Tales of Tobacco Road: Stories behind the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

From one decade to the next, the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry keeps growing.

The Duke basketball clash with UNC has been the most prolific rivalry in all of college basketball for as long as most fans can remember.

As a blockbuster matchup, known as ‘The Battle of Tobacco Road,’ it has been compared to the great Lakers-Celtics rivalry for the dominance each team holds every year, both in the ACC and on a national scale.

Although the two programs don’t meet until as late as February, the rivalry annually commences on opening night in November. Every win, loss, and mistake builds tension between the two teams and their respective fans.

Seats go for thousands of dollars — except this year with no crowds on hand — as students camp out in the bitter cold of a Carolina winter and paint their entire bodies blue just to exemplify how proud they are to represent their team.

Because should their side churn out the win, they’ve earned the right to both celebrate for the night and brag until the next time the rivals finally battle again to be the best blue.

The tension between these two close neighbors has been growing for over a century, beginning with their first meeting on Jan. 24, 1920. Ever since, Duke and UNC have met up at least twice per year, creating a beloved tradition full of emotion, trash talk, and entertainment.

A moment in history when the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry was set in stone

In 1959, one of the top recruits in the nation, Art Heyman, made the game-changing decision to decommit from UNC, despite having already signed a letter of intent, in order to commit to Duke.

His unexpected transition took the Tar Heels by surprise, creating bad blood that later turned into a physical confrontation on the court.

Each year, Heyman found himself in an altercation with his would-be UNC teammates, with the fight escalating to a point where stitches had to be given and multiple players were suspended.

The brawling trickled into relative civility over the next two decades, just in time for the rivalry game to be broadcasted by ESPN on a national scale in the mid-1980s.

Then in 2004, the Battle of Tobacco Road reached new heights after becoming the most-watched college basketball game in ESPN history, reaching 3.78 million households.

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The rivalry has since broken its own record multiple times, including in 2019 when 4.34 million gathered around their TVs to witness the likes of Zion Williamson and friends battle their archenemies. Nowadays, the regular-season doubleheader is often featured on multiple channels and has recently included its own College GameDay special each and every year.

This season, everything is different.

The stakes are arguably even higher, as both Duke and UNC have been uncharacteristically struggling to get their feet on the court and perform as per usual.

Any sense of pride the Blue Devils (7-6, 5-4 ACC) and Tar Heels (11-6, 6-4 ACC) can attach to this season lies in the results of the two scheduled matchups exactly one month apart. The first meeting takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday in Durham, and the second will be on March 6 in Chapel Hill.

Players and fans alike will wake up on the rivalry gameday with a sense of excitement and hope in their hearts that their team will be the one to finally shine a light on Tobacco Road again.

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