This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
WALT McBRIDE knows the Crosstown Shootout: the buildup, the intensity, the hate. He was a Xavier forward 27 years ago when a Cincinnati player unloaded on a teammate as the two ran down the court. He has lived in the Queen City nearly his entire life, coached high school basketball there for 12 years and sent players to schools both local and out of state. But he has never felt anything like the tension he is feeling right now in the latest battle between these two teams.
It is Dec. 10, and he's two rows behind the Cincinnati bench, sporting his black Xavier hat and blue Xavier shirt and holding his breath. The normally exhaustive levels of anxiety in the arena are morphing into something else -- something more dangerous -- and he can't take his eyes off Bearcats forward Yancy Gates, his former high school star.
The game started with a fan yelling "F--- Cincinnati" during the national anthem. The taunting and trash-talking continued for the next two hours, becoming so bad that at one point McBride yelled at Xavier guard Mark Lyons to just shut up and play.
Now, though, in the closing seconds of a lopsided Musketeers win, McBride witnesses the moment he has been dreading. With the Musketeers ahead by 23 points, Xavier forward Dez Wells shoves Cincinnati guard Ge'Lawn Guyn to the floor. A second later, Gates heaves the basketball at Wells' head. "It was the best pass I've ever seen him throw," McBride says. "And after that -- that's when it erupted."
The benches clear. The floor is a writhing mass of arms and legs. And in the middle of it, nearly indistinguishable from the crush of bodies around him, Gates clenches his right fist and swings wildly at unsuspecting Xavier big man Kenny Frease, busting open his left eye and dropping him to the Cintas Center floor.
Over the next 24 hours, the singular image of that punch -- and Frease's broken, bloody face -- will become the reason you grab the remote, pause the DVR and beckon to anyone within earshot to watch the replay. "It was sickening," says Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski. "And everyone who saw that thinks, Oh my god, this was nasty."
UNTIL THE PUNCH, few outside Cincy understood the depths of distaste that exist between these schools. Carolina-Duke, Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, those are the rivalries that have pushed the national needle. But for fans with Cincinnati hoops allegiances, this type of intensity in the Crosstown Shootout is nothing new.
Since the teams first met in 1928, sprinkled amid the upsets, buzzer beaters and controversial calls have been shoves, elbows, technical fouls and enough trash-talking to fill an encyclopedia set. Fists flew in '88, '85 and even back in '67, when a Xavier player grabbed a crutch from the stands and chucked it at a Cincinnati opponent. And most infamously, in 1994, an in-game war of words prompted Bearcats coach Bob Huggins to stiff Xavier's Pete Gillen for the customary postgame handshake.
The Cincinnati game has been causing Bobinski anxiety for years. Before becoming Xavier's AD in 1998, he worked at the U.S. Naval Academy. But even the Army-Navy rivalry couldn't prepare him for this: A rivalry in which a neighbor welcomed him to town by decorating the front door of his new home in Cincinnati posters; a rivalry in which a booster pulled him aside at one of his first public appearances and scolded him for wearing a tie with a speck of red in it. It certainly couldn't prepare him for the kind of on-court aggression that's become routine here. Two years ago in a double-OT thriller, the refs called two technical fouls, and benches cleared. No one threw a punch, but Bobinski says, "I remember thinking, I'm not sure this is the healthiest thing in the world."
People look at Xavier and see good guys, good program. They look at Cincy, and they see the blacks, the muscles, the thugs, the non-graduation rates. It's angels vs. devils.” -- former Cincy forward Terry Nelson
The matchup is about more than school pride. It is steeped in stereotypes that each faction loves and loathes in equal parts. Xavier, one of the oldest Jesuit schools in the country, is a private university with 4,300 students, $30,000-a-year tuition and an insulated, small-town feel. Three miles away is Cincinnati, a state school with five times the number of students, one-third the tuition and a storied history that includes two national championships and a fella by the name of Oscar Robertson.
