Friday, April 07, 2006

Deep Play: Notes on the Bourgeois Cockfight

Excerpts from two reviews of Will Blythe's book, "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."

First, Edward Cone's review of the book :

"[Blythe's book is the] best book about loving a team since Fred Exley's "A Fan's Notes," just not quite so grim.


The narrative at the center of the book recounts last year's national championship run by the Tar Heels. Blythe goes to practices, talks to players and coaches, watches games on TV and in person. His personality sketches are deft, his action sequences exciting, and his writer's eye sharp. Here he is on Carolina's star big man, Sean May: "For a player of his bulk, May had a surprisingly delicate touch. Watching him shoot was akin to watching a bear dine on salmon with a knife and fork."

Wrapped around this story is the rivalry with Duke, its history and folkways and implications for all concerned. Blythe interviews coach Mike Krzyzewski and star player J.J. Redick, and even watches a game at the home of the Blue Devil fan known as Crazy Towel Guy, who forces him to high-five whenever Duke scores a three-pointer. His interviews are smart and fair -- this would be the "occasionally unbiased" part from the subtitle -- and he finds himself liking these guys more than he might want.

Woven through the text are knowing asides based on a deep understanding of ACC basketball and the schools that play it, the kind of thing that comes from watching for decades. Take this quick brush-off of N.C. State, which once vied for supremacy with the Tar Heels. "Now, decades past their glory years and filled with class resentment, the Wolfpack fans howled with fury every time Carolina came to town. UNC was the lover that had moved on and up, State the dumpee that had downsized into a dumpy apartment, where he spent the weekend microwaving frozen dinners and watching network TV."

All of the above is written by Will Blythe, celebrated magazine journalist, former literary editor of Esquire, contributor to the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. But there is another Will Blythe in the book: "the beast," the atavistic uber-fan, the competitor, hatred personified. Blythe thought he might have left the beast behind by middle-age, but no; "I am a sick, sick man," the book begins. "Not only am I consumed by hatred, I am delighted by it." Eventually he interviews an expert on Buddhism to gauge the possible spiritual toll of his hatred for Duke.

Beast and journalist argue as they finish the interview with Coach K, for whom the beast has a litany of rude questions. "The beast was leering at me in a way I didn't much care for," writes Blythe of this inner conflict. "He bordered on insolent." Indeed, after Blythe sticks to his polite script, the beast calls the journalist a name we cannot print in this newspaper -- the same epithet, by chance, that Krzyzewski himself once applied to Redick after a wimpy performance.

Later, when Duke takes a seemingly insurmountable lead in the end-of-season game at the Dean Dome:

"Damn," the beast said.

"Darn," the journalist said, nodding his stunned head in agreement.

All of this stuff is told in a witty, discursive style, like the stories of a smart and somewhat obsessive friend talking far into the night at a bar, and tied seamlessly into Blythe's upbringing and relationship to his family and his lapsed Presbyterianism and failed marriage and the memories of what his late father taught him about this state and its people ("We are modest and immoderately proud of that modesty, a somewhat paradoxical condition"), which reminded me a lot of what my late father taught me about such things.

Let me stress that this is not just a book for Carolina fans. The depth of Blythe's fandom and the skill of his writing make it work for any reader, and much will be recognizable to fans of other teams, too. The way Blythe's mother can't relax, for instance, even when Carolina is torching an outmanned Virginia team by 50 points.

"Mama, they're not going to lose this game. Trust me.''

"I'm glad you're so confident."

"I think we're going to make it."

"Hush," she said.

When it was all over, my mother said, "That wasn't too bad."

Carolina had squeaked by, 110-76.

Then there is Blythe watching an early-season game against Indiana on TV at his girlfriend's apartment. First he orders her son to quit hitting him in the back of the head with a soccer ball, but when Indiana mounts a comeback, Blythe knows what he must do.

Sitting stock-still was no longer working. At moments of extremity, it always seemed wise to tinker with Karma. Move things around a bit, change the narrative.

"Harry," I called. "Get in here. And bring that ball."

"Do you want me to hit you in the head again?" Harry asked. He was a very intuitive boy.

"Yes," I said. "Fire away."

This immediately paid dividends. Sean May put in two free throws...

It's all in here, from Frank McGuire and Vic Bubas to a visit from Michael Jordan, an encounter with Dick Vitale, a gentle post-mortem on the career of Shavlik Randolph, a subplot about a star who never quite shone at Chapel Hill, Melvin Scott, and an explanation of the Triassic geology of eastern North Carolina.

