PHILADELPHIA -- On June 6, 2001, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 107-101 in overtime. It was Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and the Allen Iverson-led Sixers catapulted to a quick series lead. It was a promising harbinger of a championship, since the game was out west, on the road. Philly had stolen home-court advantage. I don't remember anything about the game itself, nor whether or not I even watched any of it, but I vividly recall the aftermath.
My West Philadelphia neighborhood, just north of Drexel University, erupted. Whooping, grunting and screaming echoed in the hot night; there was the cymbal-crash of smashed windows and PANG PANG gunshots. A swirl of red and blue patrol-car bars illuminated the neighboring buildings, and the block became a colorful circus. I shut off all the lamps, ducked behind the windowsill, and waited for it all to go away. This was for one game
, I thought. Geez, what was it like in Center City? I knew I'd have to make getaway plans if the unthinkable happened: a Philly parade.
And then, within a week, it was all over. The Lakers won the next four games, and Philadelphia was without a pro sports championship for an 18th straight year.
Late on a Saturday night in January 2010, I walked across Center City in my long coat, no hat -- three weeks in the Northeast had made my ears tough as leather against the 25-degree cold. I started at Penn's Landing, watched the twinkling lights of Camden on the Delaware River; then down Chestnut Street, the numbers of the cross-streets increasing until I approached that old stone transit palace at 30th. I had the wide sidewalks mostly to myself, except for a few huddled scurriers running for taxis. There was the dull hum of a city in repose, heaters and fans and assorted machines.
But there were virtually no hints or reminders that hours before, the city's American-Style Football club had been eliminated from the playoffs.
I remember when the end of an Eagles season would mean a week of mean -- general grumpiness and punched walls and lost productivity. As Sunday morning broke over the skyline, the newspaper columnists, the folks in the line for coffee at the Wawa, and the people on the street went through the motions. It was all so disappointing
, so bad
. Why wasn't the team better?
I could tell it was all a carefully choreographed act. Being angry about elimination was what you were supposed to do, so everyone played along for a moment before moving on.
The idea of Philadelphia as "City of Losers" was always an imaginary construct. It didn't exist until the age of SportsCenter
and sports culture, just like Boston's 1920 "Curse of the Bambino" didn't exist until writers in the 1980's made it up
. Philadelphia's sports problems had nothing to do with tall buildings or Dick Vermeil or Dr. J, the only curse that Philadelphia was living under was the watch of an accursed national sportz media looking for cheap storylines.
When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, the city finally lived up to outsider expectations. The yoke was off, the sins were all absolved, and ESPN gave Philadelphia permission to be normal again. But what now? Does Philadelphia's pro sports mean anything anymore in the context of this city, now that it's just another win-some, lose-some town?
I came of sporting age in New York City, a place that's always at semi-friendly war with itself. Unless you'd built specific allegiances before arriving, you were a fan of the old-city-money Yanks or the plucky outerborough Mets. My Rangers held the line against the auslander
Islanders, and those five Stanley Cups were symbolic of the rising power of the suburbs (as were the Devils' successes later on... talk about the walls closing in). You could choose to follow the Jets or the Giants, it didn't really matter, and you could watch from a bemused distance over the bridge. The Knicks were always disposable when they were bad (they still are, no?) -- after all, nobody had to live next door to Bulls or Pacers, and nobody, anywhere, cared about the Nets.
There was a time, though, when Philadelphia was defined by its own internal conflict -- a five-way engagement that raged every winter in a warm old gym on 33rd Street. It wasn't Philadelphia against the world back then; to simply win the city was more than enough.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
In the mid-1950's, the University of Pennsylvania invited the four other local college basketball powers into its Palestra
for an annual city championship. Some went kicking and screaming, but the important point is that it happened. Herb Good, a sportswriter for the Inquirer
, named the quintet the "Big 5."
Back then, sportswriters were in the construction business.
Everybody in Philadelphia had to pick a side. The whole city was represented, no matter where you lived or how you perceived God. There was La Salle from North Philly, the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers
. Jesuit Saint Joseph's represented the City Line, and there was Villanova, the old suburban battleship of Augustinian descent up in Radford Township. Temple was the choice of the urbanites, sending teams stocked with Public League players into Big 5 play. And the host of the party was Penn, the Ivy League brainiac know-it-alls whom everyone else hated and secretly envied.
There was a place for everybody in the Big 5, even for those who didn't attend a Big 5 school, and basketball helped foster a common understanding despite all the intracity differences. After all, the ball was leather, the rims were all 10 feet high, and everyone was playing the same game with the same rules -- regardless of religion or race. Even the earliest Big 5 games featured black players, long before many American basketball institutions were integrated.