For years, Xavier played little brother to UC, but it has won 11 of the past 16 shootouts and is one of just five schools in the country to reach three of the past four Sweet 16s. Little brother has grown up. And depending on whom you cheer for, the Musketeers have done so the right way. "People look at Xavier and see good guys, good program," says former Cincinnati forward Terry Nelson. "They look at Cincy, and they see the blacks, the muscles, the thugs, the non-graduation rates. It's angels vs. devils."
Huggins' 16 seasons at Cincinnati furthered the divide. While every Xavier senior since 1986 has graduated, only 27 of Huggins' 95 players received a diploma. In one of those seasons, the Bearcats' graduation rate was 0.0 percent. Fair or not, the widely held belief outside the UC campus was that the Bearcats were a bunch of win-at-all-costs junior college kids who didn't care about anything beyond what happened on the court. Intimidate. Dominate. Celebrate. That was the Cincinnati way. "Thugs. That was the label we got," says former Bearcats All-American and retired NBA pro Nick Van Exel. "So we carried that out on the court. Okay, you think we're thugs? We'll be thugs on the court, play like thugs and try to kick the crap out of you."
The lack of distance between the two schools heightens the existing strain. Imagine if Ohio State and Michigan both called Columbus home. Imagine if the two schools were a leisurely jog apart and students not only shared the same malls but fought for the same jobs after graduation. "There are people who won't hire you if you went to the wrong school," says Xavier alum and Indiana Pacers forward David West. "It runs deep. You've got folks in their 70s and 80s, you've got priests and nuns, and the only foul thing they'll say all year is something about Cincinnati. There's a legitimate hatred there."
THAT'S THE WAY it's always been with these two schools. Every slight, every jab, every perceived insult is amplified. But a lack of understanding about the magnitude of mutual animosity isn't limited to casual hoops fans. Just as often, the schools' new recruits have no clue what they're getting into. They arrive from places like New York, Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey, knowing next to nothing about the rivalry. Cincinnati vs. Xavier? Who cares? But next thing they know, they're draped in blue or red, diving for loose balls, throwing elbows and doing everything they can to win a game that, a year ago, they knew nothing about. "Nobody has any clue what to expect," says Van Exel, who grew up in Wisconsin. "Then all of a sudden you're thrown into the fire, and everywhere you turn, people start insisting you better kick Xavier's butt. The only way to respond is to do just that."
It's easy to be blindsided by the madness, as Bearcats sophomore Sean Kilpatrick was this season. During a radio talk-show interview with Andy Furman in December, the host asked the Cincinnati guard (and White Plains, N.Y., native) if he felt he was better than Xavier's Tu Holloway (also a New Yorker). Kilpatrick tried to answer diplomatically, saying, "I'll let the fans decide."
But Furman stiff-armed the cliche and pressed on: "I need to know. No one's listening. Just between you and me." And so on the air, two days before this season's Shootout, Kilpatrick took the game's first shot. Was he better than Holloway, Xavier's senior leader and the reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year?
"Yes I am," Kilpatrick said.
Furman wasn't done. "Would Tu Holloway start for UC?"
"Would he?" Kilpatrick answered. "With the players we have now? I would say no."
The answer was preposterous. Holloway was Xavier's best player and an All-America candidate. But it was too late. His words had spread to Twitter, Facebook and the inside of Holloway's head. If it were any other game between almost any other schools, it wouldn't have mattered. But in this rivalry, just two sentences -- 10 words, to be exact -- tossed a jug of kerosene on an already smoldering situation.
"Those remarks sent this thing over the edge," says longtime Cincinnati radio voice and former Bearcats assistant Chuck Machock. "[Xavier] came out with the idea that, We're going to show Cincinnati after they took a shot at our All-American. There's no way anyone can deny that."
WALT McBRIDE TRIED to teach Yancy Gates everything he knew about basketball. About life. And about making the right decisions. Back at Cincinnati's Withrow High, he would meet with his big man every day before practice to "see where his head was at," McBride says, and remind him what was expected of him. There were arguments and pouting, and after Senior Night, McBride gave Gates a one-game suspension for his selfish attitude. "Look," says McBride, "Yancy is a good kid. But at the end of the day, Yancy is going to be Yancy."
