College Basketball

Duke, North Carolina factions come together to honor Dean Smith

A mock-up of the “Dean” t-shirt from the Thrill City website.
A mock-up of the “Dean” t-shirt from the Thrill City website. thrillcity.com

Even after his blog post suggesting a Duke-themed T-shirt to honor Dean Smith received nearly 50,000 hits, there was a point where Aaron Kirschenfeld feared it would never come to fruition. The Duke graduate and North Carolina graduate student had a great idea, but he sensed it was going to fade into cyberspace.

“The idea gained so much traction that I just assumed it would happen,” Kirschenfeld said Monday. “And I’ll admit to being naive in that regard, or perhaps hopeful that someone else would take it up.”

When North Carolina visits Duke on Wednesday, hundreds of Duke fans will be wearing what at first glance might look like standard blue, block-letter Duke T-shirts. But instead of DUKE, the lettering will read DEAN.

It’s a unique tribute to a man who helped elevate and define college basketball’s greatest rivalry, and it’s only happening because of an equally unique collaboration between someone who once wore the Blue Devils mascot costume and a pair of North Carolina grads whose Tar Heels apparel company, Thrill City, is backed, in part, by a former North Carolina player.

The Smith tributes so far have ranged from the heartfelt to the extraordinary. The Carolina Hurricanes had a “moment of celebration” instead of a moment of silence, and the students in Pittsburgh’s Oakland Zoo unfurled one of Smith’s most famous quotes on a banner (“You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it.”) during a moment of silence Saturday.

Because Duke and Carolina are Duke and Carolina, considerable attention will be paid to what Duke does Wednesday as well. The Blue Devils response will include the unofficial, organic, fan-driven DEAN T-shirt tribute, all the more meaningful because of how the idea became reality.

Kirschenfeld, who graduated from Duke in 2007 and spent three years in the mascot costume, was struck in the wake of Smith’s death by the scope of the coach’s life. The idea for the shirt came to him while he was driving between Durham and Chapel Hill, where he is pursuing dual graduate degrees in law and information science.

Last Monday, he posted it on his blog, then watched as the idea went viral.

Ryan Cocca loved it. Cocca and Rohan Smith, both North Carolina grads, own Thrill City, which produces clever, pop-culture-inflected, UNC-themed apparel that’s particularly popular among current and former players (Ty Lawson is an investor).

Cocca posted a mock-up of what the shirt might look like on the Thrill City website and solicited feedback on whether he should produce one, but the sense he got was that the idea came from Duke and its execution should as well. He let it drop, agreeably.

By Wednesday night, Kirschenfeld realized no one in the Duke community was running with his idea. He reached out to Cocca. So, coincidentally, did another Duke alum living in California within the space of 20 minutes. Between rivals, a deal was made.

Thrill City would handle production, logistics and out-of-area shipping; Kirschenfeld would handle delivery to Duke fans in Durham on Wednesday; any profits would go to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service in Carrboro, one of the Smith family’s designated memorial charities.

It isn’t the first Duke-related T-shirt Thrill City has made, but it’s definitely the first that anyone from Duke would want to buy.

“We’re tailor-made to do something like this,” Cocca said. “It made me glad that we do what we do.”

The “Duke for Dean Memorial Tee” went on sale Friday for $18. By Monday afternoon, more than 280 shirts had been ordered, almost $2,000 raised for charity. More will be available for sale at Bull City Craft on University Drive in Durham from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, and they’re also available in Thrill City’s store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

“It’s a really unique way for Duke to honor what coach Smith stood for, what he meant both as a man and to the rivalry,” Kirschenfeld said. “Life is a dialectic. You can’t have one without the other. There’s no rivalry without a rival – without a worthy rival.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

HOW TO BUY

The “Duke for Dean Memorial Tee” is available on Thrill City’s website at http://www.thrillcitync.com/shop/the-dukedean-memorial-tee or in the Thrill City store at 422 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. Shirts will also be available at Bull City Craft at 2501 University Dr. in Durham from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, the pickup location for online purchases. All profits will be donated to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, one of the memorial charities designated by Dean Smith’s family.

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