SI Vault
Jack Olsen
January 18, 1965
The Big Five basketball teams have their private war in the Palestra every season—and this year St. Joe's and Villanova rank nationally
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January 18, 1965

The Uproar In Philadelphia

The Big Five basketball teams have their private war in the Palestra every season—and this year St. Joe's and Villanova rank nationally

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A few minutes after the start of the Pennsylvania-Brown basketball game in Philadelphia last weekend, the citizens on one side of the court began chanting, "Let's go, Wildcats!" When the last echo of that alarum faded away, the other side arose en masse and shouted, "Let's go, Explorers!" A visitor who was under the impression that Penn called itself the Quakers and Brown called itself the Bruins turned in bewilderment to a veteran Philadelphian. "Oh," said the native, "that's just the Villanova fans and the La Salles, tuning up for the second game of the doubleheader."

In any other city it would be the height of boorishness to cheer for one team while two others were competing on the floor. But in Philadelphia this is normal. As the Penn-Brown game moved slowly along, most of the 9,212 fans packed into the Palestra engaged in spirited predictions about the second game, occasionally huffed out a locomotive yell for Villanova or La Salle, and in general gave Penn-Brown the back of its heads. "I just can't get interested," said a hornrimmed youth of about 20. "When does the real game start?"

Anyone who can understand a Penn-Brown game played against an obbligato of Villanova-La Salle cheering is either a Philadelphian or a psychologist. The essence of the situation is this: when Penn plays Brown, a Philadelphia team is battling a team from somewhere or other outside of town. But when La Salle plays Villanova, Philadelphia is playing Philadelphia, and when that happens William Penn's town becomes, pro tern, a sort of City of Brotherly Hate.

Philadelphia is involved in mankind, to be sure, but it is much more involved in Philadelphia than, say, New York is in New York or Chicago is in Chicago. In many ways Philadelphia is an island entire unto itself, looking inward, characterized by the contrails of the big jets passing high overhead, going from someplace else to someplace else. Denizens of this self-sufficient city even speak a different language. They say "no" with the tortured vowel of a Yorkshireman, "wooder" for water, "iggle" for eagle and "lig" for league. They live in a place called "Pennsavania" and consider the "Inquire" (Inquirer) one of their favorite "noosepapers." In Philadelphia a redheaded boy is nicknamed in the plural, "Reds," and the contraction for "all that" comes out "all's," as in "all's I said was...." Philadelphia is grandly insular and glad of it, and this concentration on things local produced "the Big Five," a basketball conference consisting of schools with little in common except Philadelphia. Three of them—La Salle, St. Joseph's and Temple—play in the Middle Atlantic Conference, Pennsylvania is in the Ivy League and Villanova is an independent. The schools range in size from St. Joseph's, with its 1,500 day students, to Temple, with its 9,250; in location from Villanova, swathed in Main Line greenery, to La Salle, with a campus in the middle of a neighborhood in transition. The five schools share only one attitude: a burning, seething, competitive hatred, clean but hard, in basketball.

"These kids played against each other in grammar school and the boys' clubs and the high school leagues and playground leagues," says Bill Whelan Jr. of St. Joseph's, "and they're dying to keep on playing against each other in college. It's like sibling rivalry. The Big Five games come first, and everything else follows in importance. If we go out of town and lose we come back home and try to forget about it, but if we lose to Villanova we're not allowed to forget about it. All our friends from Villa-nova are on us for the rest of the year, over the bridge table and everyplace else where we meet."

It is characteristic of Big Five basketball that the players come from the Philadelphia area, with only an occasional Wilt the Stilt or Wayne Hightower responding to the blandishments of out-of-state schools. Last year St. Joseph's whole first team came from within 10 miles of the college. All but four Big Five starters this year are from the Philadelphia area. There is simply no need to look away for players. When the Philadelphia Warriors were at their prime, they could start Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Wilt Chamberlain, Ernie Beck and Tom Gola, all products of Philadelphia high schools. "Now what the hell city has ever produced its own professional basketball team?" asks a proud Philadelphia sportswriter. The city even produced its own pro team in the 1930s: the Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). They played in the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel and their stars were Harry Litwack, now Temple's fine coach, Reds Rosan and Inky Lautman and Shikey Gotthofer and Cy Kasselman. Their standard game plan was to stay within one point of the opponents until just before the final buzzer, when Kasselman would unloose an 80-foot two-hand shot that would split the cords, and everybody would cheer and begin dancing to the music of Gil Fitch, his saxophone and his orchestra.

With this tradition, it is no wonder that the children of Philadelphia begin playing organized basketball when they are still in grade school. In a town where little old ladies discuss the differences between the box-and-one defense and the triangle-and-two, one is not surprised to hear an 8-year-old explaining to his buddy on the Broad Street subway: "We were playing a one-three-one and Smitty was the chaser and they came out with Jonesy playing low post and Whitey on the high post, so we switched to a man-to-man...." By the time that boy has finished high school he will understand basketball the way the Milanese understand boccie and the Liverpudlians soccer. Then he will be qualified to attend games at the Palestra, "the snakepit," a basketball emporium abhorred by out-of-towners and described by Illinois Coach Harry Combes as "one of the toughest places in the country."

All but a few Big Five games are played at the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania's barnlike field house down by the railroad tracks. When the scandals were blackening the game and college presidents were ordering their teams out of big, bad arenas like Philadelphia's Convention Hall and New York's Madison Square Garden, the University of Pennsylvania suggested to Temple, St. Joseph's, La Salle and Villanova that they play all their home games at the Palestra, on Penn's aged midcity campus, and split the profits evenly, an equitable arrangement that has worked to the advantage of all for 10 years.

The Palestra seats 9,200 fans, and on any night when one Big Five team is playing another you could be excused for supposing that every one of the 9,200 is a lunatic. Objets d'art come hurtling out on the floor: 4,600 fans on one side engage in insult contests with the 4,600 on the other side, and frequent loud remarks are addressed to the question of the legality of the marriage of the referee's mother and father. The raucous effect is intensified by the design of the red-brick, raftered building, built in 1926 and named after the ancient Greek open-air gymnasium. In the Palestra the seats come almost to the edge of the floor; there is hardly any buffer zone, and one can reach out and touch player and official alike. For years visiting coaches have claimed that this closeness intimidates referees, and well it might. In an average year the teams of the Big Five win 80% of their home games, and for all four years of its existence the tough Quaker City Tournament has been won by a Philadelphia team. This year the winner was St. Joseph's, which defeated No. 2-ranked Wichita in a game marked by 23 foul calls against Wichita, 10 against St. Joe's and an explosion by Wichita Coach Chuck Thompson. "It wasn't basketball," Thompson said. "It was a farce. We didn't get beat in a basketball game. Some of the things that went on were ridiculous. The officials weren't consistent." Then there was the matter of the crowd. "We shouldn't be held up to ridicule," Thompson said. "I can't even tell you some of the things that were said. Direct abuse. If we had come out there and hammed it up and acted like we were the best team in the country, I could sec it. But this wasn't fan enthusiasm, this was mockery." Thompson said he would not come back to the Palestra, "not until they straighten things out."

Thompson should have stayed around the Palestra to see what happens when one Philadelphia team plays another. In the dear, dead days beyond recall one was supposed to observe a period of silence after a foul was called, but in Big Five games at the Palestra any and all foul calls are occasions for abandoned cheering. When the player steps to the line to shoot the foul, just as he flexes his wrists, a cymbalist, a kid with an air horn and six more with cowbells let him have it right in the ears. This is standard Palestra spectatormanship.

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