College basketball's most historic arena was a time warp for most of last night's Penn-Temple game. As a Penn basketball fan, you could not have asked for anything more. Until the end. The 40th anniversary celebration of the Big 5 was a gala affair. For one night, the Palestra was filled with the same frenzied atmosphere that regularly gripped the entire city of Philadelphia back in the 1960s and 70s. The vendor outside the Palestra was hawking "old-fashioned Big 5 pretzels." It was a bitterly cold night, as it should have been. That was how it always was during the heyday of the Big 5. You almost froze to death on the way to the arena, but it was worth it because it was so hot inside. The electricity of a City Series doubleheader always generated as much heat as anyone could stand. The tension inside last night was so palpable a knife could not have cut it. It would have required a buzzsaw. You could practically smell the ghosts roaming around the 68-year-old building. You could see them, in fact. They were standing at center court at halftime -- seven of the greatest players in Big 5 history. Half of them looked like they could have suited up and played on the spot. The crowd was in an absolute frenzy. Temple brought a sizeable contingent, but it was no match for the thousands of Penn fans. One side or the other was constantly going bezerk, and every foul call drew deafening groans and catcalls. It was typical Big 5, complete with battles of the bands and of the cheerleaders. But none of it compared to the war on the court. There was never any doubt this one was going down to the wire. Blowouts simply do not happen in the Big 5. The players and coaches know each other too well, and no team is ever road-weary when it arrives for a game. It was only fitting for the game celebrating the 40th anniversary to be as tight and as tense as any ever. For most of the crowd, the euphoria of the evening dissipated in the final minutes when it became apparent Penn was utterly incapable of holding onto its lead. I, for one, couldn't help but think of Corky Calhoun, who was Penn's lone representative on the all-time Big 5 team. He played three seasons from 1969 to 1972. His teams had a combined record of 11-1 against Big 5 foes and ranked in the nation's Top 10 every year. That era was truly big-time. With a nationally prominent team and a complete set of Big 5 games each year, 33rd Street was the place to be if you were a college hoops fan. Last night was a joyous affair, but it was also a reminder of how much things have changed. Now there is but one official Big 5 game in the Palestra each year. And this year's version of the Quakers, as great as it is, obviously can't come close to comparing with Corky Calhoun's squads. The Quakers' five seniors have done so much for Penn basketball. But when you get down to it, Penn is an extraordinary Ivy League team. Not much more. The Quakers journey to Villanova February 22 to face what will probably be a Top 10 team. A loss there will give Jerome Allen and company a career Big 5 record of 6-8. That's a far cry from 11-1. A really far cry.Comments powered by Disqus
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