Super Bowl XL’s marquee has been set. Pittsburgh and Seattle. But there is an important local event that will take place this week that surely will not garner the national attention it truly deserves.
This Friday the Big 5 will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For five decades, the Big 5 has encouraged competitiveness among Philadelphia’s five Division I college basketball teams – La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova.
In the college basketball world, there is no city in the country other than Philadelphia that brings this same unique perspective on local rivalries and lengthy history.
And with college basketball’s rivalry week just around the corner, you can’t consider yourself a true sports aficionado until you’ve watched two of Philadelphia’s D-I basketball teams square off at the Mecca of all arenas – the Palestra.
Located on Penn’s campus, the Palestra itself is a refreshing journey through the evolution of the game of basketball. Built in 1927, the Palestra hosted the first collegiate national championship in 1939. There have been more college basketball games played at the Palestra than any other college arena in the country.
Way back in 1954, athletic directors from schools that now constitute the Big 5 convened to create a unique partnership. This consortium was created to determine a city series winner for each season and to ensure that each of the universities would receive an equal portion – after expenses for the upkeep of the Palestra had been extracted – of the game profits.
To this day the Palestra is the site of the Big 5 Classic, where all five of the aforementioned teams (and Drexel, too) square off in a round-robin atmosphere.
From Temple’s Guy Rodgers and Eddie Jones to St. Joe’s Jameer Nelson and Nova’s Ed Pickney, the city of Brotherly Love has had its share of top players in college basketball. Taking in a Big 5 basketball game is a one-of-a-kind experience that has left students and alumni with moments of joy and heartbreak.
I recently attended my first Big 5 game a few weeks back – a Jan. 8 game between St. Joe’s and Temple. It was everything I expected … and more.
The student sections were raucous and passionate. The aura of a Big 5 game seems to add a few decibels to the commotion that 8,700 screaming fanatics typically produce.
It was a back-and-forth game that ended in dramatic fashion as St. Joe’s pulled out a last-second win on a tip-in by Hawks forward Rob Ferguson with two ticks left. It was all a fan could ask for.
Regardless of records or talent, a Big 5 game always comes down to the waning moments. Discounting No. 7 Villanova’s 41-point blowout of then-undefeated La Salle earlier this season, the other six intercity games have been decided by a combined total of 45 points. The average margin of victory has been a mere 7.5 points per game.
What exactly does this translate to? Almost every time you head into University City to watch a game at the Palestra, you are almost guaranteed to see an instant classic.
The atmosphere at the Palestra is truly vintage. It’s not exactly like the 1970s lime green couch in your grandmother’s living room that is perfectly intact and covered in plastic, but it’s close to it.
The Palestra and the Big 5 sum up what all sporting events should be like. In the current day, you have tons of sponsors and TV timeouts. The Big 5 embraces the term ‘old school.’
The Palestra’s odor is rich with sweat that has accumulated from years of hard-fought games that have been played on that court.
So, if you are one of those people who keeps a running tab of things to do, add seeing a Big 5 game to that list. You will not be disappointed.
Kevin Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.