Peering down from his balcony seat in Temple's McGonigle Hall a few weeks ago, St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia didn't like the looks of the, er, interaction between the St. Joe's Hawk and the Temple Owl during a first-half timeout. DiJulia, who played at St. Joseph's in the '60s, is a veteran of these Philadelphia City Series basketball games and had seen other mascot escalations, such as the time a few years ago when the Hawk went at it with the La Salle Explorer during a game at the Palestra.
"Brian, get out of there!" he hollered to the Hawk, St. Joseph's junior Brian Kearns. "Stop fooling around and leave!" Kearns couldn't hear him, however. And sure enough, next thing anyone knew, the Hawk and the Owl, Temple junior Greg Ganguli, were trading blows near the St. Joe's bench. Order was restored after a few harmless punches, but both birds had to be sent to their cages for the rest of the game. City of Brotherly Love indeed.
"Hey, the Owl provoked me," said Kearns the next day. "He had a little crowbar he was poking me with, he had a squirt gun, he had a whole little arsenal. Something was bound to happen."
Matter of fact, there's a lot happening these days in Philly basketball, where mascots trade blows during timeouts and the fur flies when time is in. The Quaker City's traditional Big Five—La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova—all have a reasonable chance to make the NCAA tournament this season. Villanova, with a 13-5 record at week's end, was ranked No. 22, partly on the strength of recent wins over Florida (73-70) and Big East rival Georgetown (66-60). Penn, with an 11-3 record, just fell out of the rankings but should waltz to its 15th Ivy League crown and an automatic bid. Temple (9-4) gave No. 1 Massachusetts all it could handle in a 59-58 road loss on Jan. 21 and, as a power in the Atlantic 10, should be good for a bid. So might St. Joe's (11-6), already the holder of upset wins over more highly regarded intra-city rivals Villanova and Penn. La Salle (10-8) may not be quite as strong as its Philly brethren, but the Explorers still have a shot at winning the automatic bid from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
And that's not the end of the Philadelphia story, '94-95 version. Drexel (12-4), the kid next door, also has a good shot at making the NCAAs by winning the North Atlantic Conference's postseason tournament. The Dragons gave St. Joe's all it could handle before losing 78-73 on Jan. 17 in what was probably the shortest road trip in college basketball history. The game was played at the Palestra, which meant that the Drexel players had to journey two blocks from their campus on Market Street to the Penn campus, where the 68-year-old Palestra is tucked in behind the tennis courts next to historic Franklin Field on 33rd Street. Such neighborly battles are the essence of Philadelphia basketball. All six schools lie within a 13-mile radius.
Further, traditional small-college power Philadelphia Textile, coached by local legend Herb Magee, a product of West Catholic High, is the No. 3-ranked Division II team in the nation. Through Sunday the "'Fabric Five" had a 15-1 record.
And as for the NBA 76ers... well, no city is perfect.
Still, these are bittersweet times for Philadelphia basketball traditionalists, who through the years have become accustomed to nationally ranked teams and a local rivalry second to none. From the 1955-56 season through 1990-91, each of the Big Five schools played the other four, usually at the Palestra, and no matter what the circumstances, each game was a battle for pride and local bragging rights, a mini-Armageddon. Add three more shotgun-toting families to the Hat-fields and the McCoys, and you would have something that rivaled the wonderfully passionate and familial nature of Big Five basketball. "The Big Five was part of the fabric of life in Philadelphia," says DiJulia. "That's the only way to describe it."
That fabric has been torn by Villa-nova's decision four years ago to pull out of a full City Series schedule and play only two of the other four teams per season, thus despoiling the wonderful geometry that proscribed the Big Five. The other four still play each other every season, but only certain intracity games (two for each school) are now designated as Big Five games.
The pressure of competing in the Big East and along with a desire to play more "national" games were the reasons that Villanova gave for bowing out. But many Big Five loyalists swear that then coach Rollie Massimino was simply tired of the Wildcats' mediocrity in city play (he was 41-33 against Big Five schools over 19 seasons) and wanted to replace two tough games with two cupcakes.
