Ken Jeong has degrees from both UNC and Duke — but where does his loyalty lie?
The actor and comedian is at the heart of the best rivalry in sports
Ken Jeong is a rare breed. His two academic degrees tell you that much. In 1990, the actor and comedian — known for his characters Leslie Chow from The Hangover Trilogy and Senor Chang from NBC’s Community, as well as for his lead in ABC’s Dr. Ken — graduated from Duke University. Five years later, he graduated from medical school at the University of North Carolina.
Jeong is thus stuck in the middle of perhaps the most exciting and cutthroat rivalry in all of sports. But let’s make one thing clear: Come basketball season, Jeong is a to-the-end-of-the-world-and-back fan of his undergraduate alma mater, Duke.
“The rivalry still runs deep. It still matters. You can get mellow about it, but it still flares up. I was bummed out when we lost,” Jeong said of Duke’s March 19 loss to South Carolina in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament. “I get over it really quickly because I’m older, but yeah, it’s a bummer.”
On March 28, the 25th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s legendary game-winning, free-throw line shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight, The Undefeated caught up with Jeong to talk everything Duke and UNC — from how he grew up a Tar Heels fan to the UNC player he’d dunk on if given the height and opportunity, and which of the two teams Mr. Chow, Senor Chang and Dr. Ken would support.
Oh, and don’t expect Jeong to root for UNC in this year’s Final Four. Just saying.
This year marks the 25-year anniversary of Christian Laettner’s shot. What do you remember most from that night?
I was at med school at UNC when that happened. I was studying for, like, a midterm. I do remember having some friends over. It was crazy. Literally the best game I’d ever seen. Keep in mind Duke had just already won a championship in ’91, trying to repeat, favored to repeat. I was like, ‘Maybe we’re just doomed to fail. Doomed to not repeat.’ I remember thinking, ‘OK, if you’re not going to repeat, at least go out in a good game like this.’ But lo and behold they won, and then they won the championship.
How open were you with your Duke fandom when you were at med school at UNC?
Maybe too open. I was obnoxious. I had a dark blue Mustang — Duke bumper stickers all over it. We had to park at the Smith Center to go to class, and I’d be wearing my Duke paraphernalia and just simply didn’t care. Looking back, I probably should’ve been more scared.
Did you have any run-ins with UNC fans?
I never got in any altercations, but I do remember studying with a friend of mine who was a UNC grad. Keep in mind we’re in graduate school, and it’s med school, so we’re supposed to be civilized. I was at his apartment studying. I was just roasting him. We had just won the championship. I rattled him so much that we had to stop studying. But, I swear, I have mellowed out.
You graduated from Duke in 1990. Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Was it bittersweet the team didn’t win while you were there as a student?
A little bit, yeah. But it did make it more sweet the fact that I was at UNC. When we won, I would go back to Durham. I actually watched us win in ’91. I went to Cameron [Indoor Stadium] with some friends who were still at Duke. We watched on a big-screen TV. I was actually at Cameron when we won the championship, beating Kansas in ’91.
What’s your most vivid memory camping out for tickets while you were an undergrad at Duke?
Freshman year. It wasn’t like an organized thing like it is now. We skipped class, and we paid the price for it. We would take turns camping out. I remember freshman year, the Carolina game stood out because it was raining the whole time. It was freezing. All of us caught colds … but I was just so hype going to the Carolina game. Once the game started we were just like, boom. It’s still vivid. I remember everything.
In your acting career, who is the biggest UNC fan you’ve crossed paths with?
I don’t know who the biggest UNC fan is … but I do know there was a person I worked on Community with … a crew member and he went to Carolina. Always, he’d just say, ‘Go Heels … Go Heels.’ Honestly, I was actually very polite and never obnoxious with this guy. I literally wasn’t, I swear to God. I remember when Austin Rivers, I think, made that last-second shot against Carolina. Keep in mind I’d always been quiet every time Duke lost to Carolina, or Duke lost, or Duke was eliminated early from the tournament. I was like, ‘It’s OK. No big deal.’ I always took it in stride. I was in actor mode. I wasn’t in school spirit mode. I was all business. But I rubbed it in so hard when Duke beat Carolina at the buzzer, I could tell he wanted to choke me.
Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, were you a UNC or Duke fan?
Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy — I grew up a huge Carolina fan. If anyone’s a rowdy Duke fan, it’s probably because everyone knew Carolina was the team in North Carolina. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. But I think when Duke started winning, everybody started getting threatened. I was such a big Carolina fan as a kid. … But when I went to Duke, my God, you just go to Cameron once and you’re going to be converted if you go to Duke.
Which Duke player would you let give your eulogy?
Christian Laettner, obviously. He can say whatever he wants.
How many more years of coaching do you think Coach K has in him?
His lifetime. As long as he wants. He’ll decide when he steps down. I read an article recently on how it’s amazing how he’s stayed relevant for 37 years. It’s just absolutely amazing what he’s done. I’ve had the honor of going on his talk show on SiriusXM radio. It was a big deal to me. He was interviewing me about my career, and I still have a postcard that he sent me thanking me for the interview. It’s still in my office. It’s crazy.
Your character from The Hangover Trilogy, Mr. Chow, would he be a Duke or UNC fan?
A Duke fan. (Goes into Mr. Chow character) It’d be Duke! It’d be Duke, stupid!
That’s what Chow would say.
What about Senor Chang from Community?
Senor Chang would honestly … maybe just for sake of story, a Carolina fan. Because Chang is crazy. Chow’s a criminal, but Chang is crazy. You can’t trust Chang.
What about Dr. Ken?
On the show I wear Duke T-shirts. My character does. So it’s already established he’s a Duke fan. But he’s a more mellow guy.
Are you rooting for UNC in the Final Four?
You know, I did feel for them last year when they lost to Villanova. If they won this year, I wouldn’t be upset … well, maybe.