Hensons have more than a sibling rivalry
DURHAM, N.C. -- Amber Henson never quite grasped the depth of hatred between blood rivals Duke and North Carolina until she arrived in Durham this fall. That's when the freshman forward for the Blue Devils women's basketball team was confronted by an irate Tar Heels fan.
"Somebody came up to me and was really, like, upset at me for coming here," Henson said recently. "This fan was really kind of hostile about it.
"'Why'd you choose Duke?' I've probably heard that question 10 billion times."
That's because her brother is John Henson, a 6-foot-11 junior forward at North Carolina and one of the reasons the Tar Heels men's basketball team is the early favorite to win the NCAA championship this season. Both were raised in Tampa in a family devoted to the Tar Heels. John Henson was all of 8 years old when he told his father he would someday wear the famed North Carolina powder blue.
Amber, a 6-4 forward, said she dutifully wore the family colors as well. And it might have been assumed she would join her brother in Chapel Hill this year.
But she followed her heart, and it led her to Duke.
"This is where I really felt I fit in best," Amber Henson said. "It's a smaller school. I love the coaching staff and their style of play."
Henson is part of a strong class for Duke, led by 6-3 center Elizabeth Williams, considered the top post recruit in the country this year. The Blue Devils lost three key players from last season in Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas, but Williams, Henson and guard Ka'lia Johnson helped Duke earn a No. 8 ranking in preseason polls.
"Amber is going to have a hugely significant role," coach Joanne P. McCallie said, calling Henson and Williams "one of the most terrific 4-5 combinations, I think, nationwide."
McCallie can thank a certain Tar Heels forward for that. Amber Henson no doubt honed some of her skills playing one-on-one basketball with her brother. That was until the battles became too ugly and had to stop.
"It's kind of hard because she's so competitive and I'm so competitive," John Henson said. "It never ends up well. We always get into a little argument."
There's little argument between the two about which sibling is the better shooter. Both agree it's Amber.
Nor did they argue about which college Amber would attend. John made his pitch, then let Amber make her decision.
"I tried," John Henson said when asked whether he helped recruit his sister to North Carolina, "but at the end of the day, she had to make the right decision for her. Duke was over there, and I think she liked there most. She'll get a great education, and it's going to be fun watching her grow up.
"I can tolerate Duke a little bit while she's playing."
John Henson even made the 15-minute trip from Chapel Hill to Durham to watch his little sister play recently. He tried to go incognito. It didn't work.
"I saw him walk in," Amber Henson said. "He had his hood on and everything. He tried to creep around.
"By the end of the game, everybody's like, 'Oh, there's John Henson.' It's hard for him to go incognito anywhere, but he tried. He made a nice effort. He told me, 'I wasn't cheering for Duke. I hope you do well, but I can't cheer for Duke.'"
It's going to be a challenge for their father, too. Matt Henson grew up in Kilmichael, Miss., but was drawn to the Tar Heels in the early '80s in the heyday of Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Although he was a 6-9 center for Norfolk State, Matt Henson never lost his devotion to North Carolina.
"My whole family, they've always been really big Carolina fans," Amber Henson said. "So I kind of grew up in the Carolina culture. Me coming to Duke, I'm kind of the black sheep of the family."
Make that the royal blue sheep. And frankly, the color doesn't go well with powder blue. As supportive as he is of his daughter -- he never steered her to North Carolina but let her make up her own mind -- Matt Henson has yet to wear his new Duke apparel.
Acceptance is a process, after all.
"I have some, I haven't put it on yet, it's hard," Matt Henson said with a laugh. "You know, I have to work my way through it. I'll get there. But you know, you don't want anybody to get the wrong idea when I have on Duke gear. It's Duke women. So I may have to have some alterations made to say Duke women in big letters across. I wouldn't want anybody to be mistaken, especially when it comes to the men's side. I'm definitely all Carolina.
"Yeah, I'm working my way up to that. I told my daughter, 'Don't worry. I'll be in Duke paraphernalia. You're special to me, you're important. Don't worry, I'm going to be there for you.' But I'm not going to be caught walking in Chapel Hill with Duke gear on."
In the Henson family, some things will never change.