Big 5 basketball had its own culture. It had its unofficial mascot in Harry "Yo-Yo" Shifren, an old bum who would follow the teams around. It had Palestra doubleheaders so sacred that no coach would ever think to double-book with an out-of-town opponent. The Big 5 featured legendary bench bosses like Harry Litwack and Dr. Jack Ramsay and Chuck Daly and John Chaney. The league was defined by hate -- no player transfered from one Big 5 school to another -- but was tied together by brotherly love. There was a gentleman's agreement between coaches that no Big 5 team would ever send game film or scouting reports for a city rival to any school outside the area. The five universities all split the gate receipts evenly.
The legacy of the unofficial city league contains plenty of buzzer-beaters, overtime thrillers, NCAA teams (at least one Big 5 team has been in the Big Dance since 1977), NBA draft picks and Hall of Famers. There have also been lots of college-age hijinks. The Big 5 is streamers and rollouts
and mascot fights. There's a great story recounted in Robert Lyons' brilliant Palestra Pandemonium
, about an incident on the eve of a Holy War game between Saint Joseph's and Villanova. Some of the Hawk faithful posed as WCAU-10 reporters and told the Villanova Wildcat mascot to drop by the studio for an interview and hey, bring the full suit. Then the Saint Joe's students lay in wait and yoinked the fur.
The Big 5 was born out of a necessity that still exists to this day -- the difficulty of small colleges have in scheduling games. Most schools were independents back then, and didn't have set schedules handed down from a league office. There was never an automatic NCAA or NIT berth at stake, no championship on record with the national governing body. But it was always more about pride of place, as well as the temporary validation of one's religion that basketball can provide. Most of all, it was about ownership of the city. "They say there is no real prize for winning the Big 5," goes the old saying. "They must not be from Philly."✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Who killed the Big 5? The easy answer is Villanova. After the Wildcats won the National Championship in 1985 in one of college basketball's great improbabilities, the school's focus changed from the city to the country -- they didn't need the Big 5 anymore. After the 1991 season, the full four-game full round-robin was over, and teams could "win" the city league with a 2-0 record.
The long response, and the more historically accurate one, is that money did the proud old league in. Nova is the only one of the five to go above the Red Line, increasing their athletic budget as a member of the Big East Conference -- nowadays, they host teams like Syracuse and 1985 title game foe Georgetown down at the big NBA arena where the Sixers play. But Temple, La Salle and Saint Joe's had become Atlantic 10/12/14 members, and their league provided them with all the games they needed. Important games, too -- to win that championship meant an NCAA bid and television cash. The Big 5 was a weird and vaguely charming anachronism, like peach baskets or short-shorts.
That the fall of the Big 5 coincided so neatly with the emerging idea of Philadelphia as the "City of Losers" is, in my mind, of no coincidence whatsoever. For over three decades, the city was a kingdom to be fought over, in a 9,000-seat cathedral just across the Schuylkill River from Center City. Everyone was invited and included, and if someone from the outside claimed that Philly had no game, the correct and proper response was a big, meaty middle finger. The city's internal angst, sturm and drang didn't develop until Philly was placed in a national context and defined by its failures, by others.
When I moved to Philadelphia in 1997, the Big 5 was still a dormant concept. Two years later, the full city series was revived. It was different this time -- not all the games took place in the Palestra, and the only people who really cared were all old. But in the mid-2000's came a new idea. With Drexel as a sixth wheel, the Big 5 reunited at the Cathedral of College Basketball for a triumphant tripleheader. It was a glimpse of the glory days of old, when you could sit in the east stands with a cold soft pretzel slathered in mustard, cheer on your heroes and laugh at the funny rollouts. It was a chance to know who you were, and where you fit inside this big and complicated city.
One of the most crucial moments in this site's history came on Saturday, December 5, 2004, the second annual tripleheader among the rejuvenated Big 5 (plus one). Money had taken over again, and the nosebleed tickets for the day's games started at $65 -- more than I could afford in my post-NASDAQ crash world. But a strange dream prompted me to walk down 33rd that morning and stand around in front of the Palestra, and a stranger walked by and gave me a ticket
out of the blue. Those were the 11th, 12th and 13th games of the 100 Games Project, and I wouldn't have been able to complete the original journey without them. I don't know who that guy was, but he's as responsible for all of this as anybody who's helped since. At a moment when Philadelphia was getting a glimpse of its old identity, that moment was crucial in defining my new one.
The tripleheader idea didn't last. The Big 5 may fizzle out again, and it gets easier to kill as time goes on. What matters now is that the Big 5 doesn't turn into a country club for old folks to share their memories and gripe about progress. It's time to hand the torch to the next generation of Philadelphia sportswriters, whether they're on the web or still in print. They need to know how important this is, how to properly complain the next time Villanova opts out or when a future Penn administration locks the Palestra doors to the other four. This is urgent. It's not about college basketball; this is about reminding a city what and who it really is.
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