IT'S FUNNY the way the years change the conversation and the perceptions. Last night, after Villanova conjured up a physical, pounding victory over the third-ranked team in the nation, Wildcats coach Jay Wright could sit in the little Spectrum press room and talk about the old arena, and the noise, and the steep pitch of the seats, and say, "It's a big stadium, but it's a gym."

People nodded in understanding. But if he had said that 30 years ago, the same people would have laughed.

Now that the Spectrum is about to close - Villanova 67, Pittsburgh 57 is the last college final score this place will ever record - there is this attempt to muster some nostalgia for the building's place in college basketball, and that's all fine. There were some great NCAA Tournament moments, a few enduring memories.

When it started, though, there was none of that. The first time Villanova really came here to play games, it was almost with a sense of foreboding. It was the beginning of a different kind of end.

It is hard to imagine, looking back. The atmosphere was frenetic last night. The building was sweltering and there were 17,491 inside. It was a great night, a great game, and after it was over, Wright could say, "For everyone who has come here to watch games, that was a thrill for all of us."

The beginnings, though, were met with far greater skepticism. They had played the Quaker City Tournament here in 1969, and there was another stray Villanova game against South Carolina in the 1975-76 season. But it was the next year, when they played the Villanova-Saint Joseph's game here, that it started.

First, it just didn't feel right. To that point, every City Series game had been played in the Palestra - you know, the place where City Series games belong. You know, a real gym. But they came here for the extra bucks and it was, frankly, terrible by comparison. It just seemed a crime against basketball nature.

You have to remember what Philadelphia college basketball was like back then. It was a wonderfully parochial operation. Thirty years ago, you had teams that made their occasional national foray, but the real joys and sorrows were perpetrated in the second games of sweaty Saturday night doubleheaders.

It was time-capsule stuff, real and kind of small-time and entirely perfect. It was all about local rivalries. Back then, RPI stood for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, not Ratings Percentage Index. The NCAA Tournament was a nice reward, not the be-all and end-all. Hard as it is to believe today, what happened at the Palestra back then mattered most of all.

But then came the Big East. Before that, the Big 5 teams had been affiliated with leagues like the Eastern Eight and the East Coast Conference. It was all so quaint. The Big 5 standings were all that anybody really followed, anyway. But then Villanova got into the Big East, and then the Big East managed to sell itself to this fledgling cable television enterprise known as ESPN, and it started.

Yes, it was progress. And there was no way you could tell Villanova not to strive for something bigger - that's what athletics is all about, isn't it, striving?

Which is what it meant when Villanova started, with a St. John's game in the 1982-83 season, to bring their biggest Big East games to the Spectrum.

Which was the signal that they were outgrowing the Palestra, outgrowing the wonderful comfort of what was (even acknowledging that comfort and backless wooden benches don't generally belong in the same thought).

That is what college basketball games here always meant. And because the Wildcats were successful, both on the court and at the box office, Georgetown was always here, and St. John's, and Syracuse. They were these great, enormous struggles - physical, passionate, nationally televised as often as not.

And, gradually, the second game of those sweaty Saturday night doubleheaders began to mean less and less.

That is what walking into the Spectrum for a college basketball game meant.

It meant change.

Now, fast-forward to today. Big 5 games are played on campus sites and people are thrilled that the series still exists. All of the convulsions of the late 1980s and early '90s, when they played that bastardized half-round-robin for a while, are forgotten.

Truth is, the Big 5 as an entity is as tight as it's been in a long time. The five schools all have seen their athletic missions evolve over the years, and they all seem to be reasonably comfortable in their own skins.

And so, when teams come down here - now, to the Wachovia Center - to play their biggest games, it seems entirely natural. The sport has grown. The financial imperatives have increased. It is where a game like Villanova-Pitt belongs.

"It brought back great memories," Wright said. Minutes earlier, the coach had been incredulous when Villanova junior Reggie Redding (18 points), a Philadelphia native, said he only knew about the Spectrum what his father had told him.

"Can you believe how old we are that he's never been in the Spectrum?" Wright asked. Or that he has no idea what coming here really meant to Philadelphia basketball, back when. *

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