When it came time for Gates to pick a college, Xavier fans were hopeful that McBride would help deliver a five-star recruit to his alma mater. But McBride had other thoughts. "He wasn't a Xavier type of player," says McBride. "He was still raw. He had a lot to learn. And Yancy doesn't do well when he's the biggest guy on the floor. I told him he should go to Ohio State or West Virginia."
In the end, Gates chose to stay close to home and took an offer to play for Cincinnati, where Mick Cronin had been hired to help return the Bearcats to on-court glory and rebuild their off-court image.
Xavier, meanwhile, was excited about its new seven-footer, Kenny Frease. "I remember when Kenny signed at Xavier and Yancy told me he didn't like him," says McBride of the big men, who battled each other in their AAU days. "You had these two huge guys, these forces of nature, and they always ran into each other."
Look, Yancy is a good kid. But at the end of the day, Yancy is going to be Yancy.” -- Cincy forward Yancy Gates' high school coach Walt McBride
Like Gates, Frease was a highly targeted recruit. He chose the Musketeers over Notre Dame and Kentucky, and he came with his own bit of controversy. In a game during his junior year of high school, Frease was going for a rebound when an opponent swung at the ball, missed and pummeled Frease in the right eye. The blow broke two of the orbital bones in his face and caused extensive muscle and nerve damage. His eye wouldn't open for three weeks. "Doctors worried it might never open again," says Marge Frease, Kenny's mother. "That could have been the end right there. It was scary."
Frease's parents, along with his high school coach, thought the act was deliberate. There were rumors of criminal charges being filed. But after reviewing the tape, a local prosecutor determined there was insufficient evidence for a case. The Frease family never sued. "That's not us," says Marge, who played college hoops for Youngstown State in the '80s. "It was a basketball game."
In his four years at Xavier, Frease had overcome lofty expectations, an inconsistent waistline and erratic conditioning to become the go-to big man his teammates could trust. But the matchup with Gates was always a challenge. In their first Shootout, in 2008, refs whistled Frease and Gates with double technical fouls when they bumped each other and exchanged words during a dead ball. Last season, Gates scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Frease in a convincing Cincinnati win. Now the two towers would go at it again, potentially for the last time.
FEWER THAN 10 SECONDS were left on the clock. It was a Xavier blowout, yet Gates, Frease and Holloway -- all starters -- were still on the floor. Frease was finishing up an impressive afternoon of 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Gates had 18 points and 12 rebounds of his own.
The game had gone just like any other Shootout, with plenty of jaw-jacking between the two teams. Cincinnati's Octavius Ellis confronted Xavier's Mark Lyons as the teams were leaving the floor for halftime, but coaches and officials intervened before anything happened. During the break, Cronin begged the officials to take control of the game and call more technical fouls -- against both teams. "T every guy on my bench if you have to," Cronin says he told the refs. "I don't care. Whoever wins is irrelevant. This can't happen."
But in the second half, the calls never came. The players were allowed to talk, and anger was allowed to build. After scoring with 18 seconds left, Holloway jogged downcourt and barked to the Cincinnati bench that this was "his city." A proud player who grew up on the blacktop courts of New York, Holloway had taken Kilpatrick's radio comments personally, saying he felt disrespected. It was funny in a way -- a New York kid responding to comments from a fellow New Yorker by claiming he owned Cincinnati. But no one laughed. Instead, Ge'Lawn Guyn, Cincy's 6-foot-1 guard, got in Holloway's face. Dez Wells, who stands 6-5, shoved Guyn to the ground, and that's when Gates heaved the ball at Wells' head.
Then all hell broke loose.
McBride says Gates was a peacemaker in high school, but this time, his intuition told him something else was about to happen. "Yancy was going to protect," explains McBride. "I think anyone in that situation would. And you know what? The only person his size who could possibly do any harm to him on that floor was Kenny. The problem is, Kenny wasn't even looking at him."
Gates' punch clobbered Frease on the left side of his face, and the force of the blow knocked his body to the floor. Cincinnati's Cheikh Mbodj kicked Frease while he was down. Frease desperately needed an escape. So the 275-pound center crawled to safety, leaving the screaming, swearing, kicking and punching behind. By the time he stood up and walked to center court, the damage had been done. His left eye began to swell. Blood poured down his cheek, and adrenaline filled his veins. Within seconds, his father was by his side. Up in the stands, Marge couldn't believe what she was seeing. She kept repeating the same two words: "Not again. Not again. Not again."
