Wednesday, January 27, 1999

'Shootists' don't share fanaticism




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the participants, the big game is more about hype than hatred. The rivalry has long been heated, the rancor between the players remains remarkably close to room temperature.

        Among the saving graces of Thursday's Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout is that the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers regard each other with none of the blind fury that often afflicts their fans.

        Fan is short for “fanatic.” Basketball players, however, are long on pragmatism. They tend to pick their feuds based on personal history rather than school colors. They normally need a reason to loathe someone.

        “You kind of have a bond because you go through a lot of the same things,” Xavier forward Kevin Frey said Tuesday on Victory Parkway, referring to his colleagues in Clifton. “When I watch them on TV, I don't hope they lose. I went there on a (recruiting) visit, and Bobby Brannen showed me around campus. It was nice. I just liked Xavier better.”

        There's not much middle ground in this town this week. You're either pro-Bearcat, pro-Muskie or of no consequence around the water cooler. With a whole year of barbs hanging in the balance, much of the dialogue is inflammatory.

        You can't listen to talk radio for 10 minutes this week without some Bearcat blowhard belittling Xavier's conference, schedule or limitations. Conversely, UC coach Bob Huggins is considered the Antichrist in some quarters.

        “It does get comical, some of the things that are said and done,” said UC forward Ryan Fletcher. “A lot of it is not true. But it's like Duke and North Carolina — if you cheer for one, you can't like the other.”

UC-XU programs similar
        Familiarity breeds contempt, but the closer you look, the more similarities emerge between the two teams. Both are built on pressure defense, and many of the players were recruited by both schools. If Skip Prosser seems a cherub beside the combustible Huggins, he is no less competitive.

        But ask Ryan Fletcher to describe the typical UC fan's impression of Xavier, and he says: “They're a small school. They want to be like us.”

        Ask Xavier's Gary Lumpkin about the average Muskie fan's perception of UC, and he says: “Probably convicts.”

        “That's not me talking,” Lumpkin hastens to add. “To me, the University of Cincinnati stands for toughness. They are a team that plays hard and will do anything to win. I have a lot of respect for them.”

        “When I think of Xavier basketball,” Fletcher said, “I think of guys playing non-stop, contesting everything. They really get after it.”

        Players are too steeped in specifics to fall prey to stereotypes. They look upon opponents not as representatives of some Evil Empire, but as particular problems to be solved: leaping ability, shooting accuracy, dribbling dexterity.

        There were six “Keys To Victory” posted in the Xavier dressing room Tuesday. None of them said: “Hating their guts.” Pete Gillen and Huggins shared a profound animosity, but what little friction exists between the two teams now is mainly a function of their relative place in the college basketball firmament.

It's still a war between lines
        The Bearcats, as a national power, believe they have more to lose than to gain from these games. The Muskies, meanwhile, complain their victories are not adequately valued.

        “Everybody in this city loves Cincinnati,” Xavier forward James Posey said. “We could beat them 20 times and we wouldn't get that respect. When we beat them, there's always an excuse.”

        We never said there were NO hard feelings. When UC star Melvin Levett was assigned to a summer league team coached by former Xavier guard Jamal Walker, his reflex was to resist.

        “I played a couple games just to show what a good sport I am,” Levett said. “But my heart wasn't in it. I went to another team. Then I quit the league.”

        Old hatreds are hard to break.

        “It's not like we truly hate each other,” Levett said. “But when we walk on the court, we can't stand them.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE