Penn played a significant role in the founding of the Big 5 Basketball series, created in 1955 to showcase men’s college basketball talent in the Philadelphia region.
Teams from Penn, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, and Villanova competed in the round-robin series, taking turns to play one another a set number of times during each basketball season.
The Big 5 originally played all of their games at The Palestra, known as “the cathedral of basketball.” In later years, they also played down the street at Convention Hall, and other members of the Big 5 began hosting games at their home arenas. In 1955, Penn Trustees approved a plan to expand The Palestra to accommodate 10,000 spectators for the Big 5 doubleheaders.
For 36 years, from 1955 until 1991, the Big 5 college rivalry was the biggest series of its kind in college basketball. In this photo from the Feb. 8, 1956 game between Penn and Villanova, the Quakers’ Tom Smith sees a hole in the Wildcats’ defense, and drives through for a basket.
In the book, “Palestra Pandemonium: A History of the Big Five,” Robert Lyons wrote: “Traditional rivalries like Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale had nothing on the Big 5’s fierce battles fought before screaming fans, amidst the colorful streamers, fanatic mascots, often raunchy rollouts, banging drums, and blaring bands. These games were often decided by a last-second buzzer-beater fired by some obscure walk-on, whose shot sent the Palestra into tumultuous bedlam and gave the winning team’s alumni and students bragging rights for another year.”
More than 100 basketball stars from Big 5 schools played professionally, including La Salle’s Lionel Simmons, Saint Joseph’s Matt Guokas, and Temple’s Mark Macon.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the significance of the Big 5 diminished with changes in the structure of college basketball and the expansion of the Big East and Atlantic 10 conferences. The round-robin city series ended in 1991, but was revived in 1999.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on October 11, 2012