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The Life

December 17, 2001
Clash of the titans
ESPN The Magazine

The Magazine's Curry Kirkpatrick has been attending Duke-Kentucky games since 1966. Here's his riff on the rivalry's renewal.

The memory is of being in a hotel room forced by the sheer rarity and thrall of what appeared on the TV screen to phone people all over the country.

"Did you see that?" "Can you imagine this?" "Look at this replay!" "I can't believe I'm HERE and this is happening THERE."

Oh, the caller was in Kentucky alright -- covering the NCAA tournament Mideast Regional at Lexington -- but Kentucky was in some other place, rising to some unknown level, taking the sport to some distant galaxy on that March evening nearly a decade ago. A bunch of no-names with no fame -- uh, except the Wildcat coach was Rick Pitino -- collaborating with mighty Duke, the defending national champion, to put together 25 minutes of basketball (a second half and overtime in the East regional final in Philadelphia) which would render every other passionate drama in the sport practically meaningless. Before or since.

You didn't even have to be a college baskets junkie to appreciate the instant History:

Duke and Kentucky shooting a combined 63.2 percent over the final, Final Four-qualifying, stanzas. Christian Laettner's slightly imperfect 20 for 21 night -- 10 of 10 field goals, 10 of 10 free throws, one saucy intentional foot stomp on the prone 'Cat freshman Aminu Timberlake. Jamal Mashburn's 28 points and 10 rebounds for Kentucky. Sean Woods' impossible running, banking hook over a ton of lane traffic which put the Wildcats ahead with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. Mike Krzyzewski's brave words in the Duke huddle: "We're going to win." And Grant Hill's 75-foot hurl followed by Laettner's 17-foot catch-and-turnaround curl which accomplished just that, a 104-103 ending to an epic that not only deserved but required that exact denouement.

Or the aftermath, either, when Blue Devil Thomas Hill simply, unforgettably, wept from sheer shock and when an equally stunned Pitino, who had inexplicably failed to pressure Hill's inbounds prayer, could barely mumble, "my mind is in a total fog."

No, you didn't have to be in hoop heaven. You could have been the President of the United States. "Did you see the ending of the Duke game?" George Bush said to nobody in particular the next morning as he took his Sunday stroll around Lafayette Park.

Actually -- in our highlights-hyphenated universe -- there possibly exists nobody who hasn't seen it by now a hundred times over. Quite remarkably, it mirrored Ali-Frazier in Manila, Watson-Nicklaus in Scotland, Bush II-Gore in Florida. In team competition, maybe only the recent D-Backs-Yankees World Series sustained such suspense at such high quality for a longer period of time than did the immortal Duke-Kentucky '92. Moreover, there's probably very few who don't trace this wondrous, blue-hued, intermittent rivalry -- which thankfully resumes Tuesday night at the Jimmy V Classic in the New Jersey Meadowlands -- back to that March 28, 1992, that Mikey K and Ricky P ritual classic.

But they would be mistaken. Actually, the Blue Devils and the Big Blue have played 18 games against each other, 15 BC (Before Christian) and only two since. In every venue from the Southern Conference (in which both schools belonged in the '30s) to the Sugar Bowl to the Kentucky Invitational Tournament to the Tipoff Classic at Springfield, Mass. -- not incidentally, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Krzyzewski was recently inducted and Pitino someday surely will be.

In 10 of their meetings -- Kentucky leads the series 11-7 -- both teams were ranked in the Top 25, and in five of those one of them was ranked No 1. They've even played for the national championship, twice -- albeit, the first time in 1966 when the teams were ranked 1-2 and the winner, No. 1 Kentucky (83-79), represented merely the Caucasian side of things after which the Wildcats were upset by the mostly all-black Texas Western Miners in the real NCAA final, that "Brown vs. Board of Education" championship which changed the face of college ball forever.

So there's a real brotherhood of duality here -- whether all you Carolina Tar Heels or Louisville Cardinals or Richard Nixon (Duke Law) or Ashley Judd (sigh, UK T-shirt) ever cared to realize it or not.

Indeed, in that '66 NCAA semifinal tussle at College Park, Md. between the No. 1 and No.2 ranked teams, the outcome turned on which significant player -- Larry Conley of Kentucky (yeah, that Larry Conley, the TV broadcaster) or Bob Verga of Duke -- could recover more completely from similarly severe cases of the flu. Verga, the Devils' leading scorer all season, had lost five pounds the week of the championship; Conley, the 'Cats' exquisite playmaker, was running a 102 degree fever and breathing over a vaporizer the night before the game.

