By Harry Allison
If there is a Philly guy alive who understands the importance of the Big 5 and what it has meant to this basketball-crazy town, it’s Temple coach Fran Dunphy.
He grew up in Drexel Hill and took public transportation to the Palestra.
Then he played at LaSalle.
Followed by a 17-year stint as one of the most successful coaches in Penn history, and now his 10-season run at Temple, replacing the legendary John Chaney.
Last night, as the famous 33rd Street barn on Penn’s campus rocked like it was 1955, Dunphy told the AP that he wanted to leave his team during a timeout and recognize some former greats himself.
“I wanted to get out and applaud and look at everybody out there,” Dunphy said.
More than 8,000 Philly fans came back to the Palestra last night to celebrate 60 years of Big 5 basketball — Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, La Salle, Penn and Temple.
Penn students reached back and hurled colorful crepe streamers, some landing on top of the backboards. The students took shots at each other through rollouts — La Salle poked at Bill Cosby; Temple at the Explorers’ weak social media standing — and the Saint Joseph’s Hawk never stopped flapping its wings. Big 5 greats such as Mark Macon and Lionel Simmons were feted during timeout introductions.
“It’s just a great part of our history,” Dunphy said. “It’s a phenomenal part of Philadelphia and I’m proud to be just a small part of it.”
Another Big 5 ritual returned, as well. The doubleheader. Once a staple in the city, the twinbill faded over the years and hadn’t been held since 2004. But in the spirit of the anniversary season, the four teams agreed to play a doubleheader.
Quinton Decosey and Josh Brown scored 12 points apiece to help Temple beat LaSalle 62-49 in the opener. The Hawks topped the Quakers 75-60 in the nightcap.
“The Big 5 is pulled in so many different directions that it’s what makes putting a night together like this so meaningful,” Big 5 Hall of Fame announcer Dan Baker said. “It reinforces what a special niche in the world of college basketball that Philadelphia still has.”
While the Big 5 — a name coined by Inky sports writer Herb Good — was officially formed in 1954, the schools started round-robin play for “City Series” bragging rights in 1955.
The idea behind the Big 5 was the chance to offer Philadelphia basketball in its best possible environment with the schools sharing the profits evenly.
History was made 60 years ago when Saint Joseph’s beat Villanova 83-70 on Dec. 14, 1955, in front of 2,636 fans at the Palestra, the beginning of one of the most unique and cherished institutions in college basketball.
With pictures of stars from Wilt Chamberlain to Kobe Bryant all around the concourse, the Palestra has become as much a museum to Philly’s glorious basketball past as it is a court for games to be played on.
Macon, the All-American who led Temple to its only No. 1 national ranking and two NCAA Elite Eight appearances, hobbled in for his return after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon.
“I had to be here tonight,” he said. “This is one of the best places for basketball, anywhere.”
The Big 5 really took off as a basketball treasure in the 1960s when games were televised and a few years of established round-robin plays got bragging rights rolling.
All the city games were played at the Palestra, the compact gym on Penn’s campus that puts fans so near the floor they can touch the players and once parked writers so close to the bench they didn’t have to strain to hear every profanity or play drawn up in the huddle.
La Salle coach John Giannini has long pitched for all Big 5 games to return to the Palestra.
“I just don’t think it should be La Salle supporting the Big 5 tradition and no one else,” he said. “I just know we haven’t been playing here unless ESPN forces it or we agree to move a home game.”
Nationally televised conference games, prestigious November tournaments, March Madness, and a brief abolition of round-play in the 1990s chipped away at the Big 5’s national importance.
But for a night, two games at the Palestra served as a a reminder of what the Big 5 — and still can be for generations.