As the Xavier basketball team finished practice last Thursday
evening, five student managers stood courtside at the Cincinnati
Gardens with a critical mission. They took every copy of that
day's Musketeers practice plan, tore each into tiny pieces and
soaked the pieces in water drawn from the team's cooler. Only
when the ink had faded beyond recognition did these Agents X
discard the soggy confetti in a nearby trash can. In 30 minutes
the Cincinnati Bearcats would be taking the floor, and given the
Berlin-in-the-1960s atmosphere surrounding the city's Crosstown
Shootout, Xavier wanted to be xafe, not xorry.
There's no evidence that cloak-and-dagger work had anything to
do with the ninth-ranked Musketeers' 88-68 defeat of the
Bearcats two days later, a victory that left Xavier with a 6-1
record and good prospects for a seasonlong sojourn in the
rankings. But this episode of counterespionage hints at the
intensity of a rivalry that has become both the gemstone of the
Queen City's winter sports calendar and a bellwether as well.
Since last season's Shootout, in which the Musketeers upset
Cincinnati at the Bearcats' Shoemaker Center, Xavier has seemed
like a spook with an assumed identity. While Cincinnati, SI's
preseason No. 1 a year ago, has encountered a string of
adversity that continues to this day, the Musketeers used that
victory to take a place in the polls that they have yet to
relinquish. Audaciously, they have done so with the same kind of
pressure defense that characterized the Bearcats' final eight
and Final Four teams of the early 1990s.
Victories in bitter rivalries have a way of taking on a larger
meaning than games won under more mundane circumstances, and
Cincinnati-Xavier features a unique set of characteristics. Duke
versus North Carolina is still college basketball's best
rivalry, but those schools are philosophically like-minded ACC
compeers that sometimes meet three times a season. Pitt and
Duquesne hook up annually, but neither has made much impact
nationwide, and Pittsburgh is essentially a football town that
gets its wintertime jollies from the Penguins. Philadelphia has
the various permutations of its Big Five, but the sheer number
of Division I schools in that city helps diffuse unbrotherly
feelings between any two.
In Cincinnati, where Muskies and Cats spend the summer playing
pickup games in each other's gyms, the Shootout is more akin to
the playground turf wars that prevailed in New York during the
1960s, when players from Brooklyn would hop the subway to take
on a team in the Bronx. Cincinnati and Xavier are the only two
schools in their town that play big-time college hoops, and they
couldn't be more different. The X is cozy, suburban and Jesuit,
and--as Musketeers partisans rarely miss an opportunity to point
out--has graduated every senior basketball player to suit up
since 1986. Cincinnati, about five times as large, is concrete,
public and not nearly as fastidious about seeing its players
through to their degrees. There's no major league sport in Cincy
once the Reds have fired up the hot stove and the Bengals have
gone into hibernation, so both schools regularly punch out their
10,000-plus-seat arenas, even when playing on the same night.
As the Shootout approaches, the last of the rules posted over
the bar at a restaurant in suburban Norwood--NO PROFANITY/NO
SPITTING/NO UC-XU ARGUMENTS--actually requires enforcement.
Bakeries offer cookies iced red or blue. ESPN, which has never
broadcast the Shootout, because the combatants can't afford not
to accommodate local network affiliates first, is left to do the
Bristol stomp in frustration. When President Bush, delivering
his 1990 State of the Union address, went up against the
Shootout, WCPO refused to clear CBS News's coverage of the
speech and drew a 32% share. Last week brokers wanted $125 for a
ticket to the Shootout. A ducat to see the Bengals host the
Dallas Cowboys the next day went for $45 less.
Over the years the games have featured confrontations both
physical and verbal, but nothing more electric than the animus
between coaches Bob Huggins of Cincinnati and Pete Gillen of
Xavier. Four seasons ago, following an 82-76 Musketeers victory
in overtime, Huggins refused to shake Gillen's hand, explaining
that to do so would have been insincere and "I'm not a phony."
Gillen says Huggins didn't just snub him but also swore at him,
and a day later Gillen did what his counterpart had done several
years earlier--mused aloud that it might be time to end the
series. Popular though Gillen was, this was no contest: The
series stayed, and Gillen lit out for Providence the following
"We never seriously considered getting rid of the game," says
Xavier athletic director Jeff Fogelson. "Our president [the
Reverend James Hoff] brought up the subject a few years back,
and I said, 'Father, I have four children and not much life
insurance. It's in my personal interest to stay alive. If I were
perceived to have had anything to do with getting rid of the
game, someone in this city would kill me.'"
