San Francisco’s Bruce-Mahoney Game – “A Tradition Unlike Any Other”

A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko,

A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko,

By Connor Buestad |

San Francisco isn’t supposed to still have this much tradition left in it.

It was supposed to be lost somewhere during the Dot Com boom and bust. Or at a martini bar in a gentrified yuppie hideout, or at a Mark Zuckerberg keynote address on internet privacy, or at an Orange Friday at AT&T Park. The seven by seven stretch of real estate bordered by the Bay and Ocean Beach is thought to have become too blue for it’s own good. Too liberal, too progressive, too obsessed with 3G, 4G and 5G. Too far from its roots.

In a city of transplants and tech mercenaries, the notion of being from San Francisco, has developed an increasingly foggy definition. Ask a post grad on polk street who’s “from San Francisco” where they went to high school, and the zip code usually won’t start with 941.

To be certain, not all of the tradition has gone by the wayside. Not even close. It is still there, still burning as hot as ever, it just requires one to look a few layers below the surface, like inside a 55 year old gymnasium near the corner of Fulton and Masonic.

The first time Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius (both private Catholic high schools in San Francisco) played against each other, the year was 1893, or maybe it was 1891, but no one seems to be exactly sure. Fittingly, the game was held on Saint Patricks Day, on the corner of 8th and Market. The Irish of SH beat the Wildcats of SI by a final score of 14-4. Leather helmets may or may not have been worn and the forward pass may or may not have been invented at this point. The game was believed to be a cross between football and rugby. Admission to the game was five cents even.

World War I came and went, Babe Ruth did his thing for the Yankees, and eventually history gave way for the arrival of The Greatest Generation.

For the six years between 1939 and 1945, America was at war. Up and down the hallways of SI and SH, conversation didn’t consist of SAT scores and safety schools, but rather when and where you and your buddies were headed off to fight for your country. The era was ripe with pride and love for country and the football, basketball and baseball fields held less relevance in the grand scheme of things as they do today. To call the era tumultuous would be an understatement. America’s history was hanging in the balance.

As heated as the rivalry between Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius was in the 1940’s it obviously paled in comparison to the realities of war overseas. Many products of the two proud schools lost their lives serving their country, but two stood out as special young men.

The Bruce-Mahoney Trophy was established in 1947 to memorialize the death of Bill Bruce of Saint Ignatius and Jerry Mahoney of Sacred Heart. Bruce served as the student body president for SI, graduating in 1935. During his tenure as Wildcat, he was also a standout football player. Mahoney was an All-City football and basketball player at SH and also went on to be an accomplished boxer during his time in the service. Both men died while members of the Navy during WWII, Bruce in an airplane crash, Mahoney in a sinking submarine.

Since 1947, these two San Francisco cross-city rivals have duked it out for the right to hold the fabled Bruce-Mahoney Trophy. Each year, the two schools play a football game in the fall at Kezar Stadium. Once the home of the San Francisco Forty Niners, Kezar is an historic venue that sits on the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. The winner goes up 1-0 in the three game Bruce-Mahoney Series that also includes basketball and baseball.

Come winter, the first time the two schools meet in basketball counts toward the Bruce-Mahoney Series. If the series moves to 1-1, the first baseball contest of the Spring, held at Pac Bell Park, ultimately decides who takes home the trophy for the Summer.

While the football and baseball games between these two schools are wondrous events in their own right, it is on the basketball court where the Bruce-Mahoney rivalry reaches it’s most fevered pitch.

Fittingly, the Bruce-Mahoney basketball game takes place in the heart of San Francisco, inside War Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of USF. Built in 1958, the 5,300 seat facility seeps with history and nostalgia. Some call it “The House That Bill Russell Built” as it opened it’s doors two years after Russell left the Hilltop for a hall of fame career for the Boston Celtics. For the Bruce-Mahoney game, literally every seat is accounted for. Students from both schools pack the upper levels, the last rows ducking to avoid the low ceiling.

At this point, of course, the football game has already been decided months ago. Now, the trophy is on the line in earnest. For the crop of seniors down 1-0 in the best of three Bruce-Mahoney series, every possession takes on a do or die significance. The 10 players on the court carrying the bragging rights and expectations of a sea of fellow students and proud alumni. A palpable tension fills the air, every basket cheered passionately, every foul call argued vehemently.

Much like the Axe in the Cal-Stanford Big Game, the fabled Bruce-Mahoney trophy serves as a constant reminder of what’s at stake. In the 65 years the trophy has been in existence, St. Ignatius has won the series 45 times, compared to just 20 wins for Sacred Heart Cathedral. Sacred Heart Cathedral won the trophy last year, however, and were looking to build momentum and close the gap with a repeat series win in 2013. If they wanted to retain the trophy in 2013, they would need to not only beat SI in hoops, but they would also have to win on the diamond.

On this night, St. Ignatius would prevail over Sacred Heart Cathedral by a score of 56-46. Trevor Dunbar ran the show for the Wildcats all night from the point guard position. A wizard with the ball in his hands, Dunbar repeatedly drew oohs and ahhs with his uncanny dribbling skills. Led by Khalil James, Sacred Heart never seemed to back down and proved fun to watch. Undersized, the Irish did yeoman’s work on the glass all evening to keep the game in question deep into the fourth quarter.

After the final buzzer sounded at War Memorial and the Wildcats of St. Ignatius climbed into the stands to greet their fellow students, yet another small chapter of the Bruce-Mahoney series was etched in history. More important than who won and who lost on Tuesday night, was that the history and tradition between these schools grew one game stronger, and for that, San Francisco should be proud.

Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)

Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)