What Villanova’s Win Means for a Philly Hoops Fan
The very first time I went to the Palestra, I almost got run over by Bill Cosby.
My dad took me to the Atlantic 10 tournament. This was a doubleheader with a Temple–Saint Joseph’s game and another quarterfinal. As we went up the walkway toward the gym, an older man was laughing with his friends and clowning around. He crashed into me. It wasn’t a big deal — I wasn’t knocked over or anything — but my dad turned to the guy ask him to knock it off. When he did, he realized it was Cosby.
I guess I eventually got Cosby back for this, but I remember what happened afterward much better: Temple beat Joe’s by 15 points, and I got my first introduction to Big 5 basketball.
That was not my only Atlantic 10 tournament. My dad took me again the very next year. St. Joe’s looked like they were going to lose to Rutgers. They trailed by 13 at one point. But the Hawks rallied and won it on a Bernard Blunt three-point play with just seconds left. I had never heard a louder crowd.
I went back to the Atlantic 10 tournament a lot of times. I saw it at the Spectrum, where a $10 deal got you two tokens, a soda, a hot dog and a ticket to the game. (When we arrived, we were given two more tokens, and eventually reasoned we were pretty much being paid to watch the games.) I saw it in Atlantic City, where the Temple fans wore Santa hats for Dionte Christmas. One year, there were 10,000 fans at Boardwalk Hall to see the Owls beat the Hawks in the final. Afterward, I got to gamble.
The Palestra called, too. Although the Big 5 didn’t play a full round robin in the 1990s, I managed to catch a few Penn games there when I was in high school. In college I started at the Daily Pennsylvanian in sports, and worked my way up to covering the basketball team. I was thrilled. I probably covered 50 Penn games as a student, working on the same press row as people whose stories I’d been reading for years. I picked up freelance work covering games around town. I went to games as a fan. I’ve attended a triple-digit number of basketball games involving a Big 5 team or two, in places ranging from massive pro basketball arenas to legendary venues to gyms that seemed more appropriate for high schools. I even root for Drexel.
I had no connection to the schools, at first. But as I grew up, I became attached to everyone — to all of the city’s basketball teams. I didn’t realize it, but I was continuing a great Philadelphia basketball tradition: Rooting for all the schools in the city, no matter where you went. Sure, some people are hyper-allegiant and don’t want to root for Villanova when they went to Temple or St. Joe’s. That’s cool.
But there are a lot of people in Philadelphia who root for everybody. You can have your favorite – and I eventually found mine, when I went to Penn — but you root for everybody. I wasn’t just rooting for Villanova or St. Joe’s. I was rooting for the great basketball culture in Philadelphia, from pickup ball on the playgrounds to the CYO and rec leagues I played in to the Big 5 and the 76ers.
The Big 5 is unique to Philadelphia. Founded in 1955, the teams have all played each other for most of the informal basketball association’s history. Other cities and regions have multiple Division I college basketball programs; most of them don’t play each other every year, if ever. Villanova and Temple wanted out in the early ’90s — the blame’s more on Villanova — and the series was shuttered to just two games each for eight years. But tradition won out: Full round-robin play was restored to the Big 5 in 1999, and the teams have played each other every season since. No one does an intracity basketball rivalry like this city. “They say there’s no trophy for winning the Big 5,” the saying goes. “They must not be from Philadelphia.”
But a great basketball culture does not necessarily translate into championships. It always ends in a loss, as they say, though I’d hoped. I remember screaming at the TV with my parents as Michigan knocked out Temple in the 1993 Elite 8 — aided by a technical foul call on John Chaney. As a kid, I convinced myself the Matt Maloney/Jerome Allen team would be the first non-scholarship team of my life to make a run. Surely the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams team was going to go far in the 1995 tournament — until it was knocked out by Old Dominion in triple overtime in the first round.
The 2000 Temple team was a No. 2 seed, but the Owls ran into a hot-shooting Seton Hall in the second round. St. Joe’s in 2004 was particularly crushing — by that time I was 21 and had actually interviewed guys like Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. ’Nova just didn’t have enough against North Carolina in the 2009 Final Four, and seemed destined to be a perennial underachiever after consecutive Round of 32 knockouts coming into this season. Even now, I can convince myself that Drexel’s 1995 team or La Salle‘s 2013 squad could have done more damage. Penn had some very good teams when I was a student, but came up short twice in the first round of the tournament. I didn’t really expect these teams to win it all, but I always found myself a little sad at the end of every college basketball season. I was too young to remember Villanova’s 1985 national title.
It was okay. The wins and losses almost didn’t matter. The city’s college basketball teams became a way to connect. What I remember more than the games are the people I shared them with. Those early trips to the Palestra with my dad. Watching Temple in the NCAA tournament with my parents. Screaming at the referees from the baseline as a bony 18-year-old college freshman. Betting on the Biddy basketball game at halftime of a Penn game with a good pal from college. Watching my friend fall down the stairs at the Liacouras Center after Villanova and Temple’s midnight game (he was OK). Jumping around as Penn put a scare into a few teams in the first round before losing.
Then in 2016 one of these teams actually won it all. I screamed when Kris Jenkins‘ buzzer-beater went through the rim last night. Guys I’d watched struggle as freshmen, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, were stars on a national championship team. All my Villanova grad friends were so happy. I couldn’t wait to talk to my dad about the final play — and how it was his favorite type of inbounds play, with the ball going back to the guy who inbounded it for the shot. Next year, my Penn Quakers get to host the defending national champions in the Palestra. Maybe it’s only the losses that don’t matter, because this win certainly felt like it did. It doesn’t matter that Villanova is outside the city. They play in the Big 5. They’re a Philly basketball team.
Their run through the tournament this year was a blast. I hope I get to see more — no matter which Philly school is making it.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.