March of the pilgrims

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 “holy rollers.” Even those who cannot make the pilgrimages will go though all kinds of rituals designed to bring about favorable outcomes.

This “religion” is, of course, basketball.

And for those few North Carolinians who have not yet been introduced to the state religion, I recommend three outstanding new books. Each one helps its readers begin to grasp why basketball is so special in our state and how the rivalries and loyalties lead some of us to actions that may look to outsiders like either religious fanaticism or outright insanity.

In the first book, Blue Blood: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005), veteran reporter and sportswriter Art Chansky lays out the history of the Duke/Carolina basketball rivalry.

Blue Blood is comprehensive and full of details about the hiring and firing of coaches, arguments and fights, and the strategy and tactics of important games. In some ways, it’s 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 also 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 read how and why he signed at Duke, even though his father, a high-school coach, had been a longtime 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 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 definitely wins the longest-title award. But 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 (HarperCollins, 2006) may also be one of the best book titles ever.

For starters, it lets you know that it’s a personal memoir, as much about the author as it is about basketball. Blythe opens his book by proclaiming: “I am a sick, sick man. Not only am I consumed by hatred, I am delighted by it.”

And in offering a compelling explanation of the sources of this hatred that delights him, Blythe charts a pathway for his readers to follow in dealing 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.”

But 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 (University of Missouri Press, 2006). Because the author, it turns out, is the same former teacher whose posture and gestures Blythe describes. Off the Rim is also a memoir. Hobson tells us of 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 saga 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 battles 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.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which is taking a break during March and will return in April.]

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