Gillen and Huggins appeared together so rarely that folks turned
out for their pre-Shootout tub-thumpings just to watch the two
squirm in each other's presence. By contrast, Huggins and Skip
Prosser, Gillen's successor, say only kind things about each
other, share the dais at charity events and even collaborated on
a car commercial. Meanwhile the schools look to douse anything
potentially incendiary. Outside the Gardens last Saturday
security personnel seized a CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS banner--an
old chestnut used in football by Notre Dame against Miami that
probably merited confiscation on grounds of lack of originality
alone. "Over the past 12 years I've seen the venom that's spewed
back and forth ebb and flow," says Prosser, a former high school
history teacher who assisted Gillen for eight seasons, "and to
tell you the truth, I thought it had gotten too venomous. Others
may still call it a jihad, but to me it's all James Monroe: the
Era of Good Feelings."
That's easy to say when you've won two straight in the series. A
year ago, in an unusually early Shootout, played in November,
Lenny Brown's running 14-footer gave the Musketeers a 71-69
victory and touched off a verbal touche from Xavier play-by-play
man Andy MacWilliams: "UC is Number 1 in the nation and Number 2
in their own city!"
Brown's shot augured grim things for the Bearcats, who went on
to lose their next big game, to Kansas; their point guard,
Charles Williams, two months later in an eligibility imbroglio;
and their star forward, Ruben Patterson, last summer for
accepting benefits in violation of NCAA rules. (Last week
Patterson exhausted his appeals and learned that he won't be
able to rejoin the Bearcats until Jan. 18.) With two emergency
imports from Cincinnati's Humanitarian Bowl-bound football team
seeing action, the Bearcats have had to throttle back their use
of full-court pressure. Even Huggs Inn, a sort of T.G.I.
Bearcats to which Huggins lent his name, recently began
operating under a more Xavierian handle, the Blue Moon Saloon.
Last season's Shootout had just the opposite effect on the
Musketeers. "That shot put us in the mainstream," says Brown,
one of six regulars who are back from a year ago. The Top 10 is
an unaccustomed spot for a school that, under Gillen, would
typically go unnoticed during the Midwestern Collegiate
Conference season before beating some higher seed in the NCAAs
come March. Now, with Xavier in the deeper and higher-profile
Atlantic 10, Brown concedes that "we can't sneak up on anybody
anymore." After the Musketeers suffered their only defeat this
season, an 80-72 loss on Dec. 9 at Miami of Ohio's Millett Hall,
RedHawks fans stormed the floor.
Prosser isn't sure Xavier would have made its recent progress
without its crosstown rival as a prod. "I read someplace that
you don't criticize success, you analyze it," says Prosser. "I
wanted to take the best things from their program and use them.
Bob's teams are always very hard-nosed, always on the attack."
The Musketeers made a blowout of the game Saturday just that
way, with Cincy-gnatty full-court pressure. They need to score
to set up the press, and their matched pair of a backcourt,
Brown and Gary Lumpkin, teammates since the seventh grade back
in New Castle, Del., obliged, evenly splitting 46 points. That
allowed Xavier to floor-burn and chest-bump its way to a 22-2
run in the first half, a stretch that so excited Prosser's
20-year-old son, Scott, that he suffered a mild seizure and had
to be attended to behind the Musketeers bench, and
discombobulated the Bearcats' offense. Guard D'Juan Baker, who
was leading Cincinnati with 26.0 points per game, committed
eight turnovers and didn't score a basket. Center Kenyon Martin
and Bobby Brannen, the forward who has replaced All-America
Danny Fortson and was averaging 20.8, combined for only two
buckets--cold frontcourt shooting that called to mind the name
of the local delicacy that sponsors the Shootout: Skyline Chili.
"Xavier was always second to UC in the city," Brown said after
the game. "I think that's changing now."
Prosser has just the personality to take on the Bearcats. A
Pittsburgher whose wife, Nancy, is a nurse assigned to a
helicopter trauma unit, he has screened for Musketeers a tape in
which Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, seeing a Dallas Cowboy
patronizingly tap the head of a Pittsburgh placekicker who has
just muffed a field goal attempt, levels the offending Cowboy.
Message: Permit no one to intimidate you. At the same time
Prosser recognizes the trouble Gillen got into by letting the
rivalry affect him, and he has struck a kind of balance. "Coach
Prosser doesn't want the same hostility that Coach Huggins and
Coach Gillen had," says Xavier forward T.J. Johnson, "but that
doesn't mean he wants less emotion."
There's a place for balance beyond the Shootout too. "I tell my
guys that the same pundits who didn't have them ranked a year
ago now think they're the greatest thing since Cheerios, and
it's not like over the summer those guys visited the Dalai Lama
and got the gift of wisdom," Prosser says. "So we can't worry
about expectations. It's not that we don't have our own
expectations or that we want to equivocate on them. It's just
that until we beat Cincinnati last year, people were still
calling us Eggs-avier."
On Saturday someone asked Prosser about one of the few blemishes
in the box score--his team's four-for-17 three-point shooting.
He wouldn't bite. "I'm not hanging any crape on this one," he
It's easier to say that in an era of good feelings. And good
feelings feel even better when you win.