Obama visit adds to UNC-Duke rivalry hype

The former President visited players on both teams before watching Wednesday's game from the front row at Cameron Indoor Stadium

Former President Barack Obama joins fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium during Wednsday's rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

  DURHAM — Members of the North Carolina basketball team were told ahead of time that Barack Obama planned to visit them before Wednesday’s game against Duke.

  But that did little to prepare the Tar Heels’ Cameron Johnson for the moment the 44th President walked through the door of the Tar Heels’ locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium moments before tipoff.

  “I was just in shock,” said the graduate forward, who then went out and scored 26 points to help UNC to an 88-72 win against the rival Blue Devils.

  “It was almost like I was in a virtual reality because ‘That’s President Obama. I really shook his hand.’ I don’t even remember what I said when I shook his hand, I was so in awe of him. That’s one of the most influential people of our lives. To be able to meet him was pretty special.”

  Obama made the rounds in the small visitors locker room, sharing a moment with each player and offering a few words of encouragement before the big game. He also spent some time with Duke before settling in to watch the game.

  Although the players on both teams were told that Obama would be in attendance, UNC guard Brandon Robinson said he didn’t believe it until the former president actually arrived.

  “It was a crazy experience,” the junior guard said. “I met him before (during) my freshman year when he came to campus, but to see him again was really cool.”

  Sophomore center Garrison Brooks was asked if he remembered saying anything to Obama.

  “I said ‘hello,’” he replied. “I don’t know how much more you could say to him.”

  Brooks described beating Duke on its home floor on the same night he met a former President as the biggest thrills of his young basketball career.

  “He shook my hand twice,” Brooks said of Obama. “That’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, too. Tonight was a great night.”

  Obama is an avid basketball fan who has shown an affinity for the Tar Heels in the past, having picked them to win the national championship three times during his time in office — including 2009, when they actually did win the title.

  The former president has also famously stopped by the Smith Center to play a pickup game with members of the UNC team in 2008. Obama also has ties to Duke, having had former Blue Devils player Reggie Love on his staff at the White House.

  Love was also in attendance at Wednesday’s game, along with celebrities such as Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee and Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

  Besides being a part of the best rivalry in sports, all of them — along with many others who paid upwards of $4,000 per ticket on the secondary market — came to get a first-hand look at Duke star Zion Williamson in action.

  A look is basically all they got after the freshman star went down with a knee injury 34 seconds into the game and never returned.

  After the game, Obama took to Twitter to express his concern for the injured Blue Devil.

  “Zion Williamson seems like an outstanding young man as well as an outstanding basketball player,” he wrote. “Wishing him a speedy recovery.”

  Other than the disappointment of not getting to see Williamson in action, Obama seemed to enjoy himself at the game.

  Entering the arena to a loud ovation, followed by a horde of media shortly before the playing of the national anthem, he took his seat in the front row behind the baseline on the South end of Cameron. He signed an occasional autograph and chatted with those sitting around him, including Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson, before leaving with a wave to the crowd at the final TV timeout.   

Obama hasn’t exactly been a good luck charm for the Blue Devils. The last time he saw them play in person, in January 2010, the lost 89-77 to Georgetown. The good news for Duke is that coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team went on to win the national championship that season.

  “It was great to have him in the house,” Duke’s R.J. Barrett said. “I hope he enjoyed it.”