Henson family puts North Carolina-Duke rivalry aside for basketball-playing brother and sister

Former Sickles High standout John Henson, whose Tar Heels face FSU today, can visit his sister Amber, who is about 8 miles way in Durham, N.C., at rival Duke.
Former Sickles High standout John Henson, whose Tar Heels face FSU today, can visit his sister Amber, who is about 8 miles way in Durham, N.C., at rival Duke.
Published Jan. 14, 2012

Matt Henson grew up a Tar Heels fan. His son John, a graduate of Sickles High, fulfilled a childhood dream when he became North Carolina's first commitment in the class of 2009. But Matt's daughter Amber committed to Duke and is now a freshman in Durham, N.C.

So, when Matt traveled to Utah to watch the Blue Devils' women's team open the season against Brigham Young, he opted for a darker shade of blue.

"It felt dirty," Matt said, joking. "That takes a little work to get used to. But I'll do it for her. I'm comfortable walking around Tampa with Carolina shirts on. I haven't gotten there with the Duke shirt yet."

Luckily for Matt and his wife, Annette, they get to wear their Carolina Blue today as they travel to Tallahassee to watch John and the No. 3-ranked Tar Heels (15-2, 2-0 ACC) against Florida State (10-6, 1-1) at 2 p.m. in the Tucker Center.

John, who opted to return to Chapel Hill for his junior year instead of entering the NBA draft, is averaging a double double, with 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. The reigning ACC defensive player of the year has Tar Heels fans grinning and opponents groaning with his offensive improvement, particularly his expanded shot selection. Instead of automatically throwing up a putback or hook shot, Henson has more frequently been catching the ball with his back to the basket before unleashing turnaround jump shots. It's a welcome re-emergence in his father's eyes.

"It's good to see; it's been a while since I've seen him do that," Matt said. "He could always do it. He started out doing it, then he kind of stopped, he got to college and had to get his confidence back, so it's good to see him confident in that part of his game and just playing more relaxed."

The same night Matt had his "breakthrough moment" (Amber's words) as a Duke women's basketball fan, Annette saw her son's improvement firsthand when she attended North Carolina's season-opening 67-55 win against Michigan State in the Carrier Classic, played off the coast of San Diego on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. Henson scored 12 and flashed his trademark defense with a team-high seven rebounds and nine blocks while his mother sat among the 8,111 spectators, including active military members and President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

"The carrier game was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had while playing a basketball game," John Henson said. "There was so much involved with that game that the game was kind of a side note."

Amber, who has had a strong jump shot since she was a 9-year-old shooting over the backboard in the family's driveway, played in eight games before having season-ending knee surgery Jan. 6 to fix an aliment she has been battling since her time at Sickles. John was there to visit her in the hospital.

"He came by to check on me, but before that we'd hang out on the weekends. I get to see him quite often," Amber said, noting that when they meet up for dinner, it's either at a restaurant near where U.S. Highway 15-501 meets Interstate 40, such as Outback or Red Robin, or a place like the Front Porch on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. "We got close in high school."

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It's a bond that runs deeper than one of the greatest rivalries in college sports.

"Of course I want to see my school do well, but this could be my brother's last year. You never know, so I want to see him win the big games like that," Amber said of the two impending North Carolina-Duke games on Feb. 8 and March 3. "I'll definitely be cheering for my brother."