By Todd Jones
CINCINNATI -- The U.S. Bank Arena is a dark, dank relic from the '70s, back when the best seats at sporting events belonged to the masses, evident by the luxury suites in this old building being located in the rafters near the lights. A basketball game once was temporarily halted in this Spartan arena by referees because a bird somehow died while flying into a heating duct by the girders, causing dirt to cascade below onto the playing floor.
There has always been an eerie vibe about this place since a December night in 1979 when 11 concert fans were killed in a crush trying to get through the doors to see The Who at what was then known as Riverfront Coliseum. It's spooky in here, and cold, very cold.
They played another basketball game in U.S. Bank Arena last night, and at times the old concrete white whale rocked as the No. 11 Cincinnati Bearcats improved to 11-0 by defeating their crosstown rival Xavier Musketeers 60-45. They played here, downtown on the Ohio River bank because the game at Xavier last year ended in one of the ugliest brawls in college basketball history. Benches emptied. Blood was spilled. Dumb comments were made.
Both schools spent the subsequent months debating the worthiness of a rivalry dating to 1928. They decided to change the game's name to Crosstown Classic instead of Crosstown Shootout, and a neutral site was deemed necessary for two years to calm heated emotions and rhetoric. So they ended up in a soulless, haunted place instead of being played uptown on campus, and the change of venue didn't sit well with all the tradition-mad fans. Last night's attendance of 14,528 was nearly 2,000 short of capacity, although that was also reflection of the much-criticized ticket prices, the cheapest being $35 and ranging up to $125.
"You lose the feel," said Byron Larkin, Xavier's all-time leading scorer and a Cincinnati native. "There's nothing better than going into an opponent's house and beating them. Those are the moments you remember the rest of your life as a player."
Larkin, the brother of Reds Hall of Fame shortstop Barry, spoke as the fierce competitor he was as a Xavier guard in the 1980s, and his sentiment reflected the territorial nature of this old, conservative German city. If someone here asks you where you went to school, they often mean high school, for that defines your neighborhood and much about you. Lines were drawn long ago and run deep. You're an East sider or West sider or from across the Ohio River in Kentucky, where the national champion Wildcats are lords in high-tops. Fans of Cincinnati -- a big, public university -- don't mix well with those rooting for Xavier, a small, private Jesuit school. Their campuses are three miles apart but might as well be three galaxies. And the distinct boundaries in spirit are what led in part to last year's ugly incident, with the game being called despite 9.4 seconds remaining with Xavier ahead 76-53.
The Bearcats got revenge last night with a ferocious team defensive effort and 25 points by junior guard Sean Kilpatrick. To the victor goes the bully pulpit, and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin used his post-game press conference to campaign for the game to remain being played at the downtown neutral site. The schools plan to conduct an annual reassessment of the game, which has been played every year since the 1945-46 season. No need to do so in Cronin's mind.
"What happened last year, anybody who has been around this game saw it coming for three years," Cronin said. "[The neutral site] eliminates the hatred that comes with an on-campus environment, and it's a positive for everybody. If it's not positive, what's the point?"
Cronin knows his local audience, as does Xavier coach Chris Mack. Both are Cincinnati natives and have known each other since the fifth grade. It was Cronin who won the post-game press conference last year despite suffering the biggest margin of defeat in the rivalry since 1957. Xavier guard Tu Holloway, who has since graduated, kept the fire burning in the immediate minutes after the brawl by saying his teammates were "a whole bunch of gangstas" and that the Musketeers "went out there and zipped 'em up at the end of the game." At that very moment, Cronin was making his own players take off their jerseys -- and even removed some of them himself -- in the locker room because they failed to represent their university well. He then addressed the media passionately about how players' immaturity and inflated self-importance lead to such incidents. His comments set a tone for both schools to find a way to do better once they were done suspending players for multiple games as the nation's endlessly gorged on the rehash.
The better way led Cincinnati and Xavier (7-3) down to the riverbank last night. Despite meeting on a court in an awful arena, some good hung in the air. The schools split the tickets evenly, and a portion of the sales benefited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located down the street. Both teams played hard, as usual in this game, although not particularly well (they combined for 28 turnovers and made only 7 of 37 three-pointers and 16 of 33 free throws). The intensity, however, didn't boil over into the trash talking and pushing-and-posing that led to last year's melee and, to a lesser degree, stained the series historically. Fans here still talk about the '94 game when Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins refused to shake the hand of victorious Xavier coach Pete Gillen. And old-timers can still see Xavier's Joe Pangrazio going into the crowd during the 1967 overtime game, grabbing a crutch from a fan and throwing it at Cincinnati's Raleigh Wynn. Both players were ejected.
No one was ejected last night. Fans behaved. Players and coaches shook hands at game's end complemented one another's effort. Both sides praised the game's atmosphere, which Cronin, in a fit of hyperbole, compared to a Final Four scene during pre-game player introductions. Uh, not quite. Still, the noise was enough to shake the arena's dust.
"I loved it," said Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright, who had 15 points, four assists and two steals. "You get two sides. They scored, and the crowd went crazy. We scored, and the crowd went crazy. It was a great experience."
"It was good to get last year's game off our backs," Xavier guard Brad Redford said. "I'm glad they allowed us to play against each other this year."
In that, victory reigned for all. Not playing would have been worse. Look around at all the historical rivalries being swept aside by greed-fueled conference re-alignment. Missouri and Kansas aren't playing this season. Georgetown and Syracuse aren't scheduled to play next year. Xavier might soon be bolting the Atlantic 10 for the new league formed by the seven Catholic schools that abandoned the Big East, Cincinnati's conference. Tradition is going up in flames. The only certainty anymore in college sports is uncertainty.
"I just wish you could turn back the hands of time," Mack said before the game. "Some of the rivalries around the country that have been torn apart because of football decisions -- it's a shame. It really is."
So they played a basketball game last night in U.S. Bank Arena, which should have met the wrecking ball years ago. It was cold inside, and the restroom lines stretched 12-deep onto the concourse during timeouts. No birds were spotted in the rafters. No punches were thrown on the court. In a place that reeks of time gone by, Xavier and Cincinnati returned to make certain at least one tradition goes on. The Bearcats won, but, really, all basketball fans in this town did. The night helped further heal some of the wounds from last year's debacle. More improvement next year, and perhaps the Crosstown Classic can return to campus sites where college sports belong.
Todd Jones is a senior reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.