KAPALKO: Big 5 is Philly basketball at its best

Jamie Kapalko

There is something about rivalry games that makes them consistently exciting. No matter how much one team is favored over the other, a battle with a hated enemy is thrilling every time. My high school football team, for example, has a matchup with its sworn adversary every Thanksgiving, and even when one team is expected to blow the other team out, the game is somehow a close one. It’s the pressure of history and the incentive to play for more than a notch in the win column – for bragging rights – that acts as the great equalizer.

This is the case with the Big Five. The tradition began in 1955 as a way of highlighting the best basketball in Philadelphia with games between Villanova, St. Joe’s, LaSalle, Penn and Temple. In the first-ever game of the series, St. Joe’s caused an upset when the team beat an undefeated Villanova 83-70. The games were often a frenzy of team spirit – mascots, decorations, rowdy fans and general mayhem. The records of the games over the years are littered with overtime victories, come-from-behind stunners and heartbreaking buzzer-beaters. The entire atmosphere surrounding the games has worked up even the most composed players, as former St. Joe’s star Cliff Anderson explains, “Right down to the last guy on the bench, your heart was in your throat; you were sweating; you couldn’t sleep the night before.”

The round-robin series soon became a way for one school to claim dominion over the rest of the teams in the city.

“If you won at the Palestra in the winter, you could talk all summer on the playgrounds,” says Fran Dunphy, head coach of Penn and former LaSalle player.

The close proximity of the schools is one reason why the games get so heated. When the possibility exists that you could run into an opposing fan at the grocery store the next day, the game’s meaning is magnified.

However, the tradition went on an eight-year hiatus from 1991 to 1998. College basketball was changing, and the emphasis on televised games that people across the country could see made the Big Five seem outdated. Luckily for Philadelphia, it was revived in 1999.

The latest addition to the Big Five record book was the Wildcats’ triumph over Penn last Saturday. While Villanova led for much of the game, the Quakers fought hard.

“You cannot prepare freshmen for Big Five games,” Head Coach Jay Wright said after the game. “You throw them out there and hope they come back prepared as sophomores.”

No amount of confidence or poise can prepare a player for the intensity that fills the Palestra on nights like last Saturday; the only thing they can do is get on the court and take it all in.

The Palestra, a 75-year-old building on Penn’s campus that hosts most of the Big Five games, is one of the integral parts of the tradition. Part of the reason the series was started in the first place was to pay for the building’s upkeep. Any player or fan who has been inside would agree that the money is worth it. In his book, “A Season Inside,” sportswriter John Feinstein remarked, “The Palestra is to college basketball what Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are to baseball. It is a place where you feel the game from the moment you step inside.”

Historically, the Palestra has been a landmark for college basketball. It has hosted more regular and post-season games than any other arena in the nation. The arena holds 8,722 people. At the time it was built, it was one of the largest sports arenas in the world. It is well-known for the proximity of its seats to the court, as well as for the size and layout of the building, which amplify the cheering and high emotions that run through the arena.

So despite the fact that the matchups are often supposed to be uneven, why are people passionate about the Big Five? Well, thousands of fans come out to zealously cheer against their neighbors. More importantly, it is a tradition; in Philadelphia, the Big Five exemplifies what college basketball is all about. It is played at the Palestra, an arena with a rich history that creates an incredible environment for fans and players. And like any good rivalry, no matter how the teams are ranked (or unranked, for that matter), the match-ups somehow always end up keeping fans at the game on their feet and fans at home unable to look away from the television.

The Big Five is Philadelphia college basketball at its absolute finest.