After a few seconds of getting his bearings, Frease pumped his fist in the air once, then twice and screamed: "Let's f---ing go!"
Though the entire brawl lasted 30 seconds -- officials called the game with 9.4 seconds remaining -- the ugliness had just begun. Xavier fans started chanting, "F--- UC." Holloway climbed on the scorer's table and told a writer to tweet that Xavier put Cincinnati "in a f---ing body bag." At the postgame news conference, he told reporters, "We got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court." And later, in a conversation with longtime Cincinnati columnist Paul Daugherty, Holloway summed up the afternoon in one sentence: "That's what the Crosstown Shootout is about."
IN THE XAVIER training room, minutes after officials called the game, Kenny Frease's emotions began to calm. He was worried about his eye, his teammates and looming suspensions. And he tried to figure out what happened. "He had no idea who hit him," Marge says. "It was a true sucker punch. I had to tell him it was Yancy."
The doctors were worried about a possible concussion. Marge had her own concerns. She understands rivalries and tension-filled competitive environments, but she doesn't comprehend somebody else taking a fist to the side of her son's face. And she has no idea why Kenny, Holloway and even Cincinnati's Gates were still in the game at that point.
"How much do you have to win by?" she asks. "I get it. This rivalry is huge. But any time you have two teams go at it like that, all parties involved are to blame. The coaches are guilty. The fans are guilty. The media is guilty. We as parents are guilty. [The players] are just reacting based on what we've all taught them."
Two days later, Gates sat at a podium next to Cronin and said he was sorry. To his family, his friends, the university and the kids in his neighborhood who stare in awe when he walks by. Gates was strong at first, but as the conversation turned to the coast-to-coast strangers who now cast him as a thug, to the prosecutor who might pursue charges, he began to cry. "I'm not that type of person," Gates said, wiping away tears with the inside of his shirt.
When the prosecutor called, both Frease and his parents said they had no interest in pursuing charges. It was a basketball game. Things happen. They just wanted it to all go away. "I'm sick of people punching my kid in the face," Marge says. "One time I'd like someone else to get a punch. I have no ill feelings toward Yancy. I wish him the best. I hope he can clean up whatever made him do that in his head. That anger in your soul is not a good thing."
In the weeks following the game, the schools went into damage control. Xavier suspended Holloway, Lyons, Wells and walk-on Landen Amos for a combined 11 games and struggled, dropping five of its first six games after the Shootout. Cincinnati -- without Gates, Mbodj and Ellis for six games apiece and Guyn for one game -- went 10-1 after the fight.
But the nagging question -- the survival of the Crosstown Shootout -- will not be ignored. Next season would mark the 80th meeting between the two schools, and there are plenty wondering whether the Shootout should take place at all. Some have suggested officials suspend the game for a year or two until tempers cool. Others believe it should be played as scheduled, with refs instructed to call the game closer. Regardless of what ends up happening, most argue that the culture surrounding the game needs a drastic adjustment. "For too long, both schools were unable to say, 'I respect you,'" Bobinski says. "Someone is going to win, someone is going to lose, and afterward we need to shake hands, go home and be okay with it. We lost the ability to do that. And that's something that needs to change."
If it doesn't, there are plenty of people who will get behind the Crosstown Shootout's extinction. And Cronin is leading that crusade. "If it's not a positive, then there should be no game, and there will be no game if I have anything to do with it," the Cincinnati coach says. "And you can quote me on that."
Yet turning a decades-long history of basketball hatred into a positive, uplifting event is not an easy, or even realistic, task. Byron Larkin, Xavier's all-time leading scorer, believes the passion surrounding the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry is great for college hoops and that the fight was merely a "freak incident." When told of Cronin's pointed remarks about permanently canceling the Shootout, Larkin responded as only a diehard Musketeer could: "He's just saying that because he loses every year. If I got my butt kicked, I'd say the same thing."