Why Duke? For Blue Devils, it's all about business ... and heart

by | CBSSports.com
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Senior Miles Plumlee and his brother Mason, a junior, made Duke a part of their family. (Getty Images)  
Senior Miles Plumlee and his brother Mason, a junior, made Duke a part of their family. (Getty Images)  

In college basketball's biggest rivalry, there's no gray area when choosing your shade of blue.

"You could always feel the rivalry," said Ryan Kelly, who went to high school in Raleigh before choosing Duke's royal blue over North Carolina's powder. "All my classmates, everybody had their side, and they were willing to punch each other out for their school."

Everybody, that is, except the people at ground zero of the rivalry -- the players.

At least half the players on Duke's current roster gave serious consideration to UNC when they were choosing a college, and a similar number of Tar Heels pictured themselves playing home games at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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"For a lot of us, it was pick between one of the two schools," said Duke freshman forward Alex Murphy, whose first scholarship offer came from Carolina coach Roy Williams. "And now that you're with one, you're supposed to hate the other one. It's kind of funny."

Not surprisingly, players who have built relationships with both coaching staffs and got to know players on the opposing team during high school all-star games aren't as polarized as the firmly entrenched fan bases on both sides.

"People don't understand, a lot of us were close to going to Carolina, and a lot of them were close to coming to Duke," Austin Rivers said. "Harrison Barnes was supposed to come here, and then he went to Carolina. I was about to go to Carolina and came here. It's just a matter of what fits you best."

"Fans take it too seriously," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said.

He should know. He was one.

"Growing up, I worshipped Michael Jordan. I was a big Carolina fan and didn't like Duke," he said.

"When you're a fan, it's different," he explained. "Once you have to make a decision, you treat it like a business decision and put the fan side away."

Rivers took it one step further: "It's not a business decision, it's a life decision."

Duke players talked about the close relationship coach Mike Krzyzewski forged with them and the experience of watching a game at Cameron, but when it came to answering one question -- "Why Duke?" -- they tapped their chests instead of their heads.

"You know," Rivers said. "Your heart rate will tell you."

"My parents and high school coach helped me make my lists, but I needed to find the place where I felt my heart really was," Kelly said. "That's the way to pick a school -- not based on outlining things, but the place where you feel most comfortable and the best fit."

Just because it's hard to explain doesn't mean it's predetermined. While a Duke or Carolina fan will swear he was born that way, many of the players don't agree.

"I don't know that there are Carolina or Duke kids per se," Kelly said. "I'm a believer that you can go to more than one place and be happy and successful."

Business decisions and gut feelings don't mesh well with two opposing camps that feel their shade of blue is their birthright. That often leads to tension for the players caught in the middle.

"My high school was in Asheville," Mason Plumlee said. "And North Carolina's Roy Williams went to T.C. Roberson High School. Right after I committed to Duke, we played them, and it was the night he was inducted into their hall of fame. All the Carolina fans came out, and I got booed."

"It's a Carolina-heavy area out there," Plumlee continued, "as is much of [North Carolina]. I got booed pretty much any time I played after that."

"You can't really fault the fans," Cook said. "They love Carolina or Duke, and it's hard for them to understand we were friends before college, before we made these decisions.

"Just because a guy goes to one school, you can't throw that friendship away."

Quinn Cook and his counterpart in Chapel Hill, Kendall Marshall, learned the hard way just how serious the fans take things before the season. Fans scolded the two players when they thought the two were getting too friendly with each other on Twitter.

"I can remember we were tweeting back and forth, and fans started saying we shouldn't be doing that," Cook said. "I grew up with Kendall Marshall. I played USA Basketball two summers and [Carolina freshman] James Michael McAdoo was my roommate both years. We're friends first."

When it comes time to play, friendship, like any past rooting interest, has to be set aside.

"Off the court, yeah, you can be friends, but when you step in between the lines, you want to beat them," Murphy said. "Maybe it's not a hatred for them, but you're a competitor."

It doesn't even have to be a game in Cameron or the Dean Dome.

"Playing at the North Carolina Pro-Am this summer, sometimes you played against Carolina guys," Murphy said, "and even though it's just a summer pickup game, you can tell there's heat between the Carolina and Duke players."

As hard as it is for fans to distinguish, there's a difference between wanting to beat Carolina and wanting Carolina to lose.

On Dec. 3, the Tar Heels traveled to Kentucky. A back-and-forth game saw the Wildcats clinging to a one-point lead. Carolina center John Henson put up a jumper with 7 seconds left.

As the ball left Henson's hand, not one Blue Devils fan was rooting for it to go through the hoop. But the Blue Devils themselves? That's a different story.

"I'd never root against Carolina," Cook said.

"There's no negativity toward those guys. I'd never want anything bad for them," Rivers said, "except when they're playing us."

"I think you're rooting for the ACC, because you want the team you beat to be one of the best teams in the country," Kelly said.

"I don't pull for teams anymore," Plumlee said. "I root for individuals."

One of those individuals could have been his younger brother Marshall. Like Mason, Marshall was recruited by Roy Williams.

Marshall decided to join Mason and oldest brother Miles in Durham, but had his gut and heart told him otherwise, he could be preparing to square off against his brothers in a basketball civil war.

"He had to do what was best for him," Mason said of his younger brother's decision.

There's not much of a future on the professional poker tour for Mason Plumlee. As he spoke, his face turned red and he fought unsuccessfully to keep from grinning.

"That doesn't mean we wouldn't give it to him," he added.

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