This is not a perfect book. It could use another edit, for example, to remove some odd repetitions. And even though Blythe confesses to -- hell, celebrates -- the perception of class difference between the Duke and Carolina fans, I found his Duke-hating xenophobia a little heavy-handed. The essence of Duke's star of the early '60s, Art Heyman, seems to Blythe to be wrapped up with his New York Jewishness, his otherness, while New York Jews like Larry Brown are just great Carolina players.

Then again, that skewed prism and willful unevenhandedness make for a good part of this book's appeal." (, March 6, 2006).

Second, Franklin Foer on Blythe:

"[Blythe] passionately supports North Carolina, and just as rabidly despises Duke. He describes the Dukies' "Nuremberg-rally cheers." The Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), is "The Rat. Ratface. . . . Satan. The Evil One." When the crowd at a Duke basketball game explodes, he hopes that it might really explode — "you know, blue-painted body parts shooting through the air, cheerleaders spiraling above the city of Durham, all those obnoxious students and that out-of-state arrogance disappearing in one bright blast."

Blythe spends a lot of time hyping the Tobacco Road rivalry as the greatest in sport — a bit too much time, if you ask me, or Red Sox and Yankees fans, or supporters of Michigan and Ohio State football, or anyone who has watched a European soccer derby. But he is, by all objective measures of sporting bile, not far from the mark. These two programs are the hugely successful aristocracy of their sport. They reside within eight miles of each other, a proximity that obviously heightens the ill will. "We share the same dry cleaners," Coach K has explained. There's also a sociological subtext to their games that eludes most outsiders: where North Carolina is a public university and draws heavily from within the state, Duke is private, endowed by tobacco money and heavily populated by imports from the Northeast. At least that's Blythe's partisan understanding.

For an entire season — the glorious 2004-5 championship season, as it turns out — Blythe returns to live with his mother and follow his Tar Heels. He isn't just searching for a pretext to turn his all-consuming passion into a book advance. Hovering over the book — and clearly his prime motive for writing it — is his recently departed father. (In an opening scene, the minister who just presided over his father's funeral continually whispers basketball scores to Blythe.) His dad loved the state of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina, where he taught, but his curmudgeonly character prevented him from joining his son in his highly irrational fandom. And his father considered Blythe's emigration to New York City an act of betrayal. Blythe never explicitly spells out how this book will help him mourn — and there are long stretches where his father doesn't appear. But if I had to guess, Blythe wants to use the book to explain his basketball obsession to his father, to show how, at his core, he shares precisely the same passions and values.

Fans of college basketball will wish that all sportswriters possessed Blythe's ability to describe a game, to translate its tension and render its action. (Writing about the Duke sharpshooter J. J. Redick, he says, "When he missed, North Carolina fans felt spared an execution, as if they'd already been standing blindfolded in front of the wall when the last-minute reprieve came in from the governor.") They will enjoy his impeccable miniature profiles of the corporate conservative Coach K and his longtime liberal Carolina counterpart, Dean Smith. (Do my descriptions inadvertently reveal just how effectively Blythe has spun me?) Blythe tells much of the season's story through a backup North Carolina guard named Melvin Scott, who began his career as one of the most sought-after high school players in the country. We watch Scott suffer through the dashed expectations and travel with him to his childhood home in the Baltimore ghetto.

Fortunately, Blythe goes far beyond the facile John Feinstein "inside a season" formula. As promised in the title, he uses the rivalry to explicate the nature of hatred — "paddling up the Nile of my Duke hatred, looking for its source." In this quest, he visits the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and meditates on the 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt. But Blythe provides no dazzling insights into the universality of hatred, let alone its presence in sports. And that's hardly a fault. Rather than formulate broad conclusions, he sticks to the peculiarities of the Carolina Piedmont and his own biography. This leads him to digress on Southern Presbyterianism — whose cool Calvinist tendency leads white North Carolinians to seek more effusive spiritual outlets, like basketball — and the suburbanization of his state — which leads North Carolinians to seek authentic emotional experiences, like basketball. He pulls off these generalizations because he writes amusingly, self-deprecatingly and often beautifully.

Only one part of the book grows tiresome. He keeps returning to a colorful cast of eccentrics, whose entire existences are consumed by the rivalry — we meet, for instance, a Duke supporter named Crazy Towel Guy and an Episcopal priest whose obsessive collecting of Carolina paraphernalia culminates in his divorce. None of this feels fresh, however vividly Blythe depicts his subjects. From Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" to Warren St. John's "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer," the crazed fan has received his fair share of attention — and then some." [Franklin Foer, "Tobacco Road Rage," The New York Times, April 2, 2006).


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