This article was published on Jan. 29, 1988
"To those of us who were in Philadelphia at the time," Channel 10's Al Meltzer said, "he was the Big 5 on radio. He was the Big 5 on television. He was the Big 5. He was unique. He was dynamic. He was exciting. He was brilliant. He was fun to listen to. He had phrases that I never heard before or since.
"I haven't the slightest idea what a ring-tailed howitzer is, (but) it became part of the language of this city for a long, long time. "
On a day filled with wonderful memories, a day when many of those who made the Big 5 what it was returned to swap handshakes and stories, it was important that Les Keiter be on hand.
OK, so maybe Meltzer was stretching it a bit when he said Keiter was the Big 5. Jerry Ford was the Big 5. And Jim Henry. And Bud Dudley. And Ernie Casale. And Bob Paul. And the late John Rossiter. And all the other local college administrators who played vital roles in its formation more than three decades ago.
But if Keiter wasn't the Big 5, he surely was an important part of it.
A PERMANENT NICHE
We in the print media like to think we have a lasting impact on the sports we cover and the audience we reach. But we're kidding ourselves if we think we have the impact of a Les Keiter, a Gene Kelly, a Bill Campbell, any of those play-by-play broadcasters with the ability, the personality, the flair to gain a permanent niche in our memories.
Sure, those "ring-tailed howitzers" that kept flying through the air, and through the hoop, during Keiter's seven years here were cornball in origin. But can you think of a better name for what Keiter described before yesterday's Big 5 Hall of Fame luncheon as "an off-balance shot off a guy's ear as he was falling way over, and it went up high and happened to go in"? Of course not.
And who couldn't figure out what "in-again-out-again-Finnegan" meant? Or understand what was happening when Keiter told us somebody was "tickling the twine"?
Corny? Sure. But we didn't laugh at Les Keiter, we chuckled with him. We knew he was having fun doing those games because, by golly, we were having fun listening. But only now can we appreciate how much fun it must have been for him - so much that he was willing to spend 10 1/2 hours flying here from Honolulu, willing to arrive, bleary-eyed, at 5:45 a.m. to deliver a speech.
'LIKE A DREAM'
It takes a lot of happy memories to prompt a man to fly from Honolulu to Philadelphia in midwinter. And yesterday Keiter shared those memories as Steve Bilsky of Penn, Hank Siemiontkowski of Villanova, Bryan Warrick of St. Joseph's and longtime media personality Bob Vetrone were inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame.
"To me, it's like a dream come true to be back here, even for a day or two, and be a part of this," said Keiter, who left in 1970 and who is sports director of a Honolulu TV station. "Hawaii is a great place to live. New York (where Keiter was, at various times, the voice of the Knicks, Rangers and football Giants) was exciting and glamorous. San Francisco was beautiful. But none of them came close to what this was. "
Talk about drama, excitement, raw emotion. Keiter found it all in Philadelphia.
"First time I came here, I was with the Knicks," he recalled. "Woody Sauldsberry (of the old Philadelphia Warriors) and Guy Sparrow got into a big fistfight at Convention Hall. It turned into a free-for-all. I got under the table with a microphone and broadcast the fight. It was the greatest fight I've ever seen. "
This, remember, is a man who has described fights involving, among others, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston.
THE BOMB SCARE
But for really high drama there was the night of the Palestra bomb scare when a sellout crowd had to be evacuated during a Villanova-St. Joseph's game.
"Toby DeLuca (Keiter's Channel 6 statistician) and I were sitting high atop the Palestra," he recalled. "All of a sudden I look down and the bomb squad's coming in. I see police everywhere. "
The public-address announcer was saying, over and over, in the calmest of voices, "Will everybody please leave the Palestra? "
Everybody did. Well, practically everybody. Keiter was sitting there, describing the scene when a "very authoritative" voice told him, "Get out of here. Get off the air and get out. "
"I said, 'It looks like we'll be signing off for the time being,' "
Keiter said. "The phone rang. Toby picked it up. It was the manager of our station saying, 'Tell Les he's not going anywhere. Stay on the air because everybody in Philadelphia is watching. ' So Toby and I and our camera people very courageously - under orders - kept on the air. I said something like, 'You may see us going through the ceiling any second. ' "
Happily, there was no bomb. And nobody - not Keiter, not DeLuca, not the Channel 6 camera crew -hit the roof. But it was thrilling, just the same.
So was the night Keiter was at the old Villanova Field House describing a game that pitted a Jack Kraft-coached Villanova team against Butch van Breda Kolff's Princeton Tigers, led by Bill Bradley. Thirty seconds to go, there was a timeout and the score was tied.
"Van Breda Kolff was a little upset at the officials," Keiter said. "He stormed over to the scorer's table and kept walking in front of Jack Kraft's bench. An announcer is only supposed to announce during a game, but this announcer got carried away. I leaned over the railing and I said, 'He can't do that. That's a technical foul. ' The referee looked up and said, 'You're right. ' "
Van Breda Kolff got the "T," Villanova got the foul shot and the victory. The losing coach was not pleased. Later, during the NCAA regionals in Blacksburg, Va., Keiter overheard van Breda Kolff describing the incident to some fellow coaches in the hospitality room.
"If I ever see that Keiter again," van Breda Kolff was saying, "I'm personally going to strangle him. "
Naturally, that wasn't enough to frighten a man brave enough to sit out a bomb scare. Keiter, with impeccable timing, walked over, stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, Butch, how you doing? "
Apparently, van Breda Kolff was so surprised that he forgot to place his hands around Keiter's neck. But there would be another meeting - at the postseason Big 5 banquet. Van Breda Kolff was named Eastern Coach of the Year. Guess whose job it was to present the trophy?
"Ah," said Keiter, recalling that delicious moment, "memories of the Big 5. "
Vivid memories. Beautiful memories. Amusing memories.
"There's nothing in college basketball in this nation that can emulate 9,000 fans in the Palestra during a doubleheader," he said, "(nothing that) can generate the enthusiasm, the excitement and the drama that comes out of that building. . . . I leave you with one thought. Please, please keep the Big 5 big. "