Dec. 13, 2005
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The Palestra was still only a regular gym on Penn's campus in 1955 and not yet christened as a basketball cathedral.
La Salle and Villanova hadn't played each other since 1935; Penn and Villanova since 1922.
The city schools that did play each other usually did it in doubleheaders at Convention Hall. And sometimes the best games involving Philadelphia stars came in summertime pickup games.
Then came the Big 5 and Philadelphia basketball would never be the same.
History was made 50 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.
"At the time, it was of no super importance," said former Hawks star Jack McKinney, who played in the first game. "The importance has grown as the Big 5 has grown and the years have passed. It was a tremendous step for us to take."
Saint Joseph's, Villanova, La Salle, Penn and Temple have become as intertwined as even the most heated conference rivals. 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.
While the Big 5 - a name coined by Philadelphia Inquirer 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.
"There is no other city in the country that could ever duplicate that," said McKinney, who later coached Saint Joe's. "They've all marveled at getting five teams from the city playing together at the same time. It could have been brutal, but it was friendly and fun."
Then a 30-year-old rookie Hawks coach, Jack Ramsay recalled the first game was played during Villanova's Christmas break and that few Wildcats fans showed up. Most of the sparse crowd was made up of Hawks loyalists who lived nearby and students who were still around.
"I remember thinking this game couldn't have been played at a better time with their students away and our students here," said Ramsay, a basketball Hall of Famer.
Al Juliana came off the bench to score 22 points and the Hawks knocked off the unbeaten Wildcats. Saint Joseph's would win the next three Big 5 games for the sweep and its first of 19 City Series titles.
"It was just another game, really. There wasn't a whole lot of hype about it," said Dan Dougherty, who averaged 7.8 points for Saint Joseph's that year.
Like all the great sports arguments, when the Big 5 really took off as a basketball treasure is open for debate. Most agree it was in the 1960s when the games were televised and a few years of games had been played to really get bragging rights rolling.
Ramsay said the Big 5 made an instant impact on him the very first year after the Hawks used a 77-68 win over No. 10 Temple on Feb. 22, 1956, to clinch the Big 5 title.
"CITY CHAMPS," proclaimed the student newspaper, The Hawk. "Hawks Trample Temple To Capture City Crown."
"Temple was nationally ranked and a clear favorite, but we won the game," Ramsay said. "That game was before a packed house and with great media attention, so by the end of that season, I think the Big 5 was solidly entrenched in the basketball world, not just in Philadelphia."
All the city games were played at the Palestra, the compact gym that puts fans so near the floor they can touch the players, and writers so close to the bench they don't have to strain to hear every profane John Chaney instruction.
"You could hardly hear yourself think," Ramsay said. "I think everybody except visitors enjoyed playing at the Palestra."
With nationally televised conference games, the NCAA tournament and a brief abolition of round-robin play in the 1990s chipping away at the Big 5's recent importance, its legacy won't be forgotten.
And it all started 50 years ago Wednesday.
"I hope people remember how good it was and how good it still can be," Dougherty said.