prank-avoidance mode.
Then two major winter storms were forecast to collide over North Carolina with the bull's-eye on the Research Triangle that is between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Travel alerts for roads and airports began on Monday, more than 48 hours before the game. "I was watching the forecast," recalled UNC's veteran Media Relations boss Steve Kirschner, "and it looked like a storm was on the way and would get here sometime Wednesday. But how bad could it be? Duke is only eight miles away, and I am sure the officials will try to get here early if there is any question."
To concerned media and fans who called, Kirschner basically outlined the ACC's short-sighted policy that the game must be played if the officials and visiting team can make it safely. Screw the fans; they can stay home and watch on TV, bolstering the ratings and allowing advertising rates to jump the next season. Alumni and fans in attendance pay their schools. TV pays the ACC, which distributes the money to its member schools.
As it turned out, Duke being close enough to bus over two hours before the game ultimately caused the problem. Any other opponent, save N.C. State, would have already been in town the day before, staying at a local hotel, and would have been off the roads.
At about 11:00 that morning, Kirschner walked from the basketball suite to his office in the next building and nearly got frostbite. It was that cold. He thought to himself, If it does snow, it will freeze right away. When snow began falling an hour later, he yelled to basketball sports information director Matt Bowers to look out the window and see how quickly the cars in the parking lot were turning white.
The calls and emails were now flooding in at both schools. But the response was the same — the game would go on as scheduled, reciting the ACC policy if need be. The media was having its own problems driving to the Smith Center. Several members of the press corps got close enough before hitting traffic snarls that they left their cars and walked for an hour just to get there.
Dick Vitale's plane was unable to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. After circling for more than an hour, a runway was sufficiently cleared, and Vitale's Southwest Airlines flight from Tampa, Florida, touched down in early afternoon. But no one was there to get him, and no cabs were going to Chapel Hill because of the mess on Interstate 40.
Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas, the former Duke star who was becoming the new voice of basketball for ESPN, were staying at the Sheraton, four miles from the Smith Center, and it took them two hours to drive there. Tim Brando and color analyst Dan Bonner of the Raycom network had a similarly arduous journey to the arena from their hotel.
All the media that did get to the Dean Dome were royally fed by Bullock's BBQ, whose truck made it in mid-afternoon and led to later cynicism about Duke's travails. Bullock's is located within a mile of the Duke campus, and a picture of their truck sitting outside of the Smith Center was tweeted and re-tweeted hundreds of times. If Bullock's could get there, why couldn't the Blue Devils?
Both basketball programs had plenty of history with winter weather travel. UNC played a game at Providence in 1978, a day after a blizzard shut down the city, and the governor of Rhode Island allowed Carolina's plane to land. Five weeks later, ironically, Duke defeated Villanova in Providence to reach the Final Four the day after a second snowstorm socked the city.
The Tar Heels trekked to Maryland twice within 15 years when a blizzard fell on the nation's capital. Each time the ACC wanted those televised games to be played despite knowing the ominous forecast, and the conference foolishly made UNC travel.
Two of the greatest weekends in Duke basketball history came amidst unlikely snowstorms in Greensboro, North Carolina, site of the ACC Tournaments both years. Before the Blue Devils, who had finished last in the ACC the previous four seasons, won the 1978 ACC Championship, Duke coach Bill Foster deadpanned at the sparsely attended press conference the prior day, "They said it would be a snowy day in Greensboro before Foster ever played for the ACC title."
Two years later one of the worst storms in North Carolina history dumped more than two feet of snow on the middle of the state, and Duke again reached the ACC final. Only half the people with tickets to the sold-out Greensboro Coliseum made the Saturday night game, and most of those arrived via heavy-duty pickups and sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles. Duke edged Maryland to win its second ACC title in three years, and again Foster quipped, "Just another snowy day in Greensboro."
Snow had already been a problem in 2014. Just two weeks before the Tar Heels were to play Duke, the ACC told UNC its game at Georgia Tech would go on as scheduled and to leave for Atlanta early enough to beat the winter storm that was forecast. The snow actually beat the Tar Heels there.
Roy Williams, his coaching staff, players, managers, Kirschner, Bowers, and Roy's wife Wanda boarded one of the last planes to land at Hartsfield Airport just after midnight. And they caught the last MARTA train into the city before the subway closed, which would have forced them to find a hotel near the airport at 1:00 in the morning.
