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Original Issue


The Big Five basketball teams have their private war in the Palestra every season—and this year St. Joe's and Villanova rank nationally

A few minutes after the start of the Pennsylvania-Brown basketball game in Philadelphia last weekend, the citizens on one side of the court began chanting, "Let's go, Wildcats!" When the last echo of that alarum faded away, the other side arose en masse and shouted, "Let's go, Explorers!" A visitor who was under the impression that Penn called itself the Quakers and Brown called itself the Bruins turned in bewilderment to a veteran Philadelphian. "Oh," said the native, "that's just the Villanova fans and the La Salles, tuning up for the second game of the doubleheader."

In any other city it would be the height of boorishness to cheer for one team while two others were competing on the floor. But in Philadelphia this is normal. As the Penn-Brown game moved slowly along, most of the 9,212 fans packed into the Palestra engaged in spirited predictions about the second game, occasionally huffed out a locomotive yell for Villanova or La Salle, and in general gave Penn-Brown the back of its heads. "I just can't get interested," said a hornrimmed youth of about 20. "When does the real game start?"

Anyone who can understand a Penn-Brown game played against an obbligato of Villanova-La Salle cheering is either a Philadelphian or a psychologist. The essence of the situation is this: when Penn plays Brown, a Philadelphia team is battling a team from somewhere or other outside of town. But when La Salle plays Villanova, Philadelphia is playing Philadelphia, and when that happens William Penn's town becomes, pro tern, a sort of City of Brotherly Hate.

Philadelphia is involved in mankind, to be sure, but it is much more involved in Philadelphia than, say, New York is in New York or Chicago is in Chicago. In many ways Philadelphia is an island entire unto itself, looking inward, characterized by the contrails of the big jets passing high overhead, going from someplace else to someplace else. Denizens of this self-sufficient city even speak a different language. They say "no" with the tortured vowel of a Yorkshireman, "wooder" for water, "iggle" for eagle and "lig" for league. They live in a place called "Pennsavania" and consider the "Inquire" (Inquirer) one of their favorite "noosepapers." In Philadelphia a redheaded boy is nicknamed in the plural, "Reds," and the contraction for "all that" comes out "all's," as in "all's I said was...." Philadelphia is grandly insular and glad of it, and this concentration on things local produced "the Big Five," a basketball conference consisting of schools with little in common except Philadelphia. Three of them—La Salle, St. Joseph's and Temple—play in the Middle Atlantic Conference, Pennsylvania is in the Ivy League and Villanova is an independent. The schools range in size from St. Joseph's, with its 1,500 day students, to Temple, with its 9,250; in location from Villanova, swathed in Main Line greenery, to La Salle, with a campus in the middle of a neighborhood in transition. The five schools share only one attitude: a burning, seething, competitive hatred, clean but hard, in basketball.

"These kids played against each other in grammar school and the boys' clubs and the high school leagues and playground leagues," says Bill Whelan Jr. of St. Joseph's, "and they're dying to keep on playing against each other in college. It's like sibling rivalry. The Big Five games come first, and everything else follows in importance. If we go out of town and lose we come back home and try to forget about it, but if we lose to Villanova we're not allowed to forget about it. All our friends from Villa-nova are on us for the rest of the year, over the bridge table and everyplace else where we meet."

It is characteristic of Big Five basketball that the players come from the Philadelphia area, with only an occasional Wilt the Stilt or Wayne Hightower responding to the blandishments of out-of-state schools. Last year St. Joseph's whole first team came from within 10 miles of the college. All but four Big Five starters this year are from the Philadelphia area. There is simply no need to look away for players. When the Philadelphia Warriors were at their prime, they could start Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Wilt Chamberlain, Ernie Beck and Tom Gola, all products of Philadelphia high schools. "Now what the hell city has ever produced its own professional basketball team?" asks a proud Philadelphia sportswriter. The city even produced its own pro team in the 1930s: the Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). They played in the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel and their stars were Harry Litwack, now Temple's fine coach, Reds Rosan and Inky Lautman and Shikey Gotthofer and Cy Kasselman. Their standard game plan was to stay within one point of the opponents until just before the final buzzer, when Kasselman would unloose an 80-foot two-hand shot that would split the cords, and everybody would cheer and begin dancing to the music of Gil Fitch, his saxophone and his orchestra.

