What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions

Tales of Depression and Sorrow: The “Big Five”

philadelphia big 5

If you aren’t familiar, Tales of Depression and Sorrow is our series in which we interview sports fans to let them tell their tales of certain instances or specific seasons which would make sports fans cringe in horror and pain, or expands on that to take a hard look at the long-suffering fans of franchises who have tortured their supporters for decades.

The idea is rather simple.  As ESPN continues it’s descent into a maelstrom of shameless self-promotion, political correctness, and all sorts of non-sports evils, the art of story-telling is dying in the sports media.  Tales of Depression and Sorrow is our attempt to rage against that dying of the sporting story light, and what better way to illicit such a rage that to play on the collective pain of sports fans?

The bottom line is this.  There simply isn’t enough good story-telling in sports media today, which is a shame because sports fans are some to the best story tellers out there. Why is that? Because the best stories have some pain in them, and what sports fans don’t have volumes worth of pain built up inside them?

Today’s pain sharer is Bruce Burns.  He has resided for most of his “fifty-plus” years in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and therefore has suffered through the fandom of all his local teams.  This is why we asked him to be part of this series, and it also why he writes a great blog of his own, sportsattitudes.  It is featured on our Blogroll, and it is certainly a site that should be our you list of favorite blogs.  He is a college hoops junkie, who for unknown reasons follows it all season long.  He attended the Final Fours held in 1974 and 1981.  But, he also can carry on a conversation about any sport…including having recently developed quite an unhealthy obsession with the English Premier League (he’s a Norwich City fan, which is only going to add to his pain level).

Being from the City of Brotherly Love, Bruce has plenty of Philly sports pain.  Today since we find ourselves well into the meaty part of the college basketball schedule, we thought we might as Bruce about a Philadelphia college basketball institution known as the “Big Five.” For lack of a better term, this is essentially an intra-city tournament amongst the five Division I basketball schools which call Philadelphia home.

With that, here’s the interview…

The floor at Philadelphia's Palestra.

The floor at Philadelphia’s Palestra.

J-Dub: How long have you been a fan of the “Big Five?”

BB: I have been a fan of the Big Five since 1968. As a ten year old I had started to gravitate towards playing basketball as my favorite activity. I was playing baseball, football and soccer too like most kids, figuring out what I liked and didn’t like along the way. I kept coming back to basketball first and started watching it as much as playing it so I could hopefully learn to get better at it.

The Big Five colleges are all about twenty miles apart from each other and back then they played once against each other each season at the Palestra. Going to a game there is something that should be on every fan’s bucket list by the way. The place was always packed, crowd allegiance split evenly. They played doubleheaders – it was like a Final Four each night. You got bragging rights in the city depending on what you did in the City Series. I attended a few of the Big Five match-ups when I was young and was immediately hooked.

The intensity was awesome. The building was hot. You were really on top of the action if you had a seat close to the court and could hear everything even with all the crowd noise. I remember sitting behind the Notre Dame bench as a kid when Digger Phelps brought his Irish into the Palestra to play.  As a former Penn assistant he always liked to bring his teams to Philly to toughen them up because he knew what a game there was like. It was not the nice, friendly Digger I knew then from TV. He dropped more F-bombs in one single timeout than I had heard my entire life up until then. I’ll never forget it. The Palestra and the intensity of the games, whether the Big Five teams were playing each other or an out-of-town squad, made me the hoop junkie I am today.

J-Dub:  Do you have a favorite “Big Five” team?

lasalle basketball 1968

My favorite Big Five team still is the first one I specifically rooted for, the 1968-69 LaSalle Explorers who went 23-1 and was ranked #2 in the nation. However they were on probation for recruiting violations and could not play in the NCAA’s. Fran Dunphy, the current Temple coach played on that squad. Their star players were Kenny Durrett and Larry Cannon. I used to pretend I was Cannon while playing hoops long after he graduated. Larry had gone to high school in Philly and was second only to Wilt Chamberlain in City scoring. He went on to play pro ball in the ABA and NBA. Kenny led LaSalle in scoring each year he was there. If he had not torn a knee up during his senior season he would have been a star in the NBA instead of having a brief stay there. He unfortunately later died of a heart attack at age 52 back in 2001.

J-Dub: So, then who “not so favorite” team?

BB: The Big Five team which wasn’t my personal favorite was the 2004-05 Temple Owls. That was the season their coach John Chaney put a player into the game against St. Joseph’s and ordered him to rough up the Hawks’ star John Bryant. He indicated before the game they would play the game aggressively. Bryant was going in for a layup and was blasted by a little-used Nehemiah Ingram. He broke Bryant’s arm. I have to tell you it was the ugliest night in the history of the Big Five as far as sportsmanship. Chaney apparently felt he would get a raw deal from the officials going in because St. Joe’s liked tight screens and this was how he decided to manage things when the game was getting away from him. John Chaney is a real Jekyll/Hyde character.

