College rivalries are becoming a thing of the past. Conference realignments are the biggest cause, separating traditional rivals. Pitt football fans used to love annual clashes against traditional rivals like Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame. Now we get them for just a couple of years at a time. Pitt’s basketball rivalries with Villanova, Connecticut and Georgetown no longer exist. But one rivalry we can still count on is the annual City Game, between Pitt and Duquesne. Sure, it’s been a little one-sided since the 1980s, but it’s still one of the best sporting events in the month of December.
It all started in 1932, with Hoovervilles popping up all over the depressed nation. Prohibition was in its final throes and the city began a tradition. Basketball was a little different in those days — no shot clock, no three-pointers, no slam dunks, and the rosters were as white as an Upper St. Clair school-board meeting. Players shot free throws in the underhanded granny style, and a center-court jump ball was employed after every basket. This rivalry was so intense it was suspended for 15 years because fights constantly broke out between players and fans. Men in suits and fedoras gave each other knuckle sandwiches and uttered phrases like, “Why, I oughta clobber you!” and “Put up your dukes!”
The series returned in the early ’50s, just in time for Duquesne’s heyday. Duquesne has retired the numbers of only five players, and two of them played together from 1953-55. Sihugo Green and Dick Ricketts were those guys. (Imagine a team where Sihugo Green is the second-funniest name.) Duquesne had its largest margin of victory in the series in 1953, and that record-setting 79-43 walloping still stands today. Six years later, Pitt returned the favor with a 75-44 beat-down. The series continued into the 1960s, when fights broke out again. It was a civil war on the court, pitting friends and relatives against each other.
The 1970s ushered in the Norm Nixon era. The four- time NBA all-star has the distinction of having the most successful pro-basketball career of any Duke ever. He scored more than 12,000 points in the pros. The Dukes won four straight games over Pitt at that time and haven’t been able to stitch together that many consecutive wins against the Panthers since. In fact, since 1982, Pitt has lost only three times.
Duquesne’s last win was in 2000. Back then, people used to ask other people for directions and sometimes wrote them down in cursive. In those days you had to ask someone to get off the computer so you could use the phone. After shopping at Circuit City for a 60-pound television, you could relax at a Bennigan’s with a couple of Zimas. It’s definitely been awhile, though Duquesne is scrappy and almost pulled off a huge upset in 2009.
The 2009 Panthers were arguably the best Pitt team in 30 years, featuring DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, LeVance Fields and Ashton Gibbs. Duquesne surrendered a 16-point lead and wound up losing by one in double overtime. That year, Aaron Jackson, Damian Saunders and Bill Clark helped Duquesne to a 21-13 record. Pitt went 31-5, was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point in the season, and missed going to the Final Four by a layup from Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds.
The 2016 City Game takes place Fri., Dec. 2, at the newly named PPG Paints Arena. This will be the first appearance of Pitt’s coach, Kevin Stallings. Tickets are as low as $14, so they are nice and cheap. As long as the fans and players don’t start fistfights like they did in the old days, the City Game will remain a Pittsburgh tradition. But maybe put your dukes up, just in case.