Palestra Pandemonium: A History of the Big Five
by Robert S. Lyons
Published in November, 2002, as the Big 5 City Series approached its 50-year anniversary, Palestra Pandemonium is a collection of interviews, photographs and tales of Philadelphia’s greatest sports traditions – the Philadelphia Big 5.
Here's an excerpt:
For more than three decades, Philadelphia Big 5 -— LaSalle, Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova -— waged college basketball’s biggest, most envied, unique, and frenetic, intracity rivalry. No other city in the nation ever had as many major universities competing so feverishly for such a coveted title as did the City of Brotherly Love.
The Big 5 was housed at the Palestra, a venerable red brick building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. That building hosted more fans at more games over more seasons than any other college arena in history. This musty, high-ceilinged, 75-year-old arena is still regarded by many people as the best basketball facility in the country.
“The Palestra is to college basketball what Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are to baseball,” wrote John Feinstein in his book, A Season Inside. “It is a place where you feel the game from the moment you step inside.”
It wasn’t just the frenzied battles on the court that made the Big 5 unique. The camaraderie between the coaches has never been duplicated. Big 5 coaches honored unwritten agreements not to send game films or scouting reports on their city rivals to out-of-town opponents. Athletic directors wouldn’t schedule home games that conflicted with a Big 5 doubleheader at the Palestra. Players would never think of transferring from one Big 5 school to another.
Traditional rivalries like Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale had nothing on the Big 5’s fierce battles fought before screaming fans, amidst the colorful streamers, fanatic mascots, often-raunchy rollouts, banging drums, and blaring bands. These games were often decided by a last-second buzzer-beater fired by some obscure walk-on, whose shot sent the Palestra into tumultuous bedlam and gave the winning team’s alumni and students bragging rights for another year.
“If you won at the Palestra in the winter, you could talk all summer on the playgrounds,” explained Penn coach [now Temple coach] Fran Dunphy, who played at La Salle. “The Big 5 was part of the fabric of life in Philadelphia; there’s no other way to describe it,’ said St. Joseph’s athletic director Don Di Julia. “The Big 5 intensity level was equal to professional playoff game,” added Cliff Anderson, the great Hawks center, who went on to play for four years in the NBA and ABA. “Right down to the last guy on the bench, your heart was in your throat, you were sweating, you couldn’t sleep the night before.”
Frequently these Big 5 battles, waged between institutions located within a radius of only 17 miles, were renewals of some of the intense rivalries that characterized many of the local Catholic and Public League high school games. Maybe it would be a couple of ex-high school teammates from South Philly facing each other in the Temple-La Salle game or kids from West Philly and the Northeast teaming up to beat their former CYO buddies in the Penn-St. Joe’s game. During the summer they would go at it again in pickup games at the Palestra, on the playgrounds, or down at the South Jersey shore.
“What people forget is that the Big 5 wasn’t just guys going at a hundred miles an hour, frenetic games, and last minute shots,” said Steve Bilsky (former Penn player known as one of the Big 5’s great “Philadelphia guards”), who is now Penn’s athletic director. “It was also real quality basketball being played by real quality players. From Guy Rodgers right on down through the years, there was just some great talent out there.”
This is their unforgettable story: the coaches and players, the amazing characters, officials, and others vividly describing in their own words the intensity, the exhilaration, the emotion of 36 years of the most memorable and fascinating rivalries of the Big 5 city series.