Schuckman: Braggin' Rights game forces fans to chose their side

Posted: Dec. 21, 2012 2:26 am Updated: Feb. 1, 2013 2:29 am

Jeff Kroencke needs the tide to turn.

For three straight years, the University of Missouri men's basketball team has earned braggin' rights by beating Illinois in their annual holiday hoops extravaganza in St. Louis. Last year, the Tigers won 78-74, leaving them one victory shy of their longest winning streak in the series.

Another victory Saturday and the Tigers make life miserable for those like Kroencke.

"If Illinois loses, I'm going to hear about it for the next year," said Kroencke, a Quincy insurance agent and diehard Illini fan. "You know you're going hear about for a long time."

That's because this game generates as much passion as any other.

Fans will overfill the 19,260-seat Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo., although most years you could draw an imaginary line through the middle of the arena and see where the rooting interests lie. Half of the fans will be adorned in black and gold, the other half will be wearing blue and orange.

And you simply don't cross to the other side.

"As far as hatred, it's almost up there with Cardinals-Cubs for fans in this area," said Kroenke, who attended every Braggin' Rights game 1992-2009 and has tickets to take his son, Jake, this year. "It's as intense as any game."

For Missouri fans, the fervor has increased.

The school's decision to join the Southeastern Conference ended a long-standing rivalry with Kansas, one that dates back to the Civil War. Although the two schools still could have played as non-conference foes, they weren't able to find a way to continue the series.

That leaves Illinois as the Tigers' top hoops rival.

"Nothing compares to this game," said Jason Holbart, a 1995 Mizzou graduate now living in Quincy. "I've been to Allen Fieldhouse to experience a Missouri-Kansas game, and it's historic and intense and loud. But it is a pro-Kansas crowd. It's the same way when they used to play at Mizzou. The crowd was for the Tigers.

"For the Illinois game, it's a 50-50 split. I don't know if there is another game like it anywhere."

Holbart has made plans to watch the game at a friend's house this year.

"He's an Illinois fan," Holbart said. "We might have to draw a line down the middle of his man cave."

It might be a lonely side of the room. Holbart believes he will be up against five Illini fans when they get together.

"Maybe I'll be the one with braggin' rights at the end of the night," Holbart said.

Whoever earns them enjoys them for 365 days.

"I never realized how important it was to win this game when I was a student at Champaign," said Bill Jones, a 1986 Illinois graduate who works as a restaurant manager in Quincy. "You got excited because you're team was good. There was nobody to give any jabs to back then.

"Living here, there's always chatter about this game. It comes from both sides. And in the end, somebody is happy. Somebody isn't."

That's because no one stands in the middle.

You have to choose a side.

Which one will you be on?




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