UNC Basketball: “Likeable” Blue Devils


Being a Tar Heel, it may be sacrilegious to actually like some of the basketball players that have played for the Duke Blue Devils. However, you must know that some people transcend rivalries just because of who they are. This column is dedicated to these former players.

Jason “Jay” Williams was one of the most dynamic basketball players I have ever seen. I know that he played for Duke, the enemy and arch-nemesis to North Carolina; however, I was still amazed at how talented he was. At 6’2″ 185 lbs., Williams had a similar game to Dwyane Wade although he was a better perimeter shooter than Wade. Williams attacked at the rim like Iverson, but shot the three-ball with precision as good as J.J. Redick. The irony with Jason Williams is that he wanted to play college basketball for the UNC Tar Heels. However, rumor is it (per the Daily Tar Heel which published this article on their front page in the late 90’s), Bill Gutheridge told Jay that there was a logjam at the guard position. Carolina has senior Ed Cota, UNC quarterback Ronald Curry, and in-coming freshman Joseph Forte. Carolina could have potentially had two ACC Players of the Year in Forte (2001) and Williams (2002) on the same roster along with a point guard (Ed Cota) who is top five in all-time NCAA assist leaders. However, it did not happen. The Daily Tar Heel also reported that Gutheridge told Williams to go anywhere but Duke. What did Jay do? He attended Duke, led them to a national championship in 2001, and earned the Naismith and Wooden Awards in 2002 as college basketball’s player of the year. In addition, Jay was selected by the Chicago Bulls as the #2 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Williams and Jamal Crawford competed against each other for playing time. Currently, Jay Williams is an ESPN basketball analyst. Again, let me remind you that he WANTED to attend Carolina. UNC was Jay Williams’ dream school. Imagine, if Jay would have been a Tar Heel. There would not have been an 8-20 season.

Robert Brickey played at Duke University from 1986 to 1990. Brickey hails from my hometown, Fayetteville, North Carolina. He attended E.E. Smith High School from 1983 to 1986. I had the “privilege” of being at one of the high school basketball games where Coach K was in attendance. Brickey was known for his “high-flying” dunks and aerial assault. When Coach K recruited Robert Brickey, the E.E. Smith Golden Bulls were ranked in the top five in the nation in boy’s high school basketball rankings. While playing for Duke, Brickey was a three year starter on teams that went to three consecutive Final Fours (1988-1990). In his last season, the Blue Devils lost to UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, 103-73. Robert was actually the Coach Krzyzewski’s captain for this Blue Devils team, that included Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner. Til this day, Brickey’s basketball jersey is the only retired basketball jersey at E.E. Smith. In addition, Robert Brickey was North Carolina’s Mr. Basketball in 1986. The North Carolina Mr. Basketball honor recognizes the top boys’ high school senior basketball player in the state of North Carolina. The award is presented annually by the Charlotte Observer. Currently, Robert is the Director of Basketball for Hoops City U (http://www.hoopscityu.com).

Jeff Capel represents another former Blue Devil basketball player who I liked. Capel lived in Cumberland County (Fayetteville, Grays Creek, Hope Mills). Although Capel attended Cumberland County’s South View High School (a rival of E.E. Smith), I had the privilege of attending one year of junior high school with him. I have never played basketball with anyone who had the work ethic that Jeff Capel had. In 1989, Jeff was like the Magic Johnson or LeBron James of our basketball team at Reid Ross Junior High (now the school is named Reid Ross Classical School). He played the center position, but also handled the ball. Due to having the best record, we were the Division I Champions in the Cumberland County School District for the 1989-1990 school year. The ironic thing is that Jeff and I would go back and forth about Duke and Carolina. He was a Duke fan, and I was a Carolina fan. Many years later, now Jeff is an alumnus of Duke University and I am an alumnus of the University of North Carolina. I actually had the pleasure of meeting his younger brother, Jason Capel (current head coach for Appalachian State’s men’s basketball team and former UNC basketball player from 1999-2002), while we attended Reid Ross Junior High. Jason watched some of our basketball practices. He would also participate every now and then. Jeff was North Carolina’s Mr. Basketball in 1993. In the same year, Jeff was a part of the North Carolina State 4A High School Basketball Champions, the South View Tigers. While Jeff played for Duke from 1993 to 1997, I had the pleasure of rooting against him though I was secretly happy about his success. Jeff was the basketball player who hit the three from half court during the UNC/Duke double overtime game during the 1994-1995 season. Capel was the shooting guard on the Duke Blue Devils team that lost the 1994 national championship to the Arkansas Razorbacks, 76-72. The 1994 Final Four was played in Charlotte, North Carolina; ironically. Capel is currently one of the assistant coaches for the men’s basketball team at Duke.

Jan. 8, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Nolan Smith (4) applies some pressure to Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Nolan Smith is another player who I liked as a basketball player. He is the prime example of a hard worker. As a freshman at Duke, Smith averaged 5.9 points a game in 14.7 minutes. However, during the 2009-2010 season, Nolan Smith averaged 17.4 points in 35.5 minutes per game. He was a major reason why Duke won the national championship in 2010. He was their “x factor.” However, what really made me a fan of Nolan Smith was when I heard about the tragic story of how his father died. His father was Derek Smith, who was a member of the Louisville Cardinal’s 1980 national championship team. Derek died on a cruise in August 1996 from a massive heart attack. On this cruise, Derek Smith and ESPN analyst Tim Legler voluntarily held basketball clinics. Nolan Smith saw his father die during this cruise. Nolan used this experience as fuel to become a dominant basketball player at Duke. Currently, Nolan is a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers.

There are a few other players who played at Duke that I liked, such as Kyrie Irving (never played against Carolina due to injury in the 2010-2011 season and his skills were/are off the charts), Grant Hill (game was smooth), Will Avery (underrated basketball player who could put up 20 points any given night), and Daniel Ewing (same description as Will Avery). The funny thing is that many of the basketball players at Carolina and Duke are friends. In fact, some of them attend the same barbershop in Durham, North Carolina. Sometimes Duke fans and Carolina fans can take the rivalry too far. Nevertheless, I will always be a Tar Heel no matter what.