Cincinnati-Xavier: Anatomy of a rivalry
- On one day a year, Cincinnati is a city divided: When the Bearcats and Musketeers meet in basketball
- An ugly brawl late in the teams' 2011 matchup has marked the rivalry ever since
- The players in the game compete in the same summer leagues and even date the same girls
CINCINNATI — The schools are separated by just three miles. One is a big, public university; the other is small, private and Jesuit. The differences foster stereotypes that have led to animosity over the years. This is where the outcome of Wednesday's game means the most — where it is more than just the First Cincinnati-Xavier Game Since The Brawl.
The Crosstown Shootout is, at its heart, entirely and especially local. Cincinnati and Xavier first faced off in 1928, and they have played each other in basketball every year since the 1945-46 season. Guys who play pick-up ball and summer league games together during sweltering Cincinnati summers turn into enemies. Most players aren't from here, but they're introduced to the idea of hating the other school quickly.
"When kids first step on campus, they hear about it," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It counts as one game, but the adrenaline and the build-up and all the stuff leading up to it does not feel like a one-game event."
Thanks to conference realignment and football-driven television contracts, many college basketball rivalries are falling by the wayside; Missouri and Kansas tipped off for the final time last spring, and Georgetown and Syracuse will do the same this winter. But here in Cincinnati, this rivalry is as intense as ever.
When athletic director Mike Bobinski was hired at Xavier, his UC-fan neighbors jokingly decorated the front door of his new house with Bearcats paraphernalia. Once, Xavier fans chastised him at a university event when his tie had a speck of red in it.
"Fans are fanatics, right?" said former Xavier coach Pete Gillen, who coached at Xavier from 1985 to 1994 and is now an analyst for the CBS Sports Network. "They love the intensity. They don't want fights, but they want the real deal, putting your heart on the court, showing toughness. It's what fans love.
"Xavier-Cincinnati is one — I don't know if it's the best, but it's one of — the big basketball rivalries in the country. (There's) Duke and Carolina, of course, but Xavier-Cincinnati is just as intense and important to those schools. … Almost everybody in the city is connected to one of the two universities in some way. Their son went there. Their daughter went there. They went to graduate school there. Their father went there."
The week before the game is packed with reminders of how much it means to classmates, teachers, friends and fans. Gillen remembers Skyline selling different kinds of chili for each school's fans. Former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins remembers the luncheon, the chili, the hype.
"The whole city revolves around it for a week," Huggins said. "You can't go anywhere. You can't read anything. You can't turn on the TV. You can't do anything without hearing about it."
Traditionally, the Crosstown Shootout has been held on campuses, alternating between the schools each season. But after a benches-clearing brawl in last year's game that erupted with 9.4 seconds and Xavier leading by 23, some of the customary elements of the series were forced to change.
The name, for one; it's the Crosstown Classic now, erasing references to violence. The location, too; Wednesday night's game will be played downtown at U.S. Bank Arena. Tickets were split down the middle and sold to each fan base.
"That rivalry is so heated and so intense and guys overflowing with testosterone, that fight could have happened any time," said former Cincinnati All-American Nick Van Exel, now a player development instructor for the Atlanta Hawks. "Really, it's the city that makes it a rivalry. The players coming into it, like I said, I knew nothing about it. It's the city. It's the people who go to the two different schools that really pump this thing up."
To the relief of former coaches and players, Xavier-Cincinnati wasn't canceled in the emotional aftermath of last year's brawl.
"It'd be stupid to cancel the series just because of one incident," Van Exel said. "Some of these football rivalries — like Miami and Florida State used to play and guys used to fight on the field — things like that happen. … That doesn't mean it's going to happen every day. A coach may get thrown out one day. That doesn't mean that he's going to get thrown out (the next game)."
Three miles isn't far. You can walk it in an hour, jog it in half.
UC guys come over to Xavier to play ball sometimes, and Xavier guys go over to UC to play. For 364 days of the year, guys from both schools generally get along well.
"We'd always be over at their parties or them at ours," said Byron Larkin, Xavier's all-time leading scorer and a Cincinnati native. "We'd hang out with the guys. … You want to beat them so when you see them out at the movies, and it was not something that was said — it was just a look, like, 'Yeah, we got you.' Chin out, like, 'Mmhmm.' "
Everything is familiar, even the dating pool. Larkin said it was common for UC guys to date Xavier girls and vice versa.
"We talk to the same girls, go to the same clubs, you know what I'm saying," said former Xavier swingman Dez Wells, who now plays at Maryland. He then clarified: "We're not necessary competing for girls, but we know the same people. "
That includes the coaches. Mack and UC's Mick Cronin both grew up in Cincinnati, attended different high schools and have seen their lives intersect repeatedly over the years.
"I was on the same recreation team when I was a little kid as Mick's brother," Mack said. "We were in the same station wagons driving to tournaments. There's a lot of familiarity. (Cronin and I have) so many mutual friends, and we also know which side of the fence those friends are on when the game is played."
