Most who live outside the eight miles that separate the Duke and North Carolina campuses enjoy this fierce basketball rivalry via ESPN, yet they can’t experience it the way the residents of the Tar Heel state do on a daily basis. HBO’s rich and contextual hoops docu “Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina” brings the hatred of the two schools to, literally, blood-dripping levels and explains that when it comes to selecting allegiances, the only colors to choose from when pledging basketball fealty are either powder or dark blue.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the hourlong special follows a similar one devoted to Michigan and Ohio State in football and employs footage that recalls some of college basketball’s most vivid memories, including Christian Laettner’s miracle shot vs. Kentucky and Michael Jordan’s winning jumper against Georgetown to give UNC the 1982 NCAA championship.
Although the rivalry has been ratcheted up in recent decades due to college basketball’s exposure on cable television, the venom between the two schools goes back to the 1950s. St. John’s coach Frank McGuire arrived in Chapel Hill and brought plenty of New York hardwood talent with him. Archival footage of Duke’s Art Heyman, who originally was supposed to attend North Carolina but changed at the last moment, getting into a fight during a game between the schools is a reminder that this clash goes way back.
Under McGuire and Dean Smith – college basketball’s all-time winningest coach — North Carolina dominated the Blue Devils for much of the 1970s and ’80s. Jordan is interviewed, and says he didn’t even consider Duke much competition during his days playing for the Tar Heels.
The last third of “Battle” focuses on the arrival of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and his tenacity in bringing Duke from Atlantic Coast Conference also-ran to national power. One supporter of UNC says Coach K is the evil embodiment of Duke and, for those who despise everything Blue Devils, it’s easy to regard Krzyzewski as Enemy No. 1.
Doc makes it clear that the majority of those who live in the state are fans of UNC, with the institution being public. Duke, situated down the road in Durham, is a private university where many of the students come from out of state and some North Carolinians consider Duke attendees Yankee carpetbaggers.
Many prominent players — including Larry Brown, James Worthy and Phil Ford for the Tar Heels; Grant Hill, J.J. Redick and Laettner for the Blue Devils — and personalities from both side are given a chance to offer their opinions as to why winning a Duke-North Carolina game is more gratifying than a national championship.