As it were, after emerging from the train stop, they were still four blocks from their hotel. Toting their suitcases and duffel bags of uniforms, they all trudged through the ice and snow that had caused the worst gridlock on the eight-lane I75/85 in Atlanta history that afternoon. ESPN cancelled its telecast when its trucks could not get there, but the game was played as scheduled. Mostly Georgia Tech students, who could walk to the on-campus McCamish Pavilion, showed up. The Tar Heels were able to go home the next day with their second of what would be 12 straight victories.
* * *
Kirschner got his most sobering phone call at about 2:30 when his wife, Jeanne, called his cell phone on the way to pick up their daughter, Emilie, from school. She said she was on Estes Drive, and cars, unable to get up the hill or having slid down it, were stopped in every direction. With Jeanne growing up in Philadelphia and Kirschner in Connecticut, both had childhoods full of snowstorms. So when Jeanne said, "This is really bad," it was the first indication the game was in jeopardy. Ninety minutes later Jeanne and Emilie made it home safely in what is usually a 10-minute trip.
With schools letting out early, several members of the Duke basketball staff had ventured out to pick up their children. After dropping them at home, they began the treacherous drive back, which now took two hours.
Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski lived just two miles from Cameron on the east side of Durham. The normal five-minute drive from his home to his office had become an adventure with cars strewn all over Morreene Road. Twice, Wojo had to drive through ditches just to keep moving forward.
Apparently, between noon and 3:00, everyone in the Triangle Area got in their cars and tried to make it somewhere — either home or to pick up their children. This caused North Carolina's own unprecedented gridlock because the snow was forecast for later in the day, and most businesses were closing early. Schools let out when the snow began, which kept hundreds of fretting parents from fetching their kids in anywhere close to a timely fashion.
By mid-afternoon on February 12, Smith Center director Angie Bitting had already been on the phone hourly with the Duke operations staff. She was assured the Blue Devils were coming and in fact planned to be there by 6:00 pm, an hour early. Instead, the Duke team should have left later because by 7:00 most everyone had gotten to where they were going, and the roads were icy but clear.
After governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, urging everyone to stay off the roads, Kirschner put out a second statement, saying the game was still on but recommended everyone stay home unless they could walk to the Smith Center. This triggered two eventualities. First, the statement implied that any of the 28,000 students who lived on or close to campus would be welcome to come and cheer on the Tar Heels. When the prospect of such an historic event reached Twitter and other social media, Carolina fans with tickets began either selling them on StubHub or calling the UNC ticket office directly, offering them to anyone who could get there.
Images of the famous 2000 game against Maryland came to mind, when a similar storm kept the regular crowd home, and students took advantage of the open seating to suffocate the court, helping the Tar Heels upset the No. 22-ranked Terrapins. Former Tar Heel guard Ed Cota gave the home crowd the ultimate compliment. "It sure felt like we were at Cameron or something," Cota said.
Around 4:00 Kirschner called Duke associate athletic director Jon Jackson, his friend for more than 25 years, and asked him for a status report. While Jackson said the team was still planning to come, Kirschner heard less conviction in his voice. Jackson told him of reports that the 15-501 Highway Duke would travel to Chapel Hill was impassable with vehicles either stuck in traffic or abandoned and that the Duke bus had yet to arrive to pick up the team, which had hoped to leave within the hour.
Ah, the Duke team bus.
That was the next indication the game was in limbo. The charter company used by Duke had called to say its bus was stuck on Highway 147 but would keep trying to reach campus. When Roy Williams heard that and was informed that the Twitter world was now saying Duke did not want to play in front of 22,000 UNC students, he quipped, "Tell them we'll send our bus to get them." Both schools, however, use the same bus service.
Finally, just before 5:00 pm Kirschner called Duke's basketball sports information director Matt Plizga, who said that the bus had yet to arrive and half the Blue Devils and coaches were having trouble getting there for the pregame meal. Rodney Hood, a transfer from Mississippi State, was scared to death driving from his apartment. "I'm not used to this snow," Hood said later, "and there were cars everywhere."