Came the penultimate evening, however, Verga could manage only two baskets while Conley could grab a defensive rebound, race the length of the court and score to give Kentucky a seven-point lead with a minute left. The Wildcats -- despite somebody named Pat Riley having fouled out -- clinched their victory.

Conley didn't seem to care that he was sick as a goose. But 12 years later, when the St. Louis Blues met again -- this time the Kentucky-Duke contest was the title game in that Missouri city -- the winners unleashed a real goose on the losers. And Jack (Goose) Givens was nothing if not truly ill -- nailing 18 of 27 shots (41 points) from each and every cranny of the key and circle over Duke's bewildered infant frontline of Mike Gminski, Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard as the 'Cats won again, 94-88. Givens' outburst was the third-highest total in an NCAA final -- surpassed only by UCLA's Bill Walton (44 in 1973) and Gail Goodrich (42 in 1965).

This was Kentucky's Freudian Five of 1978, Joe B. Hall's senior behemoth-bodied (Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, et al) gang who complained all season about the unyielding pressure they were under to win it all. "We're not taking time to enjoy any of this," Joe B. kept saying. But pressure? Banks, who was among Duke's five starting non-seniors, received a death threat before the championship game, and the manner in which he checked Givens indicated he may have thought the Goose was the one with a machine gun.

So it was that Kentucky won 10 of the first 12 meetings with Duke, leaving it to Laettner to get them all back practically with one shot. Kentucky's re-revenge would come almost as dramatically and suddenly -- March 22, 1998, St. Petersburg, Fla., another regional final, another use-it-or-lose-it opportunity to reach the Final Four.

This time Duke was dominating, another precocious Duke of freshmen Elton Brand and Shane Battier and William Avery, ahead 71-54 with under 10 minutes on the scoreboard. Game locked. Get Lesley Visser over to interview Micki and the K Daughters.

But then all Deviltry broke loose. Kentucky guards Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard revved up the defensive pressure on the perimeter. Brand -- his sea legs gone after missing several games with an injury -- kept fouling (eventually out) rather than scoring (one basket, total). Krzyzewski, perhaps too focused on allowing his pet, Steve Wojciechowki, to handle rather than Avery, lost track of his timeouts. Ashley Judd kept screaming and waving and jiggling in that T-shirt. Whatever. In precisely 2:42, Kentucky scored 16 points on five possessions and cut the Duke lead to 72-70.

Nearly six minutes remained when Coach K took his final T.O. Little chance remained for Duke, though, when a Kentucky kid named Cameron Mills --unfortunately no relation to Cameron Diaz; hey when you got star babes, you want more star babes -- unfurled a rainbow three to give Kentucky the lead (80-79) for the first time in the contest. It was also, wouldn't you know it, Mills' first basket of the tournament.

Eerily enough, with Kentucky ahead 86-84 and 4.5 seconds left, Duke had possession at the far end of the court, 'Cat coach Tubby Smith elected not to guard the inbounds passer and the Tropicana Field court seemed to take on the aura of The Spectrum six long years before. Especially inasmuch as Agents Mulder and Scully had taken seats at the scoring table.

Only kidding. Déjà vu not all over again. Taking a pass, Avery weaved in and around and through at least 27 Kentucky defenders but, harassed by Sheppard, could only heave a desperation trifecta, which bounced high off the glass; Duke had lost its first regional final under Krzyzewski.

Which only made it, well, semi-sweeter, when Duke beat Kentucky in their most recent meeting -- the Jimmy V in '98, an obviously paybacking Brand leading the 71-60 victory with 22 points. From that game, Duke's Brand, Battier, Avery, Trajan Langdon and Corey Maggette and Kentucky's Scott Padgett, Michael Bradley and Jamaal Magliore are all in the NBA.

Who remains for the rematch? From Kentucky, only Tayshaun Prince and Jules Camara. From Duke, Nobody.

So what happens now? Any genius who saw Prince waste North Carolina last week with six straight tripods to open the game would give Kentucky a chance on Tuesday night.

But don't be silly. The Blue Devils know how to guard people. They know this is one of the few games they could get tested in all season. They know it's Kentucky.

Take the Nobodies -- and hope the chastened prince doesn't turn into a pauper.

Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail

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