No healthy Big 5 in ill college game

JOHN EISENBERG

January 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

I remember the night I fell in love. It was a cold Saturday that smelled of snow, early December 1975. I was a college freshman in Philadelphia and someone down the hall suggested that, seeing as we didn't have dates again, we might as well take in a basketball game. We bundled up and trundled down to the Palestra.

The game was Penn-Yale, low-scoring, dull, stands half full. But the crowd kept growing during the second half, getting bigger and bigger until finally there were no empty seats left. Bizarre. We had no idea what was happening.

We had no idea we had stumbled into one of college basketball's genuine pearls, a gem of gyms: the Big 5 doubleheader.

The second game was Villanova and St. Joseph's, a neighborhood bloodletting from way back. The arena steamed up, smelling of popcorn and dirty socks. The crowd was all wiseacre students throwing streamers. The bands played over each other. Every basket was a jubilee. The din was so loud you had to laugh.

We watched with astonishment this fabulous world we had uncovered. It was better than having a date.

There was a doubleheader most weekends in those days. The early game would be one of the local teams -- Villanova, Temple, Penn, St. Joe's, La Salle -- against out-of-towners. The late game would be local against local, all spit, muscle, trembles and shout.

It was four-star theater, no strings attached, no NCAA berth dangling, just little civil wars that mattered because there was something called a city championship that grabbed everyone by the shirt.

The setting was the Palestra, just maybe the best place in the country to watch basketball, a hangar hidden behind some tennis courts on Penn's campus, with 9,000 fans breathing onto the court, high steel beams, smudged windows, a collection of house weirdos and more warm winter charm than a dozen DeanDomes.

I fell in love that night, and never fell out. It's so sad. Now, the Big 5 is dead.

Call it a Philadelphia murder story, but it resonates throughout the sport, summing up everything wrong with today's version: too serious and self-important, driven by the twin idols of ego and television.

Villanova and St. Joe's aren't even playing this season, which is similar to an NFL season without the Cowboys playing the Redskins. I wish I could ignore it all, but I can't. If college basketball is so swollen that there isn't room for the Big 5, I'm not sure I'm interested.

"I'm a St. Joe grad, so you can understand how this hurts," said Bullets general manager John Nash, who was Big 5 director during 1976-81. "I understand why it has happened. Times change. But it's still a shame. The Big 5 is really a victim of our modern sports society."

The problem is Temple and primarily Villanova have made the big time, so now the Big 5 is a nuisance. They need to make money and win games to impress NCAA selectors. They want home games, not neutral sites. They want easy non-conference wins, not opponents playing their guts out.

Villanova finally made the big break this season, refusing to schedule more than two Big 5 games, instead traveling to a tournament in Hawaii. This has led to a new arrangement in which some Big 5 games will be played in certain years.

"My university should be shamed," said Maryland sports information director Herb Hartnett, a Villanova graduate who worked at Penn. "I understand that the world changes, but they still should have found a way to make this work."

They didn't. College basketball doesn't find a way now if it fails to maximize profits, exposure or recruiting leverage. The game is as collegiate as a money press.

"I could see this [death of the Big 5] coming as early as 1981," Nash said. "The game was changing. The Big East was taking off. Conference play was beginning to outweigh the Big 5."

There was a steady course of dissolution in the '80s. Some games were moved out of the rollicking Palestra to the sterile Spectrum or campus gyms. Doubleheaders were eliminated. But they all still played each other. Until now.

"A disgrace," Hartnett said. "They had something beautiful and killed it."

This all came up not long ago, when I spoke to the kids on the school newspaper where I took my baby steps in front of a typewriter. I didn't think I was old enough to gripe about the good old days, but they started asking about the Big 5.

I told them about falling in love, doubleheaders, throwing streamers, windows steaming up. I told them about the little 4-foot guy named Yo-Yo who shot free throws at halftime.

It's not the same, the kids said. Not at all the same.

K? "When we throw streamers," they said, "we get a technical."

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