J-Dub: Yeah, my dad graduated from St. Joe’s, and he’s got no love for Temple either.

BB: Temple is the one Big Five team that has brought a lot of notoriety to the City over recent years, along with Villanova obviously.  But for all their success, you never felt they would get to a Final Four because Chaney never had guys who could put the ball in the basket on a consistent basis. Their games were often butt-ugly to watch because their success was so predicated on defense. It was nice to see a City team get national attention record-wise and they had their share of upsets.

But for all their success under Chaney you never, ever got the feeling they’d get over the hump and win it all. And their heyday was years ago. We’re all starting to wonder about Villanova who wins like crazy in the regular season and then goes belly-up come March. I love Jay Wright. Great dresser. Handsome guy. Did get to a Final Four. But Villanova is the new Temple. And they’re the only Big Five team knocking on the door of national consideration these days.

J-Dub: What is your Big Five highlight moment?

ed pinckney patrick ewing

BB: The highlight was of course the Villanova national championship in 1985 over Georgetown. They were an eight-seed and it was indeed an upset of huge proportions. It was the last game played without a shot clock and it certainly helped there wasn’t one that night. My wife and I worked nights at the time but I was able to get the evening off. We were on the phone with each other as she had a TV at work. We kept asking each other…can you believe this is actually happening? As far as it being one of the greatest upsets ever I would only note that three of the Final Four that season were from the Big East…St. John’s was there also along with Memphis State. It wasn’t like Villanova hadn’t been battle-tested.

J-Dub: How about your lowlight?

The lowlight was St. Joseph’s 2003-04 team losing 64-62 to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight and missing out on the Final Four. They had a spectacular season even though some people, including CBS analyst Billy Packer, were quite vocal they didn’t deserve a top seed.   The Hawks had run the table in the regular season but then got upset by Xavier in their first game of the A-10 Tourney and a lot of folks were flipping out they still got a #1 seed. St. Joe’s came real close to proving them all wrong. Jameer Nelson’s jumper fell off the rim right before the final buzzer. John Lucas’ kid hit a 3 with seven seconds left to win it for the Cowboys. Tough loss because Final Four invites don’t come along every day.

J-Dub: Well, they haven’t had one since. As a Philadelphian, tell me what the Big five means to you and/or other Philadelphians.

BB: Even if I eventually move far way from Philly I will always, always root for these five schools. I know there has been a movement among some to include Drexel in the mix and make it a Big Six. That would be OK with me only if it helped us all get back to playing games between these colleges at the Palestra and not at campus sites as has become the norm…except for Penn of course who plays their home games there.  I will always be a Big Five fan.

When Villanova became a player in the Big East they started to unravel the City Series and took a hit locally for “breaking up the Big 5.” Some took it as the Wildcats didn’t want to risk losses to lesser-rated teams knowing that even in down years City teams could rise up and take down a favorite at the Palestra in a heartbeat. I think the criticism was warranted at the time and what made it worse was Villanova didn’t seem to care about the bad PR it created. They were painted as sticking their nose up at the other four schools and the end result for the next several years didn’t do anything to deter that portrayal.

J-Dub: Isn’t there a big event coming in this series?

BB: The Big 5’s 60th anniversary is in 2016 and they have scheduled an old-school doubleheader at the Palestra on January 20th with LaSalle-Temple and St. Joe’s-Penn. Villanova apparently was all in but someone had to sit out and they have indicated they will participate in the future. If I had a magic wand I would make it possible for the City Series to come back to the Palestra for all games whenever the schools play each other. These City games belong at the Palestra. All of them. That building is as big a part of the Big Five as the colleges themselves.

J-Dub: I agree. Thanks for your time today, Bruce, and here’ hoping we get a special event on January 20th.

About J-Dub

What your view of sports would be if you had too many concussions

2 comments on “Tales of Depression and Sorrow: The “Big Five”

  1. jbsptfn
    January 11, 2016

    When I rooted for Penn State, I couldn’t believe that they lost to Temple in the Sweet 16 in 2001. That may have been their best team ever (which isn’t saying much). They beat a better UNC team the week before that was in the Final Four the year before, and they couldn’t beat Temple? That was BS. I was disappointed. I wanted to see a Penn State-Michigan State regional final. MSU probably would have won, but PSU beat them in the Big-10 tourney that year, so I think they had an outside shot.


  2. Pingback: Why You Shouldn’t Cheer For: The Philadelphia Eagles | Dubsism

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