The idea struck Duke graduate Aaron Kirschenfeld on his morning drive from Durham to Chapel Hill eight days ago.
Having spent much of the previous day reading about Dean Smith's contributions to college basketball and race relations, Kirschenfeld thought the Duke community should show support for North Carolina fans grieving the death of their legendary coach. Hours later, Kirschenfeld wrote a blog post suggesting ordinary blue, block-letter Duke T-Shirts honoring Smith but with lettering that read "DEAN" instead of "DUKE."
"I was a Duke Blue Devil mascot for three years during the mid-2000s," Kirschenfeld wrote. "I love my school and supporting the many great athletic teams we have at Duke. But I also truly admire the person and coach Dean Smith was. He was a great competitor and a morally courageous man, and is certainly worthy of having his memory honored."
The traction Kirschenfeld's idea has gained in advance of Wednesday's North Carolina-Duke game in Durham has come as a total shock to him. He never expected his blog post to receive 50,000 hits. He never thought local media outlets in the Raleigh-Durham area would pick up the story. And he certainly never anticipated being part of an unlikely collaboration between a former Duke mascot and a Tar Heels-themed T-Shirt shop run by North Carolina graduates.
When his idea generated buzz but no offers from anyone in the Duke community to actually make the shirts, Kirschenfeld reached out via social media to the Chapel Hill-based clothing store Thrill City, which produces clever Tar Heels-themed shirts and apparel. Coincidentally, Mike Musante, a California-based Duke alum, also contacted Thrill City at about the same time too.
Thrill City co-owner Ryan Cocca loved the concept Kirschenfeld and Musante proposed even if it was very different from the Duke shirts he had previously designed. In the past, Cocca had made shirts celebrating North Carolina's 88-70 rout of Duke on senior night in Durham in 2012 and mocking the Blue Devils for postponing last year's first meeting because they refused to bus to Chapel Hill in the snow.
"They both wanted to order very limited amounts from me just to sell among their friends," Cocca said. "It's funny now because we've sold so many, but at the time I was actually saying to them that they need to order at least 30 to make it worth my time."
Thrill City put the shirts on sale Friday for $18 apiece and had sold more than 550 as of Tuesday morning. All profits from sales of the shirts will go to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service in Carrboro, N.C., one of the Smith family's designated memorial charities.
"What's most most exciting about all this is we're ending up with a really significant amount of money that we'll be able to donate," Kirschenfeld said. "Frankly, I'm really shocked and I'm really gratified by that."
To enable Duke fans to wear the shirts to the North Carolina game, Kirschenfeld plans to distribute them in the parking lot of a Durham craft store on Wednesday afternoon. Thrill City is also selling the shirts at its store in Chapel Hill and offering out-of-state fans the chance to spend $10 to purchase a shirt that will then be distributed to a student in K-Ville before Wednesday's game.
While making the DUKE4DEAN shirts has been extremely gratifying for Cocca overall, it did initially irk him that many on social media were crediting Duke itself for the gesture when in truth the university hasn't had anything to do with it. A Tuesday night phone conversation with Musante, however, quickly reminded him that wasn't what was important.
"He said, 'I think Dean's famous quote is really applicable here,'" Cocca said. "'You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.' It's pretty cool. I'm on the phone with a Duke grad I've never met, and he's giving me Dean Smith quotes to keep me humble."
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