Pro teams' falls have fueled 'Nova interest

Originally Published: January 13, 2006
By Dana O'Neil | Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The rollouts aren't as clever as they used to be. Rules prohibit the shower of streamers onto the court after the first made basket. Some of the games are now played on the Main Line or in North Philly instead of in the wonderfully musty Palestra.

Yet the Big 5, that thoroughly blue-collar, totally old-school, completely Philadelphia creation, is very much alive. It still resonates in a city that will proudly put its hoops history up against the nouveau riche on Tobacco Road.

This Big 5, though, isn't Guy Rodgers' Big 5. Or even Doug Overton's and Randy Woods' Big 5. It's different. Not better, not worse, just different -- and its place in the city has changed, too. In Philly, the Big 5 of today is sort of like a favorite aunt, beloved for her quirkiness but forgotten when she's not right in front of you.

"Times are different," Penn coach Fran Dunphy, who has been a part of Big 5 basketball since his playing days at La Salle in the late 1960s, said. "The quality of basketball is as good as ever. We're in a great era for college basketball. Back in the heyday, if you want to point to, say, the late '60s or early '70s, that was a phenomenal time, but things were different. Pro sports were different."

In this city's recent history, there is only one thing more unusual than the Big 5 in city sports -- the all-encompassing obsession with the E-A-G-L-E-S. Since 2000, when the Eagles made the first of their recent runs in the NFL playoffs, all other Philadelphia sports have been in a holding pattern until well into January. Other teams may begin to compete -- the Sixers, the Flyers and, yes, the Big 5 teams -- but they are nothing more than a score ticking across the collective consciousness of the Philadelphia sports fan.

Lights on city buildings are shaded Eagles' green during the playoffs. Newscasters and weather people throw unbiased reporting to the wind, sporting green clothes and practically singing, "Fly, Eagles, Fly" alongside the fans.

Randy Foye
Foye doesn't need much space to get off his lethal jumper.

Everything else -- crime, corruption and, yes, college hoops -- takes a back seat until the Eagles are finished.

"It almost became cultlike to be an Eagles' fan," said Jack Scheuer, the longtime Associated Press sports reporter in town and a Big 5 Hall of Fame member.

Two years ago, Saint Joseph's rolled up a season that was straight out of the Disney dream-making machine. A tiny school with an even tinier superstar rolled to an undefeated regular season, took hold of No. 1 for a short time, and was one errant pass away from the Final Four.

People in Philly woke up bleary-eyed on a Monday morning in January 2004, the day after the Eagles lost to Carolina in the NFC Championship Game, to find what the rest of the basketball-watching country already knew -- the city houses a very good Hawks team with (at that point) a 15-0 record, led by a superstar named Jameer Nelson.

"The day after the Eagles held their press conference, from that Tuesday on, we were it," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said.

This year is different. This year the Eagles were rendered irrelevant long before the ball dropped on the New Year. Since Nov. 14, when Donovan McNabb reinjured his sports hernia as he tried to stop Dallas' Roy Williams from returning an interception into the end zone, the city has been searching for something else to get behind.

The Sixers aren't the answer and the Flyers are months away from games of real consequence, so hello Big 5 -- and welcome to your close-up, Villanova.

The Wildcats, the last team to parade down Broad Street with any sort of championship hardware, are 10-1, No. 3 in the country, and on many a short list to make the Final Four.

The city ain't missing this one.

Villanova's press row, once limited to a handful of beat writers, is now littered with media. Local television stations, which in the past got by with a cameraman and a microphone, are sending reporters out to practice. Coach Jay Wright is a frequent guest on WIP, the infamous sports-talk radio station that usually spends 23 of its 24 hours hashing and rehashing the Eagles, Flyers, Sixers or Phillies.

No one at Villanova will complain about the attention, but there is something to be said for temporary anonymity.

"For Villanova to get invited to the [WIP host] Angelo Cataldi TV show, an Eagles' show, is amazing," Wright said. "For us to be regulars on WIP, it's crazy. They usually never talk about us."

Villanova sold more three-game packages (1,800 in all) for its Wachovia Center games on its first day -- Nov. 14 -- then it did all of last season.

It would be inaccurate to link that directly to the Eagles, as Syracuse, UConn and Louisville are coming to town. Still, a season ago, Villanova's first two games at the Wachovia Center, against some rather big college basketball names -- Kansas and Notre Dame -- were played in the heat of the NFL playoffs and failed to draw 15,000 in the nearly 20,000-seat arena.

Fast-forward to this year: The Syracuse game on Jan. 21 already is sold out, and fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for Louisville and UConn.

"Philadelphia has an underground college basketball fever," Martelli said. "What I think is unique here is the parochial nature of our fans. Villanova fans love Villanova. Saint Joe's fans love Saint Joe's. But when we get a story like the Villanova story this year or a player like [La Salle's] Lionel Simmons or our story two years ago, we all gravitate toward it. We're proud then. But you need to be extraordinary."

That it is Villanova stepping into the void is a funny little twist on the new lovefest. In the Big 5, the Wildcats have never been embraced quite the same way as their more lovable peers. They are Big East beasts, a team whose roster only recently added a little Philly flavor.

They're also, in a lot of people's eyes, still the black sheep of the Big 5 family. Ask 50 hoops fans in the city why the Big 5 round-robin went on hiatus in the early 1990s, and at least 48 will say, "Villanova." Former coach Rollie Massimino was tarred, feathered and vilified for pulling 'Nova out of the Big 5 and thereby extinguishing a part of Philadelphia history. The Wildcats were labeled as too big for their britches, snobbish Main Liners who didn't appreciate what really mattered to true Philadelphians.

Whether that's the entire story doesn't matter. In Philly, you don't put Cheese Whiz on your cheesesteaks, and you don't mess with the Big 5.

"I hate to say it, because he's a friend of mine, but it helps that Rollie's not there," Martelli said. "Rightly or wrongly, that's the guy that everyone pointed to. It wasn't fair, but that was the reality."

Wright has worked his tail off to erase all of that. A local kid from suburban Bucks County, he's talked up the Big 5 games since he came to Villanova, saying all the right things and doing all the right things. He jumped headfirst into the Philly Six (which includes Drexel) Coaches vs. Cancer effort, never missing a luncheon, breakfast, fundraiser or grip-and-grin.

When his current senior class played its first Big 5 game -- against Penn at the Palestra -- the freshmen from the Bronx, Long Island, Newark and Brooklyn were so well-schooled in the importance of the Big 5, you would have sworn they grew up in Germantown, Mayfair, Olney and the Northeast.

Still, there's some reticence.

"You can't blame Philly," Wright said. "We're out here on the Main Line with kids from all over the place. We're different. We get kids who were All-Americans in high school, so we're supposed to win.

"But we still take pride in representing Philly. We talk about it amongst ourselves all the time. It's a unique relationship, it really is. But c'mon man, what do you expect? It's Philly."

Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News and a contributor to ESPN.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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