City tradition lives on for over half a century

Paul Martucci

The year was 1954, and in a small room in the middle of Philadelphia, five important local figures had just reached an agreement. To some, the deal may seem insignificant. Basketball teams deciding to play each other each season? It seemed absurd to think that a couple basketball games between five Philly schools would spark much interest.

But these five men knew better than the rest. Dr. Gaylord Harnwell (Penn’s former Director of Athletics), Jim Henry (La Salle’s former Director of Athletics), George Bertelsman (St. Joseph’s former Director of Athletics), Josh Cody (Temple’s former Director of Athletics) and Ambrose (Bud) Dudley (Villanova’s former Director of Athletics) agreed in November of 1954 to form the Big 5.

With Penn’s home court, the Palestra, serving as the host to a multitude of Philly rivalry games, the excitement caught on quickly. People flocked to the University of Pennsylvania campus each game night and, more likely that not, caught a fascinating, hard-fought battle between the two neighboring schools in action.

Paul Rubincam, executive director of the Philadelphia Big 5, admitted that the timing was a key factor in the organization’s success.

“Before we created the Big 5, these schools didn’t even play each other,” Rubincam said. “But the timing was right. It was an opportune time for the people of Philadelphia; there wasn’t the pressure of the Big East, Atlantic-10 Conference and TV contracts.”

Villanova’s participation in the Big 5, however, was suddenly interrupted in 1991. Miami’s entrance to the Big East Conference, followed by the NCAA’s decision to decrease the number of Division I basketball games by one, forced Villanova, then coached by Rollie Massimino, to reach an administrative decision to reduce its Big 5 schedule to two games.

Villanova’s decision to do this created an outcry amongst Philadelphians who had grown to love Big 5 competition over its 35 years of existence.

Over the course of the decade, the Big 5 went on without a true round-robin tournament. The ‘Cats competed in a competitive Big East schedule, but the city still longed for a return to full participation in the Big 5 for Villanova.

Finally, about a decade after reducing its Big 5 schedule, the Wildcats caught the break they were looking for. Before the 1999 season, while the team was under coach Steve Lappas, the Big East decided to retract its requirement to play a full Big East schedule.

To help matters, the NCAA added a game to the Division I basketball season. Lappas, along with the rest of the ‘Nova administration, saw this as a perfect opportunity, and the city of Philadelphia suddenly found itself back into the full swing of the Big 5.

Since then, even with the change in coaching at Villanova from Steve Lappas to Jay Wright in 2001, Villanova has remained deeply embedded in the tradition and the rivalry of the Big 5. Coach Jay Wright, who grew up near Philadelphia, understands its significance.

“Growing up here in Philadelphia, I’ve always loved the Big 5,” Wright said. “I enjoy the games more than most people; you can feel the great tradition of Philadelphia basketball. We represent it when we leave the area.”

Rubincam echoed much of what Wright said about Big 5 play, but added, “It’s a unique situation. Nobody in America has anything even close to it. I even get calls from cities like New York asking, ‘How do you do it?'”

The small voice of the critics of the Big 5, especially around the Villanova campus, argue that competing in the games doesn’t help the teams prepare well for conference play, but Coach Wright disagreed.

“Everybody in the Big 5 is rooting against Villanova, which makes it a tough atmosphere,” Wright said. “But for [the ‘Cats] first game in Louisville, we were prepared. That’s what really helps.”

Despite Villanova being the target in the Big 5, especially this season, Philadelphia is still nicknamed “The City of Brotherly Love,” and that nickname applies to the college hoops.

Besides exciting match-ups, the Big 5 strengthens relationships for those within Philadelphia basketball.

For example, a figurative torch has been passed from former St. Joe’s star and NBA standout Jameer Nelson to Villanova sophomore guard Kyle Lowry, and now many look to Lowry to mold his game into an NBA level of skill while also passing off the torch one day down the line. The Big 5 has certainly created a family amongst Philly schools and athletes.

Stressing that the Big 5 has been voted to be the greatest rivalry in Pennsylvania, Rubincam believes the 50 years of success at the Palestra is something so dear to Philadelphians that it will remain successful for many years to come.

“It’s a neat thing to see,” he said. “I think that in a lot of ways everyone has their own, very nice venue to play in, but when you mix the Big 5 and the Palestra together you get something very special. Two equal sections of fans, two bands and two sets of cheerleaders are on the floor.”

“It’s special.”