UNC's Johnson, Duke's Suggs date despite rivalry

DURHAM, N.C. -- North Carolina's Brice Johnson and Joel James slipped into Cameron Indoor Stadium last week shortly before Duke's women's basketball game against Florida State.

Johnson found a spot on the blue cushioned bleachers behind Duke's bench, where some of the parents were situated. There was no reaction from Blue Devils fans seeing North Carolina's 6-foot-10 leading scorer and rebounder.

His legs, casually stretched out over a second row of bleacher seats, revealed the small interlocking "NC" logo in Carolina blue etched near his pants pocket. That's generally a hated sight in this venue -- especially in the week before the two schools prepare to renew their celebrated rivalry in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.

Johnson said he tries not to wear any Carolina gear when he's coming to Cameron, but he had just finished practice. He has been a welcomed and frequent visitor during Duke's women's games.

All thanks to Faith.

I may have just lost to you in Horse but I've won your heart 😘😘#WCE #WCW

A photo posted by Brice Johnson (@bjohnson_23) on

"She's like my best friend," he said. "We have a lot in common."

Faith Suggs is a 6-foot-1 freshman forward for the Blue Devils. The two have been dating, which explains Johnson's foray into what would otherwise seem like enemy territory.

A Florida State fan who passed by Johnson asked, "Are you trying to get beat up over here?"

When Johnson indicated he was fine, the man replied: "[James] can be your bodyguard."

Johnson normally goes to the games by himself. James joined him on this occasion to watch his sister, Kai James, who is a junior center at Florida State and wears jersey No. 42 as her brother does for the Tar Heels.

Johnson said he has made a few acquaintances in Duke's ticket office and on the security staff at Cameron. Some of them, he said, even cheer for Carolina, which is why no one bothers him when he's at a game.

"People don't understand we may not speak during the week leading up to the game, but there's a lot of respect there between Carolina and Duke," Johnson said. "We save the hate for in between the lines. Sometimes, I have thought about it like, it is weird sitting behind Duke's bench in Cameron."

Suggs' first trip to Chapel Hill wasn't weird at all. As a freshman who had only heard of the rivalry, she accompanied a teammate to attend "Late Night with Roy," Carolina's annual season-opening event. Suggs, who grew up outside of Chicago, wanted to see what the rivalry was like for herself.

"I assumed it to be like Kentucky-Louisville, where people hate each other," Suggs said. "And when I got here it was like, we're cool with them. Now, we're not going to let them beat us, but we're cool with them. It's pretty cool to be a part of."

I have to be the luckiest person in the world to have such an amazing person by my side #wcw #wce

A photo posted by Brice Johnson (@bjohnson_23) on

While some rivalries are defined by hatred, Carolina and Duke insist they have respect for each other.

"A lot of Carolina guys, a lot of our guys are best friends over the years, Roy and I are good friends," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That doesn't mean we're not going to go after one another Wednesday night. It comes from respect. I love that aspect of it. Fans aren't the same way, but the participants are. There's no question about that."

Respectful rivalry or not, Johnson and Suggs' star-crossed relationship had to start somewhere. Through mutual friends, Johnson let Suggs know that he wanted to meet her.

Brice being Brice, he didn't do it while she was at the Late Night event. He didn't contact her for another week.

Basketball was obviously common ground, but they soon found a deeper connection when Johnson asked Suggs who the woman on her laptop wallpaper was. Suggs explained the picture was of her mother, Susan, who died of cancer when Suggs was just 14. She died on Oct. 9, which in the ensuing years, has been a day that brings reflection and sometimes sorrow for Suggs.

Johnson thought there was no way what she was telling him was true. It was too coincidental. His mother also died of cancer when he was 14, and it happened on Oct. 11.

"We were both like, 'OK this is weird,'" Suggs said. "But then we were like what God has planned, we'll go with it."

Johnson, an only child, dealt with his heartache and pain internally after his mother died. He doesn't show a lot of emotion away from the basketball court. That's the easiest part for Suggs to relate to.

"We kind of get each other," Suggs said. "We both understand when we have good days and we have bad days, but we've been through the same thing, so we're supportive of each other."

Some of their friends have gone so far as to call Suggs the reason why Johnson's game has picked up. He is, after all, playing more consistently this season than in any of his previous three.

Averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, Johnson has also worked his way into conference and national player of the year consideration.

"You think about the timing of them and their interaction and his production, it has been kind of hand-in-hand," said Tar Heels senior guard Marcus Paige, who is also Johnson's roommate. "I would think she's a pretty good good-luck charm."

Happy Valentines Day Princess 😘😘🦄🔑😊🤔😎💚💚

A photo posted by Brice Johnson (@bjohnson_23) on

Although they try not to dissect each other's games, they do talk basketball. And Suggs will speak her mind if she feels he needs to hear something.

"I am in his ear a lot, I don't know, maybe he just doesn't want to hear me," she joked. "I won't take any credit. I think it finally just clicked for him."

Johnson says he gets as nervous watching Suggs play as he does before his own games.

"I just want her to do so well, it's like I'm out there playing too," Johnson said.

Johnson is more an observer of the game than he is a fan in the true sense of the word. When Suggs scored on a 3-point play against Florida State, a short and simple clap was the most demonstrative Johnson got the entire game.

Suggs returns Johnson's favor and gets over to watch Carolina games when her schedule allows. Before the Heels' showdown with Maryland in December, Johnson even convinced her to wear a Carolina T-shirt to the game.

"I'll probably never wear Carolina blue ever again," said Suggs, who is still working on getting Johnson into a Duke shirt at her games. He said he'd probably do it -- but probably not until after he graduates from UNC.

And so it seems some lines in the rivalry take a little longer to cross than others.