Reading about North Carolina’s religion

by DG Martin

Does North Carolina have a state religion?

Officially, the answer is ‘No.’

But this month we know better. For many North Carolinians, March is the month of pilgrimages to ‘holy’ sites, where they will join 20,000 or so other pilgrims in ‘worship.’ Some will be wearing costumes and uniforms to show their loyalty. Some will have their faces and other parts of their bodies painted to frighten the evil spirits and opponents. They will sing and shout and jump up and down more than the most enthusiastic of ‘holy rollers.’ Even those who cannot take the pilgrimages will go though all kinds of rituals designed to bring about favorable outcomes.

This ‘religion’ is, of course, college basketball.

For those few North Carolinians who have not yet been introduced to the state religion, I recommend three outstanding new books. Each of them helps its readers begin to see why basketball is so special in our state and how the rivalries and loyalties lead some of us to actions that appear to be either religious fanaticism or insanity.

In the first book, Blue Blood: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops, veteran reporter and sports writer Art Chansky lays out the history of the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry.

Blue Blood is comprehensive and full of details about hiring and firing coaches, arguments and fights, and the strategy and tactics of important games. In some ways it is an encyclopedic history of college basketball since the 1950s. Although it centers on Duke and Carolina, their stories overlap with those of the other teams both schools played regularly.

Blue Blood has an index, which makes it easy to look up specific people. For instance, if you want to know about former Duke star Bobby Hurley, you can look him up quickly. Then you can read how and why he signed at Duke, even though his father, a high school coach, had been a long-time admirer of Carolina and Coach Dean Smith. Chansky explains how the Hurley family’s new connections with Duke closed down important Carolina recruiting opportunities in the New York area.

These kinds of details and the convenient index make Blue Blood not only a good read, but also a necessary reference book for every sportswriter or fan who follows Duke or Carolina.

Will Blythe’s brand new book wins the longest title award. To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry might also be one of the best book titles ever.

The title lets you know that it is a personal memoir, as much about the author as it is about basketball. Blythe opens his book with, ‘“I am a sick, sick man. Not only am I consumed by hatred, I am delighted by it.’”

In a compelling explanation of the sources of this hatred that delights him, Blythe charts a pathway for his readers to deal with their own unreasonable passions about basketball and the teams they love ‘— and love to hate.

To illustrate his explanations, Blythe weaves together hundreds of wonderful basketball related stories about himself, his family, and his friends.

In one of them he writes, ‘“A former teacher of mine, a great scholar of Southern literature, believes that he can control games by maintaining the same posture throughout the contest and by doing some kind of weird voodoo gesture with his fingers every time an opposing player shoots a free throw.’”

To find out who this teacher is, you have to read a third book, Off the Rim: Basketball and Other Religions in a Carolina Childhood by Fred Hobson, the same former teacher whose posture and gestures Blythe describes. Off the Rim is also a memoir. Hobson tells us of his growing up in the mountain foothills of Yadkin County, playing high school basketball there and making Carolina’s freshman team as a ‘“walk on’” in the early 1960s. The story of Hobson’s later conversion from athlete to scholar is engaging and poignant ‘— especially since the scholar, like his student Blythe, still goes crazy when Carolina plays Duke.

Which one of these three books should you read? If you want to understand North Carolina’s ‘state religion,’ get all three of them.