Reflections on Big 5 Basketball in Philadelphia…Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2011
Joe Dzuback is an RTC correspondent. He filed this column after Villanova’s win over Pennsylvania Saturday, reflecting on the history and importance of Big 5 basketball in Philadelphia.
Five schools all within a 12-mile radius of center city Philadelphia square off each season to play a 10-game, round-robin series that decides who has the bragging rights to the city’s collegiate basketball scene. There is a Crosstown Shootout, an Iron Bowl (for both basketball and football), Oaken Buckets, Backyard Brawls and Border Wars, but no single city has five schools willing to set aside so much of their 29-game allotted schedule to settle a local rivalry. The Big 5 is not an informal agreement (this is Philadelphia we are talking about, everything is in writing), as the first agreement, a five-year deal that ran from the 1955-56 season through the 1959-60 season has been renegotiated (and modified) and re-signed at regular intervals since.
Over the last 56 years, from the first game played under the joint agreement on December 14, 1955 (Saint Joseph’s beat Villanova, 83-70) to the last game last season (on March 5, Temple defeated La Salle, 90-82), the five Philadelphia schools played 520 games using the original round-robin format, except for the years between 1992 and 2000 when each school’s four-game slate was reduced to two. What is the tie that binds one of America’s most prestigious private colleges, founded by one of the country’s Founding Fathers (Penn), to three Catholic universities founded nearly a hundred years later (St. Joe’s, Villanova and La Salle), and a public university with an alumni base of 270,000 (Temple)? “It began… as a loveless marriage,” wrote Rich Hoffman in his introduction to The Big 5-0, a commerative to the 50th anniversary of the Big 5 published in 2005. “Everybody walked to the altar while trying to figure out exactly what angle the other guys were working.”
Agreements for the first 30 years mandated that all games were played in Penn’s arena, the fabled Palestra, constructed in 1927 and in continuous use ever since. The choice of this “neutral” site was obvious as the Palestra had both the history — it was the site of the first NCAA Eastern Regional final in 1939 — and, at nearly 7,000 seats, the capacity to rival the downtown Convention Center where three schools scheduled their games under agreements with a consortium run by Madison Square Garden’s Director of Basketball, Ned Irish. The association with Madison Square Garden, the center of pointshaving scandals in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a growing liability for Saint Joseph’s, Temple and La Salle. Coupled with the humiliating loss of local Overbrook High School phenom Wilt Chamberlain to Kansas in 1955, the three schools were open to new approaches. Villanova and Penn had hosted doubleheaders at the Palestra since 1950 (ironically the two schools had only played each other once, in 1922), drawing crowds and national opponents to the campus facility.In the first agreement, the five schools pledged funds to renovate the Palestra and increase the seating capacity to over 8,600 for the inaugural season. By 1985, however, both Temple and Villanova were ready for a bigger stage, and the agreement was modified to allow the designated “home team” to select the venue for its games. The two teams promptly moved their games to the Spectrum in downtown Philadelphia.
No matter the venue, the intensity remains. “We want to run the city every year,” admitted Villanova’s Randy Foye, a Newark, NJ, native, in an interview before his senior season.”We want to be the team. We want to win the Big 5 because that’s special in Philadelphia for the people who live here. I’m not from here and I didn’t know how special it was before I got here. Now I know. It will make me, our players, our coaches and our fans feel good if we win the (City Series) title.” Fifty years and 500 games have not changed the passion each team brings to Big 5 games, nor the animosity the student bodies show to each other during the season. Asked after Villanova’s 63-57 win over Pennsylvania in the Pavilion Saturday night about having to play their last two Big 5 games of the 2012 season “on the road,” head coach Jay Wright replied, “the next two [games, the freshmen] will get a little different taste of some unfriendly environments… now we’ll go play two crazy environments [Temple's Liacouras Center and Saint Joseph's Hagan Arena].”
*Above is the unofficial composite record for the Big 5 series. Wins for each team can be read horizontally; losses may be read vertically. Total wins and losses for each team can be read at the last row and column. For example, Saint Joseph’s Big 5 series record is 114-94. The Hawks’ Big 5 record versus La Salle is 31-21.