Hoops rivalries: Every win is forever

Hoops rivalries: Every win is forever

By Wayne Kondro
Special to CIS

To be sure, there are and have been other storied rivalries on Canadian Interuniversity Sport hardcourts.

Not all have reached the dimensions of say the erstwhile rivalry between St. Francis Xavier and Cape Breton, which once saw a few dozen Caper fans storm the X-Men dressing room. Needless to say, an enormous brouhaha erupted over player security.

Oft-times, the rivalries resulted from the dominance of one team, as with ex-coach Bob Bain's units at York during the 1980s, when "Fork York" signs and T-shirts became the order of the day wherever the Lions visited an Ontario University Athletics East foe, or with ex-coach Ken Shields' Victoria Vikings juggernauts, where students of, for example, the University of Alberta (which this author attended) were known to meet in advance (at a local pub, by necessity) to craft the most obscene signs they could imagine.

Other rivalries are, and have been, a simple function of having two perennial national contenders in relative proximity to one another, for example, the marvelous women's match-ups now often seen between the Saskatchewan Huskies and Regina Cougars. Similarly, the distaff Manitoba Bisons and Winnipeg Wesmen, when both squads were machines in the 1990s and seemed to take turns capturing the CIS title, or the Laurentian women's Voyageurs and Toronto Varsity Blues during the 1980s, when both were invariably ranked 1-2 in the nation and headed by coaches who, dare it be said, weren't exactly fond of one another.

Yet, it's arguable whether any rivalry in Canadian hoops history has ever reached the level of intensity now seen whenever the Carleton Ravens and uOttawa Gee-Gees meet up in what's euphemistically called the Canal War, as they will again on Friday at Canadian Tire Place in the 10th annual MBNA Capital Hoops Classic.

Whenever they tip-off, it's immediately evident that all the players are in sympathetic nervous system overdrive. When the ball is rolled out, both squads just get after one another and trade body blow for body blow, bruise for bruise, until one or the other is vanquished.

Add to that the standard plethora of motivations: rankings, standings, revenge and those notional privileges called bragging rights that come with each win; each of which, of course, transcends time. Talk to any Raven or Gee-Gee and you'll quickly discover that plays are indeed spun out into legends and life-long animosities.

It begs several questions, though. To wit: Is that enough to make it a great rivalry? What are the prerequisites of such a beast?

Proximity is certainly a factor, says Saskatchewan women's coach Lisa Thomaidis. "With any good one, you have players who probably played against each other, or on the same teams, growing up -- a lot of provincial team players who have been teammates and then go to different schools and battle it out."

That familiarity feeds the rivalry, particularly if both teams are of equal quality, she adds. "In our case, both teams have medaled at nationals and kind of gone back and forth. ... We keep pushing each other to be better each year. When Regina has the bar at a certain level, we're trying to beat it. And vice versa."

Rivalries often heat up when teams are competing not just for wins, but also recruits and fans within a city, which puts "local pride" on the line, says Laurier men's coach Peter Campbell.

Do the coaches have to hate one another?

"It probably helps," quips Campbell.

"If you have a really heated rivalry, it's probably hard to be best friends," adds St. FX men's coach Steve Konchalski.

Marketing can be another factor, says Queen's women's coach Dave Wilson. "You can create any great rivalry you want, in the media, if you do it right. Queen's and Western, for example ... (given their athletic history and academic standards, with both schools chasing the same pool of students), you can draw it on so many levels and just build it up that way."

Wilson and Konchalski also argue that success is a necessary condition of a great rivalry. If a title contender is consistently beating a bottom-feeder by 20 or 50, it's really not a great rivalry. Or as former Ravens point guard Mike Smart once coolly noted during a Raven run of wins, for a rivalry to be considered legitimate, there at least has to be a realistic possibility that the opponent can win.

An enthusiastic fan base and a few crazed fans can also fuel a rivalry, Konchalski says. "Within limits, of course. ... I can remember a football team sitting behind our bench trying to disrupt things, or a band, well, it was not really a band, because they weren't very talented ... We had to hold our timeouts at midcourt, just so we could hear each other. That was great."

On that score, the Carleton-Ottawa series certainly qualifies as a great rivalry, as it's often impossible to hear anything over the din in their respective gyms. As for the antipathy and disdain with which they view one another, the Carleton faithful have been known to dutifully chant "F__k You, Ottawa U," while the Gee-Gees faithful, in turn, haven't hesitated to remind the Ravens that they're enrolled at "Last Chance U."

Still, it's arguable whether the best indicator of a great rivalry is whether fans and players can quickly recall memorable moments of games past.

On that score, no one will ever forget the steam rising from Carleton coach Dave Smart's ears after Gee-Gees point guard Josh Gibson-Bascombe nailed a 15-foot pull-up to give uOttawa a 64-62 win in the first MBNA classic, and then pounded his chest in triumph. Years later, Smart called it his favorite Canal War. "I still have pictures of it."

But ask Ottawa hoops aficionados for their favorite moment and you'll get any number of responses. How about Carleton's decision to back-off on reluctant shooter Teti Kabetu in 2006, defying him to beat them from the perimeter, which so offended the fifth-year guard that he coolly banked the winning trey in a 62-61 victory? Or Gee-Gee guard Alex McLeod's desperation trey falling just short at the buzzer, allowing the Ravens to escape with a 62-61 victory in the 2004 OUA semi-finals and eventually move on to win their second consecutive CIS crown? Stuart Turnbull's transition layup as Carleton pulled out what post Aaron Doornekamp called an "embarrassing" 75-73 win in 2008? Kevin McCleery's free throw with 8.3 seconds to play in overtime as Carleton prevailed 87-86 in 2011? Thomas Scrubb hitting unstoppable jumper after jumper as Carleton eked out a triple-overtime 111-107 win in 2013? Gee-Gee guard Johnny Berhanemeskel's off-balance step-back buzzer-beater as uOttawa rallied from a late 10-point deficit to capture the 2014 OUA crown by a 78-77 count? Raven post Tyson Hinz' blistering 30-point performance as Carleton dusted uOttawa 79-67 in the 2014 CIS final, after which Gee-Gees coach James Derouin wryly noted Carleton's ability to "challenge that many shots (in the paint) and get that few calls, is impressive"? Carleton's humiliating 93-46 dissection of the Gee-Gees in the 2015 CIS final as they captured their 11th CIS crown in 13 years? Or how about earlier this year, when Gee-Gees point guard Mike L'Africain, though playing with seven stitches in his shooting hand, drilled a fallaway 15-footer to cap a late 9-2 run that gave uOttawa a 75-73 win?

All are equally valid selections. In a truly great rivalry, after all, wins have no expiration date.