A new spin on a Big 5 doubleheader

Posted: March 22, 2013

KANSAS CITY - As someone who began this as a student, a long time ago, I surmounted all of the usual obstacles in order to attend a Big 5 doubleheader: rain, snow, gloom of night, all of those things in the post office motto plus two other familiar standbys, financial hardship and hangovers. Not until Thursday, though, did I get on a plane and fly 1,000 miles for the privilege. I can now officially declare it a life in full.

On Friday, at the Sprint Center, it will be La Salle-Kansas State at approximately 3:10 pm Eastern time, followed by Villanova-North Carolina at 7:20. The winners will advance, the losers will go home, every player will be called a "student-athlete" and all of the time-honored NCAA Tournament traditions will be observed.

Besides that, though, another chapter will be written about a city and its unique, comfortable-old-shoe relationship with its college basketball teams. There is this continuum of memories, of episodes, stitched together by time. You walk into an arena you've never been in, a time zone from home, and one of the first people you see is Whitey Rigsby. And you start talking about 1978.

"That really was something," he says, and you begin trading the details back and forth, ancient details now, of a 6-day stretch unlike almost any other in Philadelphia basketball.

At the beginning was the all-time, all-Philadelphia NCAA memory: a first-round Palestra doubleheader that featured Villanova and La Salle in the first game and Penn and St. Bonaventure in the second.

"Our game was 103-97 - in regulation," said Rigsby, the former Villanova player and longtime radio color commentator. "Not a lot of defense, to say the least.''

"And the Penn game - not too much of an advantage for the home team," I said.

"But the Bonnies were good," he said.

"But they had a kid who was arrested for shoplifting a pair of pants," I said.

"But he still played."

"But they were waving pairs of pants at him in the stands."

We started laughing. Five days later, Penn and Villanova traveled to Providence for the East Regional, a St. Patrick's Day doubleheader. Villanova squeaked past Indiana in the first game. Penn had a lead over Duke deep into the second game, until center Mike Gminski started swatting Penn layups out of the sky.

But the universal memory is of the Villanova people sticking around in the Providence Civic Center and cheering for Penn in the second game. It is the part of the lore of the Big 5, of fraternity and brotherhood and the coaches meeting up at Cavanaugh's on Market Street for beers after the doubleheaders. It is all true, too - with one wrinkle.

"I have to admit," Rigsby said, "that part of the reason we were cheering for Penn is that we didn't want to play Duke."

And then we laughed again.

Sometimes the relationships among the schools are complicated, but not now and not here. The truth is that everybody in the Big 5 is rooting for La Salle - long-suffering, 2 decades-plus in the making, here as the second-to-last at-large team in the field, still alive after beating Boise State in a play-in game Wednesday in Dayton.

"It's really cool to have them here," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I texted John [Wednesday] night.

"As you know, in Philadelphia, we take great pride in Philadelphia basketball. When we're playing each other, we want to beat each other bad. But anything else, we work together on Coaches vs. Cancer, we're friends throughout the year, and we like to see each other do well.

"We really believe if the Big 5 schools are doing well, kids in Philadelphia are going to stay home to play there, games are going to be important, Philadelphia basketball is going to be important.

"They played great," he said. "They really looked good. They look like a team that can win some games in this tournament."

Their players are largely local and seemingly fearless. Their coach, John Giannini, is well-liked and beyond hard-working. They are an underdog, and they are making their first run in this thing, a sentimental favorite in a way that Villanova could not be at this point.

But even with all of that - sleep-deprived, immersed in his own stuff - Giannini could acknowledge that having Villanova playing in the same arena, and having Temple playing in the arena they just departed in Dayton, just adds to an experience he is unlikely to forget.

"I'm a Chicago native but there is no person who appreciates the Big 5 more than I do," he said. "I think we should play them all in the Palestra. I think we should emphasize it because no other city has what we have. We have five Final Four teams in history in our own city - no other city has more than two. It's a totally unique thing.

"The coaches like each other, the players like each other, we respect each other, we're proud of Philadelphia basketball. Again, no other city has what we have in college basketball."

It's funny that one thing they don't have in Philadelphia anymore is Big 5 doubleheaders - except in March, in the NCAA Tournament, in Kansas City.

Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

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