THE FORMULA FOR A RIVALRY is quite simple: The intensity of rivalry is multiplicative, combining the inverse of distance times density times elevation times frequency. This equation explains why the basketball teams of Duke University and the University of North Carolina are such great rivals.
Let us decompose the rivalry equation into its constituent elements: Rvlr = 1/dist * dens * elev * freq
First, geography determines intensity: The physically closer the rivals, the greater the rivalry. Duke and UNC are just spittin' distance down Tobacco Road from each other. If you listen to the various TV commentators, Duke and UNC are seven, eight or ten miles apart, but according to the Maps of Google, they are 11.2 miles by car, 9.8 as the crow flies.
Or, to use a measure of sociological and psychological distance, as Mike Krzyzewski once said, "We use the same dry cleaners."
In their general geographic area, Chapel Hill-Durham, fan density is very high -- almost everyone is a fan of one team or the other. If you are a foreigner to these lands, from say El Salvador, Sierra Leone or New Jersey, pick an allegiance. Otherwise both sides will detest you, you coward! (That’s why I respected the guy in the turban on the risers at Cameron almost as much as I love the young woman in the Carolina blue headscarf in the end zone at the Dean Dome. My kind of people.)
Other great rivalries, such as the Big Five in basketball in Philly (Penn, Temple, Saint Joe's, Villanova and La Salle) are all in one city but the density of the fan base is divided and diluted by many other loyalties including the NBA's 76ers.
The mutual elevation of our rivalry is dizzyingly high, especially in men's basketball. According to Wikipedia, for the last 123 meetings either Duke or UNC has been ranked in the AP Top 25. The last time neither was ranked by any major poll: February 25, 1955.
For women, lately, it has been about as good. Since 1992 UNC has been ranked in one poll or the other every year but two, won a NCAA championship and made three Final Four appearances, finishing in the top five the last four seasons. Meanwhile, since 1992 Duke made four Final Four appearances, two in the championship game while recording an NCAA-record seven-straight 30-win seasons.
As to frequency, both the men and women, in basketball, have played twice a year, at minimum, for decades, often playing again in the ACC tournament, and meeting soon, I hope, in the NCAA’s as well.
As a result of these combined forces the Duke/UNC rivalry is so intense that I calculate that the center of the college basketball universe lies somewhere near I-40 not far from 15-501. There oughta be a monument or plaque or something there, don't you think?
How not to insult your rival
Speaking of spittin' distance, while attending last Sunday’s Duke-UNC women's basketball regular-season finale in Cameron Closed-to-the-Elements Stadium, an avid Duke fan was sitting just across the aisle from me. (How avid, you might ask. Well, he had his own scorecard and was making his own boxscore. That avid.)
At one point he screamed, "Sylvia, sit down!!!" (UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell was at the time standing to protest another bad call by a chubby little official.) This is proper fan behavior. I do it all the time.
But then Mr. Scorekeeper, as Hatchell, attired in a classic black pantsuit, signaled a play to her team with a Churchill-esque, two-hand signal in which she raised two-fingers in a "V for Victory" fashion, yelled, "She looks like Nixon." This is not proper.
For a fan of the Devils, conjuring up the ghost of Richard Nixon is not proper -- as I helpfully whispered to the more sedate Duke fans sitting behind me. (I said nothing to Avid Fan as he had a sharpened pencil in his hand and I have spent time in the Duke University Medical Center emergency room on a weekend. It was not a pleasurable experience.)
Here's why it's not proper. Like my lovely and talented wife Sandra, Richard Milhous Nixon graduated from Duke University School of Law. Unlike my wife, the experience molded him forever.
In my wife's case, it did not taint her. Case in point: She will stand in Cameron or Wallace Wade wearing beautiful sky-blue attire and cheer for her beloved Tar Heels. Conclusive datum: Since graduating from Duke -- in the same law school class as the very annoying former Duke basketball player Quin Snyder -- Sandra has taken up banjo pickin'.
As to Mr. Nixon's case, I will allow him to speak for himself: "And I always remember that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible one way or the other." As I said, Nixon is not really someone, I would think, you want to be bringing up if you are a Duke fan.
Gary D. Gaddy lives in Orange County, 4.2 miles from the center of the college basketball universe
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday March 5, 2009.
Copyright 2009 Gary D. Gaddy