The Big 5 is a Penn creation. It was conceived by Penn athletic director Jerry Ford and announced by University President Gaylord Harnwell at Houston Hall in 1954. The Quaker sports staff then helped formulate the round robin format between Temple, St. Joes, Villanova, LaSalle and Penn. Since that time Penn basketball really has had two seasons, the Ivy and the Big 5. Of course the Ivy title provides the coveted entry to The Dance, but the Big 5 is often just as important. It is Philly bragging rights in a town that loves college basketball. Most years, it was not at all unusual for four out of the five schools to make the NCAA Tournament; Such was the high level of play. Naturally the best intra-city hoops rivalry in the nation deserves a special place to perform and the Palestra is the perfect venue. No other arena in the country, despite their larger size and glitzy sterility, can possibly provide the intimacy for such historical competition.
Which is why, in my opinion, no other city can possibly duplicate what Philadelphia already has. “The Palestra is to college basketball what Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are to baseball,” wrote John Feinstein in his book, A Season Inside. “It is a place where you feel the game from the moment you step inside.” If you have ever witnessed a Big 5 game (especially at its height) you understand what this means. The screaming fans, the beautiful, flowing streamers, the deafening noise, the stifling heat and the ribald rollouts provide a sporting atmosphere that matches the most intense collegiate rivalries anywhere. What’s more, it happens four times a year for each institution. Of course, for the players the contests were even more passionate. “The Big 5 intensity level was equal to professional playoff game,” added Cliff Anderson, the great Hawks center who went on to play for four years in the NBA and ABA. “Right down to the last guy on the bench, your heart was in your throat, you were sweating, you couldn’t sleep the night before.
And now an AQ Big 5 moment…
To experience the Big 5 at its very best, you had to have been part of the 1980-81 season. This is because that year the City Series ended in an historic five-way tie. Three of Penn’s games were decided by a total of nine points, with two of those games being won or lost by a single basket. The Quakers’ loss to Villanova by 13 was actually a much closer game than the score indicates. Still, it was a series for the ages.