oldpalestra

Penn basketball and the rest of the Big 5 look to recreate the old Palestra magic on Wednesday as the Cathedral of College Basketball hosts the first Big 5 doubleheader since 2004.

For the latter half of the 20th century, the Philadelphia Big 5 made its home at the Palestra, with five men's basketball Division I teams annually competing against one another at the historically revered arena in what the organization’s website referred to as “college basketball’s biggest, most envied, unique, and frenetic, intracity rivalry.”

Now, at least for one night, the boys are all back home.

Behind the efforts of former Penn Athletic Director and current Big 5 executive director Steve Bilsky, a “Big 5 Classic” doubleheader will return to 33rd Street tonight in a celebratory event to honor the 60th anniversary of the group’s inception. Temple and La Salle will tip off the evening with a 7 p.m. showdown nationally televised by CBS Sports Network, with Saint Joseph’s and the hosts following up with a 9:30 p.m. battle to be broadcast by the Ivy League Digital Network.

“This is how Philadelphia first fell in love with college basketball, by seeing two great games and four great teams in one night in what I think is the most intimate setting to watch a game, the Palestra,” first-year Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “It should be an incredible evening for college basketball fans, and we are so excited to be a part of it.”

Technically speaking, it’s only been slightly more than two years since Penn most recently hosted a Big 5 doubleheader, as the aforementioned four teams faced off in the same order in January 2014. However, that event was facilitated by ESPN’s "College GameDay," resulting in it not being considered an “official” doubleheader by local coaches. 

Tonight’s pair of games marks the first such arrangement actually organized by the Big 5 since December 2004, and the historical significance of the night won’t be limited to the active athletes on the floor.

“There’s going to be people from all five schools coming back, representing each of the decades, and they’re going to be honored during different timeouts,” Penn Director of Athletic Communications Mike Mahoney said. “The '50s, '60s and '70s will be represented during the first game, and then the '80s, '90s and 2000s will be done during the second game, so that adds a little bit of spice to it. 

"It’s going to be a big night.”

Although there were mild inconveniences in scheduling the event — with the necessity of La Salle conceding one of its home games being the most obvious — these were easily canceled out by the immense passion from coaches and athletic directors in support of the throwback event.

"Big 5 games in the Palestra are some of the best experiences I have had in coaching," La Salle coach John Giannini told the Philadelphia Daily News when the doubleheader was initially announced to the public in July 2015. "The great competition, the venue, the tradition, the rivalries, and the loud, passionate, split crowds create a most unique environment."

“When I assumed the position of [Big 5] executive director, the athletic directors asked me to create ideas that will build the brand and visibility of the Big 5. This is the first example, and I hope there will be more,” Bilsky added. 

“There is difficulty from the fact all five schools have different institutional priorities and conference commitments, and balancing that is a greater challenge than it once was, but it’s important that the younger generation develops an affinity for the Big 5, or its future will be nebulous.”

While the optimism surrounding the event from those directly involved is understandable, it’s no secret that the student passion for Penn Athletics — and basketball, in particular — has decreased since the glory days of the Big 5 in decades past. NCAA statistics show that the Quakers averaged 3,141 fans per home game during the 2014-15 season, their lowest mark since the 1990-91 season — Donahue’s first as an assistant coach for Penn. Thus far in 2015-16, the undesirable trend has only been exacerbated, with the Red and Blue down to an average attendance of 2,656.

“I think the issue for us is twofold; first is the process of paying the right way, playing an exciting brand of basketball where fans recognize that they’re playing hard, there’s grit and there’s excitement,” Donahue said. “Then, the fact of the matter is you have to be successful. Students want to get behind winners. 

"We know that, and what we would ask is that while we’re trying to build this into a championship program, people come out and support us because we play an exciting brand of basketball and we are very, very competitive.”

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Beyond the raw statistics, perhaps the greatest example supporting Donahue’s thesis lies in the rise and fall of “The Line” at Penn. This tradition, started in 1970 to accommodate the rising popularity of Penn’s basketball program, involved students sleeping outside the Palestra in order to secure both regular season tickets, and — more importantly — first dibs on admission to any Penn NCAA Tournament games.