Nevertheless the Big Five tradition is kept alive simply because four of the five teams insist that it be kept alive. Two years ago, before Penn played St. Joe's at the Palestra, Quaker coach Fran Dunphy and Hawk coach John Griffin asked the NCAA for a waiver on the rule that mandates a technical foul on the team whose fans throw streamers onto the court after a basket. The NCAA said no. But the coaches let it be known that streamers, a part of basketball tradition at the Palestra, would be allowed. St. Joe's scored first, the streamers came, the T was called, and Dunphy dispatched forward Andy Baratta to deliberately step over the free throw line when he shot. And when Penn scored, St. Joe's Rap Curry did the same after the technical on the Quaker fans. That's Philly basketball, where coaches sometimes set up their own waivers for the sake of tradition.
The Philly coaches are also preserving another essential characteristic of the Big Five, to wit, that the teams mostly consist of local players—"Philly guys," if you will. Each of the Big Five teams has at least two starters from Philadelphia, including the best players for both Penn (Jerome Allen out of Episcopal Academy, which is directly across the street from St. Joe's) and La Salle (Kareem Townes out of Southern High). "I thought I wanted to leave the city when I got out of high school," says guard Levan Alston, a Simon Gratz grad who transferred to Temple last season after one year at New Orleans. "That was a mistake. It's just not the same. Guys actually stop playing when the season ends down there. Around here, it's just the beginning."
Indeed, the intensity of Big Five rivalries traditionally stemmed from the fact that players competed against each other 12 months a year. "If you won at the Palestra in the winter," says Penn's Dunphy, a Philadelphia native, "you could talk all summer on the playground." That's still the case. Penn's Allen, for example, has been playing with and against fellow-Happy Hollow Recreation Centerite Jonathan Haynes, Villanova's starting point guard, for the better part of a decade. And the Sonny Hill League brings together dozens of Big Five players who stay around Philly in the summer.
"If you don't feel the history when you get here," says Penn senior center Eric Moore, a high school teammate of Allen's, "you do by the time you're out." Moore should know—his father, Bruce, captained Penn's 1966-67 team. "They've got all these old photos up in the Palestra, and I'm always looking for my dad," says Moore.
A certain Philly style is preserved by this current batch of teams too, one defined by tough, heady guard play honed on the playgrounds, rec centers and Boys Clubs around the city. Over the years a lot of blue-chip big men have left Philly, starting 40 years ago with an Overbrook High kid named Wilt Chamberlain, but many of the best backcourtmen have stayed, producing a species known as "the Philly guard"—players such as Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear and Pickles Kennedy at Temple; Jimmy Lynam and Matty Guokas at St. Joe's; and Billy Melchionni at Villanova. Most observers would choose as many as six guards among the best players in Philly right now: Townes, Allen and teammate Matt Maloney, St. Joe's Bernard Blunt, Temple's Rick Brunson and Villanova's Kerry Kittles.
But aside from the gloriously grimy relic known as the Palestra—where until nine seasons ago all the Big Five games were played—nothing contributed more to the character of Philly basketball than the Big Five coaches, characters themselves, almost all of them Philly guys, their lives spinning out and touching like interlocking circles. And so it continues. Among today's Big Five coaches, only Villanova's Steve Lappas, who is from New York City, is not a Philly guy.
St. Joe's Griffin was in eighth grade when he met La Salle coach Speedy Morris, who was directing the CYO program at St. John's in Manayunk, an area in northwest Philly. Griffin played for Morris at Roman Catholic High and worked with him for 15 years at summer camps and clinics. "Speedy introduced me to my holy trinity," says Griffin. "Practice at Roman Catholic, supper in Chinatown and Big Five doubleheaders at the Palestra." No surprise, then, that Griffin played his college ball at a Big Five school, St. Joseph's. Interlocking circles.