In Durham County alone, the Sheriff's Department had already reported 52 traffic accidents. And the fact that UNC was situated on a hill (with a Chapel) was not making the Duke party feel any better about the trip over. Almost any approach to the Smith Center included driving up an incline, and Franklin Street, Airport Road, and Manning Drive were all littered with cars that were stuck like a scene from the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still. "Steve, I don't think we can get there," Plizga said to Kirschner. "And if we do, what if we can't home after the game?"
Within 10 minutes UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham called Duke AD Kevin White, and they agreed to postpone the game. Since it was Duke that could not get to Chapel Hill, White had to contact the ACC to get official approval. The media that had arrived heard first and began tweeting out the news. Finally, UNC put out yet another statement, confirming the game was off.
The reaction was immediate on sports radio shows and social media: the Blue Devils were too chicken to come over and play in front of 22,000 raucous students, the only fans who could make it to the game on foot.
It went as far as a Duke fan, Jack Markham, seeking compensation from Duke in the amount of $827.95 for the lack of foresight by the university and the delayed postponement. Markham was on his way to Chapel Hill when he heard the news on the radio.
Markham, who lives in Southern Pines and has been a Duke fan since he was eight-years old, loves the Duke-UNC rivalry. He asked the school for $162 for the two tickets, $58 for lodging at the Red Roof Inn, $37.95 for an unused parking pass in the Smith-Bowles Lot, $170 in fuel costs for him and a friend who made the trip from Knoxville, Tennessee, and $400 in mental anguish. In his claim he stated that, "Duke was aware of the storm and had time to prepare." He also stated in the claim, "After years of loyalty and spending thousands of dollars on Duke tickets and paraphernalia, I'm eager to see how your organization treats its most true-blue supporters." The claim was sent to the university legal office, and nothing ever came of it.
Once the decision was made, Kirschner suggested that Williams be told and asked to call Krzyzewski to formalize the postponement and discuss rescheduling. Apparently, when the outbreak of the Gulf War cancelled the 1991 N.C. State game and with fans already in the Smith Center, Dean Smith and Wolfpack coach Les Robinson were not consulted on the decision. Kirschner did not want that to happen again.
The following night was eliminated because the roads would still be frozen. Duke and Carolina came to the same conclusion about when to play, even though it was to their mutual disadvantage because it set up a four-games-in-eight-days scenario for each team. The only real hole in the schedule this late in the season was the next Thursday, February 20. UNC had a game the previous Monday at Florida State and Duke the next night at Georgia Tech. Plus, it meant Duke would have to play UNC and Syracuse the following Saturday within 48 hours. But that was the best option available and should have proven to all the naysayers that the Blue Devils hadn't ducked the game.
In a matter of minutes, the February 20 date was agreed upon, though it would be the next day before a starting time of 9:00 pm could be confirmed by the TV networks. Eight days later, the snow was gone, and the roads were clear, but there would be a ticket gridlock, the likes of which UNC had never experienced before.
* * *
Considering how turbulent both seasons were from start to finish for both archrivals, a snow-out seemed appropriate.
Duke had lost three seniors — Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee — who represented more than 60 percent of the scoring average and more than 55 percent of the rebounding from its Elite Eight team of 2013. Plumlee averaged a double-double his senior year, and the first-round draft pick would make the NBA's All-Rookie first team. Curry and Kelly averaged 43 percent shooting from the three-point line.
So with only role players returning, it was a given that the 6'8" Hood and 6'8" Jabari Parker, the most celebrated recruit Krzyzewski has ever signed (which is saying something), got most of the attention before the first game. In fact, Hood was named a co-captain after showing what a great teammate he would be while practicing with the Blue Devils during his transfer season. Krzyzewski also granted Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict extraordinary access to his relationship with Parker over the first half of the season.
After winning 11 of their first 13 against a typical Duke schedule of home and neutral site games, the Blue Devils stumbled on their first two true road trips at Clemson and Notre Dame, two teams that would not make the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 22.2 points in his first 12 games, but Parker went into a semi-slump for three weeks when he looked somewhat tired, out of shape, and/or sick. With all the buildup, he may have hit the infamous freshman wall earlier than most freshmen.
Excerpted from The Blue Divide by Johnny Moore, Art Chansky. Copyright © 2014 Johnny Moore and Art Chansky. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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