With this tradition, it is no wonder that the children of Philadelphia begin playing organized basketball when they are still in grade school. In a town where little old ladies discuss the differences between the box-and-one defense and the triangle-and-two, one is not surprised to hear an 8-year-old explaining to his buddy on the Broad Street subway: "We were playing a one-three-one and Smitty was the chaser and they came out with Jonesy playing low post and Whitey on the high post, so we switched to a man-to-man...." By the time that boy has finished high school he will understand basketball the way the Milanese understand boccie and the Liverpudlians soccer. Then he will be qualified to attend games at the Palestra, "the snakepit," a basketball emporium abhorred by out-of-towners and described by Illinois Coach Harry Combes as "one of the toughest places in the country."

All but a few Big Five games are played at the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania's barnlike field house down by the railroad tracks. When the scandals were blackening the game and college presidents were ordering their teams out of big, bad arenas like Philadelphia's Convention Hall and New York's Madison Square Garden, the University of Pennsylvania suggested to Temple, St. Joseph's, La Salle and Villanova that they play all their home games at the Palestra, on Penn's aged midcity campus, and split the profits evenly, an equitable arrangement that has worked to the advantage of all for 10 years.

The Palestra seats 9,200 fans, and on any night when one Big Five team is playing another you could be excused for supposing that every one of the 9,200 is a lunatic. Objets d'art come hurtling out on the floor: 4,600 fans on one side engage in insult contests with the 4,600 on the other side, and frequent loud remarks are addressed to the question of the legality of the marriage of the referee's mother and father. The raucous effect is intensified by the design of the red-brick, raftered building, built in 1926 and named after the ancient Greek open-air gymnasium. In the Palestra the seats come almost to the edge of the floor; there is hardly any buffer zone, and one can reach out and touch player and official alike. For years visiting coaches have claimed that this closeness intimidates referees, and well it might. In an average year the teams of the Big Five win 80% of their home games, and for all four years of its existence the tough Quaker City Tournament has been won by a Philadelphia team. This year the winner was St. Joseph's, which defeated No. 2-ranked Wichita in a game marked by 23 foul calls against Wichita, 10 against St. Joe's and an explosion by Wichita Coach Chuck Thompson. "It wasn't basketball," Thompson said. "It was a farce. We didn't get beat in a basketball game. Some of the things that went on were ridiculous. The officials weren't consistent." Then there was the matter of the crowd. "We shouldn't be held up to ridicule," Thompson said. "I can't even tell you some of the things that were said. Direct abuse. If we had come out there and hammed it up and acted like we were the best team in the country, I could sec it. But this wasn't fan enthusiasm, this was mockery." Thompson said he would not come back to the Palestra, "not until they straighten things out."

Thompson should have stayed around the Palestra to see what happens when one Philadelphia team plays another. In the dear, dead days beyond recall one was supposed to observe a period of silence after a foul was called, but in Big Five games at the Palestra any and all foul calls are occasions for abandoned cheering. When the player steps to the line to shoot the foul, just as he flexes his wrists, a cymbalist, a kid with an air horn and six more with cowbells let him have it right in the ears. This is standard Palestra spectatormanship.

All Big Five games are audience-participation affairs, and almost all are sellouts. The fans arrive bearing huge rolls of paper with which to taunt the opposing cheering section. Just before the game begins the banners are slowly unwound and passed down the row, the letters coming into sight one by one, as the members of the clergy in the audience sit nervously and hope that the canons of decency will not be trampled as they have been in the past. The banner game got so far out of bounds that Big Five officials have ordered them screened by faculty members. One memorable St. Joseph's banner observed that LA SALLE IS AN ARMPIT. When another St. Joseph's roll-out proclaimed, LA SALLE IS YELLOW AND BLUE BUT MOSTLY YELLOW, the La Salle fans quickly unfurled: IS THAI WHAT THE JESUITS TEACH YOU? The clerics of the three Catholic schools in the Big Five frequently find themselves perplexed over the banners, and call upon their lay friends for translations. Last year Villanova students harassed St. Joseph's star Steve Courtin with a rollout saying, STICK IT IN YOUR EAR, COURTIN! The next day Jeremiah Ford II, Penn's athletic director and one of the founders of the Big Five, received a phone call from the Rev. Joseph M. Geib, S.J., faculty moderator of athletics at St. Joseph's. As Ford tells it, Father Geib said, "Jerry, are there some things that I should know about life? I didn't see anything wrong with that sign." Ford assured Father Geib that the interpretation was all in the eye of the beholder.