Xavier and UC players consider themselves competitors one day a year, but most of the time they think of them as brothers. You like 'em most of the time, but you sure as hell want to beat them with bragging rights on the line.
"The perception of it being the Hatfields vs. McCoys … I think there are some fans that maybe take it to that level," Mack said. "But our players are in the Deveroes summer league together. They drive ofter to Clifton and vice versa. They'll come over here. They'll play pickup, and it's not like we need security over here to have our guys play with their guys in an open gym.
"The familiarity, just wanting to be able to prove to the people you know very well that we can win this game, we're going to win this game."
Moments like last year's brawl aren't rare. Larkin said he was on the court in 1985 when a punch was thrown. The most infamous exchange of the history of the rivalry — Huggins refusing to shake Gillen's game after the '94 game — was the enduring image of the Shootout until last winter.
Huggins was a polarizing figure, loved by many and hated by some. He took over the Bearcats program in 1989, leading Cincinnati to 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and bringing the program back to national prominence. The perception of his teams — whether it's fair or unfair probably is tied to your allegiance — was that Huggins took a bunch of junior college players, put them on the court and didn't care about academics. Low graduation rates and some player arrests didn't help that image.
"For a while, UC embraced the bad boy image," Larkin said. "One year they had black uniforms, black socks, black shorts, black shoes. … There were buses around town that said, 'Intimidate, dominate, celebrate.' That's what they embraced.
"It was easy to hate Bob Huggins when that's the circumstance. Meanwhile, you've got Xavier on the other side of town. … Xavier I think graduated 90 or 88 seniors in a row. We considered us the good side, and they were the dark side."
Larkin laughed. "Win at all costs vs. winning the right way," he said. "It was good vs. evil. That's the way we looked at it."
Said Van Exel: "They called us the JuCos, the thugs, all that. Supposedly, Xavier was the good guys. In actuality, we all came from the same environment. Same neighborhoods. That's just how it was."
Still, those stereotypes endured for years, though most former coaches point to both programs' success in the past decade as the reason the rivalry stayed hot. With both programs strong — and nationally known, as Xavier's profile continued to rise in the post-Gillen era — the game gained meaning. National television broadcasts followed, which have been a blessing and a curse. The teams felt the latter last season when a few seconds changed everything.
"When you have an incident like last year, that raises the whole thing again," said Kevin Grace, UC's archivist and a basketball historian. "It revived the old notions, the old animosity, the old stereotypes."
On Dec. 10, 2011, Xavier led by 23 points with the clock ticking down its final seconds when Xavier swingman Dez Wells pushed Cincinnati guard Ge'Lawn Guyn onto the floor. Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates whipped a basketball at Wells' head in front of the UC bench. Bearcats first, then Musketeers leapt off their benches and onto the court, emotions high and arms flailing.
Gates threw a punch, knocking Xavier's Kenny Frease to the ground. A slightly out-of-focus photo of Gates' knuckles meeting Frease's left cheekbone was captured by an Associated Press photographer and became the defining image of the brawl.
Afterward, Xavier guard Tu Holloway blamed the fight on Cincinnati forward Sean Kilpatrick's comments on the radio before the game, disrespecting Holloway by saying the potential All-American wouldn't start for the Bearcats. In the post-game news conference, Holloway said he and his teammates were "a whole bunch of gangstas", and they "went out there and zipped 'em up at the end of the game." Holloway later apologized for his words.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he'd "never been so embarrassed" and that he wouldn't let his players wear their jerseys again until they understood what they were representing.
"In any rivalry game, the game's got to be about basketball," Cronin said this week. "If it's not about basketball, then it should be canceled. If people can't act with some maturity in the stands and on the court, then the game can't be about basketball. ... We represent universities."
Players on both sides received multi-game suspensions in the days that followed. The Musketeers lost five of six games following the brawl; the Bearcats won 10 of their next 11. Both teams made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Over time, those involved in the ugly scene have gained perspective.
"I felt, personally, that it was more of a self-defense thing," said former Xavier point guard Mark Lyons, who now plays at Arizona. "But now that I look back at it, there were a lot of things I could have done differently, that I wish I did differently. But I can't take it back now, obviously. So I learn from my mistakes and just move on.
"Honestly, that rivalry is a lot bigger than people outside of that area understand. It got out of hand. It was hostile. They blew us out the year before at their place. There was a lot going on. I just wish I was not on the court, I shouldn't have been."
Many agree, wondering why both teams had starters on the court with nine seconds left in a blowout. Others doubt the brawl would have happened had the referees called a tighter game from the tip-off.
Either way, the game's end turned into a teachable moment on both sides. Mack said he's made it clear to his players this season — many of whom weren't involved in the actual fight — that they have a responsibility to compete "the right way" throughout the game.
"We're really proud of what this program has accomplished," Mack said. "To have it be defined by a bad Saturday afternoon was really hard. I think as time has moved on, I think people that really know college basketball and know what Xavier has been about, understand that our program has done and will continue to do a heck of a lot more than the one black mark."
Contributing: Eric Prisbell in Tucson, Ariz., and College Park, Md.