Dunphy starred at La Salle (where he played for Explorer legend Tom Gola) in the late '60s but would have been just as happy at Penn, St. Joe's, Temple or Villanova. "La Salle just happened to show the most interest in me," says Dunphy, who played at Malvern Prep. "I rooted for all of them." Before getting the Penn job, in 1989, Dunphy had two different stints as a La Salle assistant, one under Lefty Ervin, the other under Morris. Interlocking circles.
If Morris were any more of a Philly guy, he would have to coach in a Mummers costume. He has spent his whole life in the city, graduating from Roman Catholic High and coaching in the CYO programs and then at two Philly high schools, Roman Catholic and William Penn Charter. "I have this memory of [then St. Joe's coach] Jack Ramsay watching our CYO games in the afternoon, and then I'd see him coaching that night at the Palestra," says Morris. "That was like seeing God twice in the same day." Morris became the women's coach at La Salle in 1984 and took over the men's program two years later. He is possibly the only major-college coach who did not attend college.
"It just wasn't for me," says Morris. "If I had gone, though, it would've been to a Philly school. I was a Big Five fanatic. The first team I followed was the great Villanova team with Wally Jones in the early '60s. But I rooted for all of them. Wednesdays and Saturdays meant only one thing—Big Five doubleheaders at the Palestra." One of the most memorable nights of Morris's life is Dec. 9, 1986, his first Big Five victory. "I beat Villanova 93-86 at duPont Pavilion [on the Villa-nova campus], and I split my pants all the way up the back," says Morris.
By rights, Temple coach John Chaney should have the highest identification as "a Philly guy." He shoveled snow off the courts at Barrett Playground on 17th and Fitzwater so he could play, sometimes with an old tennis ball when a basketball wasn't available. He chose to attend Benjamin Franklin High—"I had to pass through a white gang to get to South Philly High, whereas I had to pass through a black gang to get to Franklin," he says—and was the 1951 Public League player of the year. (His counterpart in the Catholic League was Gola.) "We went everywhere in the city to play ball," remembers Chaney. "Wilt was three years younger than our crowd, but for obvious reasons we let him on our team. I still remember where we used to pick him up: 25th and Diamond."
Not one city school recruited Chaney, though—there were very few blacks playing in Philly then—so he left the city for a historically black Florida school, Bethune-Cookman. And by the time he got the Temple job, in 1982, the Big Five meant almost nothing to him. Besides, Temple president Peter Liacouras (another Philly guy) told Chaney that his charge was to give the Owls a national profile. But that accomplished, Chaney gradually felt Philly fever rekindling.
"The message came to me that no matter what you're doing in the national rankings, you have to beat your neighbors," says Chaney. "City games have a different meaning than conference games or national TV games. Big Five games are about...they're about saving your honor."
Honor. That is essentially what Villa-nova surrendered, its intracity rivals say, when it abandoned the full round-robin by squeezing out of a legal loophole in the fifth year of a 10-year City Series contract. Though Villanova's pullout occurred under Massimino, it's not likely to be reversed. Villanova athletic director Gene DeFilippo, who has been the AD for only 18 months, has already proposed extending the current City Series contract (i.e., the partial round-robin requiring the Wildcats to play only two Big Five games) for another two years, and Lappas concurs with his position.
"I've come to appreciate what the Big Five means around here," says Lappas. "And I know what some people think of us for not playing. Hey, I hear what people think of us all the time. But we're happy with the current system."
Well, Griffin and Dunphy. Philly guys and former Big Five players, are not happy. As Griffin eloquently puts it, "I see my role as holding a baton to preserve this eternal Big Five flame, one person in an eternal relay race. And when my time is up, I'll pass the baton to another person who wants to continue the tradition. It's important. It means something." Even Chaney, whose president, Liacouras, was perceived in some quarters as secretly embracing Villanova's position, says, "I don't know why Villanova wouldn't want to continue the relationship the way it was." And Speedy's position is as strong as the fried onions and hot peppers on a Philly cheese steak. "Villanova forgot where it came from," says Morris, reciting the first deadly sin for a Philly guy. "They turned their back on their partners. But I know this: Philly basketball is bigger than just Villanova."
Never has that been more true than this season.