The St. Joseph's students, the smallest student body of the Big Five colleges, are, by common agreement of the others, the most enthusiastic, and the rhythm of their cheering is set by a bass drummer who surely must have one of the strongest right arms in the bass-drumming business. When CBS engineers arrived on campus last week to discuss a regional telecast of St. Joe's Saturday game against Boston College, they asked the bass drummer if he would cease and desist just this once, because it was difficult for them to get a proper sound level with the drum causing the meter to fluctuate across the red line. The drummer had a solution; he explained that he would simply beat the drum constantly, and the engineers would have no problem of fluctuation. (CBS lost that argument and another one. The network asked for a specified number of time-outs, to enable them to peddle products, but St. Joseph's Coach Jack Ramsay, an independent thinker, author and doctor of education, said he would call timeouts at St. Joseph's pleasure, not CBS's, and did so.)

For years the St. Joseph's mascot has been a Hawk—a campus leader, masked and feathered, who is required to flap his arms without cessation every time the team plays. In time-outs the Hawk does fancy figure eights and chandelles while the student body screams, "The Hawk will never die," and enemy students boo. Other Big Five schools have countered with their own mascots: Penn has a Quaker, dressed in Franklinesque style, tiny glasses, a wig and tennis shoes; Temple has an Owl; La Salle has an Explorer dressed in astronaut garb; and Villanova has an ersatz Wildcat. But the Hawk still commands the most attention, and is usually the eye of a rooting hurricane.

Every year the faculties and student leaders of the Big Five schools implore the fans to desist from their wild antics, and every year the students ignore them. Of all the five student bodies, only Pennsylvania's behaves itself, and that is largely because Penn students are not as basketball crazy as the other, smaller schools. When the Penns produce a roll-out it usually says something wildly imaginative, like PENN—IVY CHAMPS IN '65. More often Penn will arrive with no banners at all (which once led St. Joe's to roll out: TOO SOPHISTICATED?). Thus unsupported, Penn still manages to rise to Big Five heights and give its rivals fits, and this season almost dumped a strong Villanova team in a game that could serve as the archetype of all Palestra battles. The astute Pennsylvania coach, Jack McCloskey, ordered his men to play stall ball, and as a result the game was tied at the half 19-19, while the crowd hooted and screamed. Pennsylvania opened up a bit in the second half, and soon was leading by seven. The tension over McCloskey's tactics was agonizing. Villanova Publicist Ken Mugler was ordered out of his benchside seat by Referee Lou Eisenstein for baiting the officials. The Penn water boy was so jumpy he sloshed water on Coach McCloskey and doused Penn star Stan Pawlak, who said, "I'm going to kill you!"

Toward the end Villanova began pressing for the ball, and finally tied the game up; Penn missed scoring a remarkable upset when a rimmer fell out at the buzzer, and Villanova went on to win the game in overtime. The two coaches met for the traditional handshake, and Villanova's Jack Kraft said to McCloskey: "You're not gonna make yourself very popular playing that kind of game." Said McCloskey: "If you want the ball why don't you go after it?" and the two of them stomped off, shaking arms and fingers at each other.