But after Penn finished a historical stretch of 22 NCAA Tournament appearances from 1970 to 2007 — five of which came during Donahue’s tenure as an assistant — the tides have unfortunately turned for the Red and Blue program, which has secured zero tournament berths and only one winning season in the time since. The lack of wins led tostudent interest to dwindle and since the start of the 2013-14 season, "The Line" has disappeared.

“I really think we can restore that old fan passion, but we have to create a reason for the students to get into it more,” Donahue said. “The main reason why there are basketball programs is not just for us to play, but for the students to have a better college experience, but we have to create the demand.”

Success and attendance may go hand-in-hand for Donahue’s squad, but the former has become increasingly difficult in an Ivy League that has rapidly gained national attention for more than its academic renown. The Ancient Eight has finished in the top 15 Division I basketball conferences in three of the past five seasons according to college basketball guru Jerry Palm’s Conference RPI — a feat which it only accomplished once in the prior 16 years in which Palm released data.

“When [10-time Ivy champion] Fran Dunphy left Penn [in 2006] and [13-time Ivy champion] Pete Carril left Princeton [in 1996], there was a big drop-off in those two schools. Everyone at the other six schools sensed an opportunity to make a commitment to basketball, and they’ve done that,” said Donahue, who backed up these words by winning three straight Ivy championships at Cornell from 2008 to 2010. 

“Financial aid in the conference has changed dramatically, and there’s been such change with the rise of ‘one-and-dones’ at bigger programs that kids are looking for something different," he said. "If they can get an incredible education and still compete nationally and advance in the NCAA Tournament, that raises the chance that you can get legitimate players, so now it’s up to Penn and Princeton to get back and match that commitment.”

While filling the Palestra seats has been an issue for Penn in recent years, the arena will have some help in tonight’s event. Each of the four competing schools will be given a specific allotment of tickets, with Penn and Big 5 workers cooperating to maximize the excitement surrounding the action-packed night.

“Part of why we really want to promote this with students is that we’ve been informed by La Salle that they’re going to have two runs of buses, but they’re expecting that some of their students and fans won’t stay for the second game,” Penn Athletic Director Grace Calhoun said. “While we’re only going to have a certain number of student tickets, we certainly still want to promote them so we can fill in that lower bowl and really create an energized environment.”

Aided by La Salle’s transportation efforts, the Palestra — recently highlighted as the most “Hallowed Hall” in college basketball history in an NCAA video feature — should already be rocking for the opening matchup, which will pit the Explorers (5-10, 0-2 Big 5) against the heavily favored Owls (9-7, 1-1). If La Salle has a chance of pulling off the “home” upset, it will likely come at the hands of star shooting guard Jordan Price, who ranks 14th in the nation with 21.9 points per game.

“Every time I get the chance to coach at the Palestra, I’m humbled,” said Dunphy, the former Penn and current Temple coach who already owns a win in the arena this season from when his Owls won a 77-73 thriller over Penn in December. “For 17 years, I had the keys to the front door and basically ran the place. It’s always a little bit weird going back and not being in the home locker room like I was for so long, but we embrace the opportunity whenever it comes along.”

Immediately afterwards, the Red and Blue (6-8, 1-2) will take the floor, looking to seal their first .500 season in Big 5 play since 2007. Although the Hawks (14-3, 1-1) represented Penn’s lone Big 5 win a year ago, the team has remarkably improved since, as combo forwards Isaiah Miles and DeAndre Bembry have led the team to its best seventeen-game start since future pros Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the 2003-04 squad to an unbeaten regular season and NCAA Elite Eight appearance.

“Those guys have been terrific — Miles in particular because we didn’t see this coming after three years of just okay basketball,” Donahue said. “They’re both difficult matchups for anybody, so we’re going to have to do it as a team, in transition and in the half-court, both offensively and defensively, wherever those two are at."

Ultimately, while tonight’s results might shake up local bragging rights for a bit, the hope is that the historical significance of the evening could make an impact for generations to come.

“We have such a unique product here, and I think all five schools realize that this just doesn’t happen in any other city,” Donahue said. 

“If we can somehow keep at least one of these events every year, where somebody can come in the gym and see four high-level Division I teams play in one night, there’s nothing like it.”

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