PHILADELPHIA, PA. 1/20/2016 – The thought of a Palestra doubleheader was magic to me over the course of my years. The memories of my time spent in this building have been sheer magic. The two contests this evening that celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Big Five, was a time to honor the past and enjoy the present.
To my mind there was never a bad seat or a bad game at the Palestra. Some may dispute that, but I am not one of those voices. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane.
The first game I attended was in the early 1960’s. It was the Quaker City Tournament, and how many of us remember that? I do. Penn played Duquesne in the first game. John Wideman and Sid Amira led the Quakers to a win over Willie Somerset and the Dukes. The championship game of the tournament saw Villanova against Iowa led by what I thought was the tallest person I ever saw. A big man with a flat top haircut, Don Nelson. But he could not overcome Hubie White and Wally Jones, who had that corkscrew jumper. I knew I would be coming back.
And I did to see my initial Big Five game, Villanova vs. Temple. The recollection of that night was vivid. The lights, the bands, the cheerleaders, the game, absolute and utter excitement. The voice of the Big Five in those days was Les Keiter. He was right on the money by saying “welcome to Palestra Pandemonium.” Temple won that game behind Bruce Drysdale, the first Bug Five upset I saw. Nova took the game a year later. Since that time I witnessed upsets, near upsets, some blowouts, but always a reason to be excited about coming to a basketball game.
I think back to some teams and players that still resonate with me.
The teams of the late 80’s and 90’s that featured Lionel Simmons and Dough Overton coached by Speedy Morris, I remember Michael Brooks and Tim Legler and Jack Hurd, Roland Taylor, Bernie Williams, and Ramon Galloway. I was sitting in Hartford thinking Clemson could not possibly overcome the La Salle halftime advantage, but they did. My earliest Explorer recollection was Frank Corace. Can we ever forget Ken Durrett and the games against Villanova. Bobby Fields certainly will not. The late 60’s Explorer squad led by Larry Cannon had only one loss, that to South Carolina. Many felt that team would have beaten UCLA and John Wooden during their title winning streak. Too bad they did not get the chance.
The Earthquakers of the late 60’s and early 70’s. The guard combo of Steve Bilsky and Dave Wohl. They owned the Ivy League until Princeton upset them. The rematch, how I waited for the rematch. So did Penn. Timmy Smith and Corky Calhoun led the Red and Blue to a dominating win over the Tigers. There was Hankinson and Littlepage, and Bobby Morse and John Engles. That led to the 1979 Final Four team coached by Bob Weinhauer. Tony Price, James Salters, Bobby Willis. Penn would earn other Ivy titles behind Fran Dunphy, Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney. One more rebound and that team beats Alabama in the tournament. The Quakers earned another one after Eric Osmundson sank a huge three-pointer against Princeton. Ibby Jaaber and Mark Zoller earned a trip to the NCAA’s as well.
Phil Martelli, Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, Pat Carroll, the team that was one three-pointer away from winning a national title. UConn Coach Jim Calhoun feared those Hawks. He had good reason to be fearful. Guards? Jimmy Lynam and Steve Courtin, Rashid Bey, Langston Galloway to go along with big men Cliff Anderson, Matt Goukas, and Rodney Blake. I can still relive Bryan Warrick to Lonnie McFarland to John Smith who made “nothin’ but 4th and Shunk” to eliminate undefeated DePaul from the NCAA’s. I think the national media still doesn’t know what a “4th and Shunk” is in reality. I still see Jimmy Lynam running up and down the sidelines, and hear Don Criqui exclaiming “Look at this, look at this!” There is the Saint Joe’s drum and the Hawk, Dr. Jack Ramsay and the Hawk Will Never Die. How will DeAndre’ Bembry be compared to Mike Bantom?
How many schools can boast of having Harry Litwak and John Chaney as coaches, and can add Fran Dunphy to that list. The top-ranked Owls that featured Mark Macon, Howie Evans, Tim Perry, Ramon Rivas, and Mike Vreeswyk had national title hopes, but Duke ended that dream in the Meadowlands. There was a national title captured by the Cherry and White; the 1969 NIT led by John Baum. And that rivalry with John Calipari and UMass. Reminder: Temple was the team that Calipari modeled Massachusetts after. I think back to Pepe Sanchez, Juan Fernandez, Will Cummings, and all the Temple point guards that would never commit an turnover. How far could the Mark Karcher, Lynn Greer, Quincy Wadley team go if Oregon beat Seton Hall in the first round? “I” “I Believe” “I Believe That” “I Believe That They Would Win!” And how much fun would it have been to have John Chaney on a national stage?
“Let’s Go Wildcats” was the earliest cheer I can remember. Villanova featured great teams and great players on this floor, and some of the biggest upsets. I saw Nova take down national powers Providence, Georgetown, and Arkansas. I always thought about what it would be like if a Big Five team won the national championship? It looked like it might happen in 1971 when Villanova beat Penn to earn a shot to go to the Final Four and the championship game against UCLA. Could Howard Porter, Chris Ford, Tom Inglesby, and Hank Siemiontowski take down the Bruins? Close, UCLA held the ball, but won the game. Redemption came in 1985 when Rollie Massimino and the Cats led by Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McLain, Harold Pressley, and Harold Jensen beat Georgetown and Patrick Ewing playing the “Perfect Game.” There were other exciting Villanova squads. Once comes to mind was the NIT Champions coached by Steve Lappas and led by Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, and Alvin Williams. Jay Wright and his teams have been dominant in the Big Five recently. Jay understands what it takes to win the city series and the message gets through to the team. He knows and upset can happen at any time. He has seen it.
It is different today. Nobody doubts that. There is no longer a simple UP in the center circle. The scoreboard was simple with just the time in red lights and the score in green lights, the teams identified by a white placard with black letters. There were streamers and rollouts. Al Meltzer called the game with Charlie Gauer and later Harry Kalas. Now we have the Atlantic 10, The American, the Big East to go along with the Ivy League. Those conferences have a prominent role, but one that happened because of the Big Five. It is not the same, but history has an ebb and flow to it. Maybe the Big Five will rise to previous levels again. Let’s hope so.
A filled Palestra, two city teams, can’t ask for anything more. Ah the memories and magic.
Written By: Glenn Papazian