This was the first open clash of Big Five coaches in anyone's memory. The wonder is that they are not constantly fighting in the tense caldrons of Big Five games. But, for the most part, they are good friends off the court, as they are expert tacticians on it, and a more typical scene was the one last Friday after the Villanova-La Salle game, when Coach Bob Walters of La Salle rushed over to embrace Villanova's Jack Kraft. Preparing for the game, Walters had hardly slept in three days. On Wednesday night his La Salle team had lost to Louisville in Louisville after a shoddy first-half performance ("They were already thinking too much about the Friday night game with Villanova," Walters theorized later). After that game Walters took a pair of wake-up pills, rented a car and drove all night from Louisville to Philadelphia, 700 miles, to get ready for Villanova. His deep-set eyes looking like little red coals, Walters whipped and barked his team into a state of nervous preparedness. "You're not thinking!" he shouted at a big pivot man. "Why that extra dribble? Just shoot! A pivot man loses 50% efficiency when he what?"

"Dribbles," the player muttered.

"Dribbles! That's right. That's what you were doing last night and you've got to cut it out!"

For two and a half hours Walters stood in the center of the little gymnasium at La Salle and rasped orders in his sandpapery voice, now and then swaying slightly with fatigue, hands on his hips, blowing short clouds like angry smoke signals from an ivory-tipped cigar. He apologized for keeping some friends waiting. "Ordinarily we wouldn't go through a long drill the night before a game." he explained, "but this is the Villanova game."

The next night Villanova produced female cheerleaders, recruited from its Nursing Division, for the first time in its history. La Salle responded with two roll-outs: LA SALLE COLLEGE FOR MEN and WHO WEARS THE PANTS AT VILLANOVA? At half time La Salle sent out five students in female attire to lampoon Villanova's cheerleaders, but the Wildcat cheering section subdued them with a steady chant: "LaSalle is sick!" followed by a foghorn voice shouting, "Get those fairies off the floor!" The consensus was that La Salle won the battle of tastelessness, but Villanova won the ball game 86-72, and Bob Walters' sleepless nights went for naught.

The next afternoon the most successful coach in the Big Five—his team is now contending for No. 1 national ranking—stood in a characteristic pose on the edge of a crowd, his head hanging down, his eyes counting the cracks in the floor, while speaker after speaker walked to a microphone in the center of the basketball court and described him as the best coach in the country. Jack Ramsay, 40, owner of a 195-and-65 record in his 10 years at St. Joseph's, was going through the agony of a Jack Ramsay Day. Finally he was released from the shackles of tribute and allowed to return to the dressing room, where he was busy getting his team "up" for its game with Boston College. In the press box a St. Joe's administrator talked about him: "Ramsay can get 10 basketball players higher than any coach in the country. It's not a Knute Rockne approach, it's kind of intellectual, a matter of personal example. He's so intense that it's almost impossible to speak to him 10, 15 minutes after a game. He's emotionally spent. He gets 'em so far up that after we beat St. John's a couple of our subs were in the dressing room crying, and they hadn't even been in the game!"

Joe Lapchick, the St. John's coach, has said that a basketball coach has to work harder against Ramsay than any other opponent. Ramsay's specialty is the zone press, a grueling technique described by one opposition player as "like running into a windmill." He orders the zone press when his team is behind or when the mood overtakes him. The mood overtook him seldom on Saturday, for Ramsay's Hawks ran Bob Cousy's Boston College Eagles right into the boards. Shooting from inside and out, fast-breaking, intercepting passes, stealing the ball and harassing the Eagles in front court and back, Ramsay's 10 sophomores and juniors took a 34-17 lead after 10 minutes, and the ball game was over: St. Joe's eventually won 93-71. The fans began another chant: "Coach of the Year, Coach of the Year...." With only one loss (to Providence) in 13 games, Ramsay certainly must be in the running. But the rest of Philadelphia was jumping to no conclusions. St. Joe's still has to play its first City Series game of the season. In the City of Brotherly Hate, everything else is prologue.



St. Joseph's students display their heartfelt, if misspelled, affection for Coach Jack Ramsay at game with Boston College. When Big Five teams play each other, roll-out banners cover the stands, usually ridiculing the opposing school.



Villanova star Jim Washington tries a twisting jump shot as his team drives to victory over La Salle before a typical S.R.O. Palestra crowd.



Energetic La Salle male students mock the first appearance of female cheerleaders for rival Villanova by cavorting at midcourt, amusing the highly partisan fans as well as the genuine article from Villanova. These are brief moments of cheerful respite that even a civil war provides.