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 spring.
"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 touché from Xavier play-by-play man Andy MacWilliams: "UC is Number 1 in the nation and Number 2 in their own city!"