The Philadelphia Big 5 will never die
Despite waning interest in the city series, the unofficial conference remains a Philadelphia institution
January 24, 2012, 10:47 pm · Updated January 27, 2012, 1:06 am·
Amiya Chopra | DP
Cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and Big 5 basketball.
That’s what comes to mind when Penn coach Jerome Allen thinks of Philadelphia.
Though the city series is slightly younger than its culinary counterparts, its tradition is just as ingrained within the City of Brotherly Love.
Formed in 1955 to exhibit the city’s hoops prowess, the unofficial conference has since become a staple — not just of Philadelphia, but of college basketball as a whole.
“It’s known throughout the nation,” said Allen, who has experienced the Big 5 as both a coach and a player, as well as a fan growing up in Germantown. “It’s very unique that we have five Division-I basketball programs in this city and we all compete against one another, regardless of conference.”
Indeed, no Ivy League team other than Penn is guaranteed annual meetings with Big East and Atlantic 10 opponents.
In recent years, however, the luster of the Big 5 has been fading. In its glory days, all games were played at the Palestra and were often part of a double- or triple-header.
Today, only Penn and St. Joseph’s play Big 5 home games in the historic gym, while Villanova, Temple and La Salle share a home-and-home series with opposing teams.
“I’m a huge proponent of the Palestra,” said Phil Martelli, currently in his 17th year at the helm of Hawk Hill. “I still believe to this day that every Philadelphia game should be played in the best college basketball building in America.
“If people want to say that’s pie in the sky … I understand what they’re saying,” he added. “But I can be a guy who wishes it would go back.”
But for the first time this year, St. Joe’s moved its games against Villanova and Temple to Hagan Arena, its home court. It will still host La Salle at the Palestra.
“It was the right thing for where we are right now,” Martelli said, though he believes the school will continue to evaluate the situation going forward.
Allen credited St. Joe’s for doing its best to honor the conference’s traditions.
“Those guys over there have done a tremendous job just trying to keep the original fabric of the Big 5 alive,” he said. “You’ll never get to where you’re going if you don’t remember where you came from.”
Saturday was a throwback day at the Palestra with Temple hosting Maryland in the morning and Penn facing St. Joe’s at night. Both games took place in front of capacity crowds.
“A lot of times it’s not just the game itself that is exciting, but the collective effervescence of the group,” said Penn guard Tyler Bernardini, who, as a fifth-year senior, is an experienced Big 5 veteran. “If you pack this thing in, you have 8,000 people in here screaming, that creates school spirit and morale. That’s what makes it fun and exciting.”
The recent loss of interest in the Big 5 could be attributed to the emergence of two tiers of teams that compose it — Villanova and Temple in the top tier, and St. Joe’s, Penn and La Salle in the other. The title has been won by either the Wildcats or the Owls in each of the past seven seasons.
But this year has seen an increased competitiveness between the teams. For the first time since 2006-07, each team will finish the season with at least one city series victory. For the time being, the gap between the two tiers has virtually disappeared, and each team has a legitimate shot of making the NCAA tournament in March.
“This year it looks like it’s going to be all over the board,” Martelli said. “It’s going to be everybody getting a little piece of it.”
St. Joe’s in particular has undergone a vast improvement. Last year, the Hawks finished a measly 11-22, their worst record since the 1989-90 campaign. This season, they have already amassed 12 victories.
“We have a lot of experienced players. Even though they’re young in terms of class, our sophomores have played a lot of minutes,” Martelli said. “We certainly got off to a great start and took advantage of a schedule that was based at playing at home.”
On the Big 5, Martelli remains optimistic that the conference will survive in the long run. After all, the conference has managed to get past rough patches before, such as when the series was cut from a four-game round-robin to two games for most of the 1990s.
“I think it’s the envy of other college basketball towns and coaches,” he said. “The Big 5 is very, very vibrant right now.”
Allen echoed his sentiment.
“I think it still matters — maybe not to the extent that it once did, but it’s important.”
After all, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia without its greasy sandwiches, delicious treats and illustrious hoops tradition.