DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Writer Will Blythe will be glued to his television set over the next couple of weeks, hoping his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels will once again be vying for a national championship in the Final Four. Blythe is a lifelong North Carolina fan and Chapel Hill native who returned to his homeland recently to grapple with what he calls his little Duke problem.
The result is his new book, To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever. Blythe made the trip up from Chapel Hill to join us in our Washington, DC, studios. Welcome to the program.
Mr. WILL BLYTHE (Author, To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever): Well, thank you for having me.
ELLIOTT: So your book has quite the subtitle: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. You felt the need to qualify things for us a bit?
Mr. BLYTHE: There were a few unbiased moments in there. I felt like people should know.
ELLIOTT: I'd like to have you read from your book for us to start with. Now, this is when you've just made the trip down from New York, where you're working, to your mother's house. You're stretched out on the sofa sort of contemplating why it is that you get so worked up over basketball.
Mr. BLYTHE: All right.
As I reclined, I realized that like the socialite, I presented two faces to the world, one, that of a quiet fellow who liked to read and walk and ponder things, and the other, that of an absolute beast, a guy who screamed and ranted and jumped up and lay down on the floor as he watched North Carolina play basketball, a man who even at his advanced age, hated to lose at anything. I decided that this season would be a good opportunity for the journalist in me to study the beast in me. That's what the journalist thought anyway. There was always the possibility that the beast would decide to kick the journalist's prying ass right out of his own book.
ELLIOTT: And then the beast goes on to say a few things that we can't repeat on the radio.
Mr. BLYTHE: That we can't say on the air, exactly.
ELLIOTT: Right. So where did this beast come from?
Mr. BLYTHE: He's been living in me I think for a long time, and I guess it was just growing up in North Carolina the same way Alabama Auburn fans grow up with this sort of great divide between them, and you sort of have to choose. And North Carolina is the public school. Most of its students are from in-state. Duke is the private school. Most of its students are from out of state, and they're gonna leave the state when they're done at Duke.
So there's this great sort of, you know, local/outsider dynamic, and the way we saw it growing up, good versus evil.
ELLIOTT: Now, we should acclimate people and let them know that you're talking about two schools that are practically next door neighbors.
Mr. BLYTHE: Yeah, eight miles apart, famously eight miles apart, next door neighbors but the kind of neighbors who I think are always sort of watching each other, you know, through the shades to see what they're doing.
ELLIOTT: Now, some of the book, you delve into the personal stories of the some of the players on the North Carolina team last year. And in particular I'd like you to tell us a little bit about Melvin Scott and his family.
Mr. BLYTHE: Well, the Scotts are a terrific family from Baltimore. Melvin was a highly recruited shooting guard out of Southern High School in Baltimore and he came to Carolina and I wanted to follow him around for the season that I was down there. Originally he was the starting shooting guard, you know, the counterpart to Duke's JJ Redick. The season I was covering him, he lost the starting position and so he had to adjust to coming off the bench, which is a traumatic thing for any really terrific athlete to have to do.
So, in a sense I was watching Melvin have, in his early 20's, a mid-life crisis which, you know, I think I sort of experienced myself. So, I was watching him do it with such grace. I mean, what he--cause he didn't like losing the starting position, so he had to struggle with how to adapt to that and, you know, he was so much the representative of his neighborhood in Baltimore that a few times I went back there ...
ELLIOTT: A tough neighborhood.
Mr. BLYTHE: A tough neighborhood, and everyone in his family had had a pretty tough time, but they were still like the Waltons; they just hung together. But when you'd walk through the streets of Baltimore with Melvin, people that he didn't even know would come up out of the blue and say, hey, you gotta start takin' it to the hoop. You gotta shoot more, man.
You know, they wanted him to be a success, so he had this thing where he was carrying an entire community's expectations on his shoulders, and at the same time he was trying to get away from Baltimore. So I had this front row seat for that and I was very moved by how beautifully, actually, he handled that.
ELLIOTT: His mom, Bridget, was quite the character too.
Mr. BLYTHE: Yeah, she would say, I'm tired of all this negativity and she was like a lioness. She protected her family.
ELLIOTT: That's touching at the end when they're all together at his graduation.
Mr. BLYTHE: Right, yeah, that was a great day. Not only did he graduate from UNC on time, he also made Academic All-ACC and everybody came down from Baltimore and we all had a terrific time just celebrating that day. It was a great day.
ELLIOTT: Now, I got the sense from reading this book that it was about much more than basketball for you, that this was really more of an exploration of home and what home means.
Mr. BLYTHE: Yeah, of home, how you come to have a home and, you know, it was also an investigation of partisanship, which I think sometimes is part of home. You define yourself both as what you're a part of, the tribe you're a part of, and oftentimes that tribe defines itself against something.
And so I wanted to understand why in mid-life, I still had such powerful emotions about a basketball rivalry to the point where I would try to influence the outcome of games by various postures. That was the thing where you wake up and you realize, boy, I'm in my mid 40's, what in the world am I doing?
ELLIOTT: When you say different postures, you mean, okay, there's this one point where North Carolina is winning at the half, up by, you know, I don't know, double digits.
Mr. BLYTHE: Exactly.
ELLIOTT: And you won't even go to the bathroom or to get a coke at half-time...
Mr. BLYTHE: That's right.
ELLIOTT: ...you just stay in your seat.
Mr. BLYTHE: I felt I had to do my part to help the team win.
ELLIOTT: For fear if you move...
Mr. BLYTHE: Right, if I move...
ELLIOTT: ...the lead goes.
Mr. BLYTHE: ...right, I would affect the voodoo somehow.
ELLIOTT: And if the team is losing, then it's time for you to do something. I don't know, you get up and you order Chinese or something.
Mr. BLYTHE: Yeah, I felt in some small way I had to do my part to affect the outcome of the game. And as I've gone on tour to read from this book, I've actually met a lot of people who've come up and said to me, hey, we do the same thing. Including there's one family who actually taped their mother to a spot on the living room floor because North Carolina had started a rally when she was just standing there and come back to win this game, and so until they lost again they basically taped her to the same spot.
ELLIOTT: They made her stay in the same spot for every game?
Mr. BLYTHE: Right. Now I think they may have given her, you know, food and water, but again, you know, there's a lot of us out there apparently.
ELLIOTT: So why do you think it is that we need these rivalries? What does it do for us as people?
MR. BLYTHE: Well, I think for one thing, let's face it, the expression of hatred, it gets a really bad rap in our society, especially in the South, you know, because in the South, a sort of very polite, civil place, you know, you're supposed to say nice things or nothing at all. But sports hatred gives us the chance to express very vehement emotions and maybe ventilate ourselves a little bit, like opening the windows, you know, after a long winter and the air is sort of feted. I think the rivalries give us a chance to just express this intense antagonism. It's very enjoyable.
ELLIOTT: Will Blythe is a magazine writer and is the author of To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever. Thanks.
Mr. BLYTHE: It was a pleasure.