THE GREAT THING about being a fan who loves all sports is that every season brings new excitement and, yes, even here in Philadelphia, new hope.
As our professional teams go from bad to worse - even the Eagles look as if they will truly disappoint us - the college basketball season is finally upon us. That means that Big 5 basketball is back - more correct, the City 6, counting Drexel. No town in America has college ball like this, and this season holds some promise.
The Villanova Wildcats are the No. 11 team in the nation, and you just know coach Jay Wright will get the maximum effort from his players. St. Joe's and La Salle are both off to great starts, and it is a joy to watch coaches Phil Martelli and John Giannini work the sideline. The Drexel Dragons are off to a slow start, but somehow Bruiser Flint will get them back on track. And of course, Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls will get the most out of their talent and battle anyone. They opened against No. 1 North Carolina and although they lost, they gave UNC all it could handle throughout most of the game. The Owls then rebounded with a win against Minnesota, but fell Friday afternoon to a good Butler team in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Although I follow all of the Big 5 teams, my alma mater, Penn is the team I live and die with. Under new coach Steve Donahue, the Quakers are 3-0 and are giving us alums our first real reason to reminisce about Penn's dominance in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. Like all Big 5 alumni, my team has given me memories that will never fade.
On Dec. 22, 1962, I was a freshmen at Penn. I had taken my last exam that morning and had told my mom I would be on the 9:30 train to New York that night to come home for the holidays. I never made that train, as Penn upset St. Joe's, 78-77, in triple overtime. I was enthralled by the game, but kept one eye on the clock, hoping not to miss my train. Bob Purdy put in a rebound to tie the game at 72 at the end of the second OT and, as the horn sounded, I knew I would a) miss my train and b) be in deep trouble with my mother. But it didn't matter. When Penn prevailed, I could have floated home to New York.
On Jan. 15, 1969, I had recently graduated from Villanova Law School and was an assistant district attorney. My friend and I got tickets to the Penn-Villanova game and weren't expecting much, because Villanova was in the top 10 and Penn was not even considered a factor in the Ivy League race. We brought our two tickets to the door and, lo and behold, found ourselves in the Villanova student section. Penn was on the verge of becoming a college basketball powerhouse with sophomore guards Dave Wohl and Steve Bilsky. They could handle the ball beautifully and were dead-eye shooters. In this pre-shot clock era, Penn decided to put the game on ice and basically stalled throughout the game by taking very few shots. The game remained unexpectedly close and, with less than a minute to go, the Quakers got the ball and called timeout with the score 30-30. My friend and I had been cheering, much to the dismay of the Villanova students. Once the timeout was called, I thought, my God, we are going to have the last shot! We can win this game! Just then, two big, burly Villanova students pushed me in the back and ominously warned, "You better hope Penn doesn't win this game." I actually feared that if the Quakers won, we would be in for a significant beating. I might never have possessed brute strength, but I've always had a quick mind, so when Bilsky made a 25-foot jump shot at the buzzer to give the Quakers a 32-30 win, I took out my DA badge, put it in their faces and said, "Gentlemen, I don't think you want to do anything." They backed off long enough for us to escape.
As hard as it might be for current Big 5 fans to believe, in the early spring of 1971 Penn was 28-0 and ranked third in the nation. The Quakers had just defeated 11th-ranked Duquesne and sixth-ranked South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, and on March 20, 1971, they squared off in the regional final against a Villanova team they had defeated the three previous times they had played. We were so confident Penn would beat Villanova again that we did not go to the game, saving our money to fly to Houston for the Final Four. I remember turning on the TV and seeing something I couldn't believe then and still don't believe now. Penn lost in the most shocking score in Big 5 history, 90-47. The 'Cats jumped out to a 9-1 lead and led, 43-22, at halftime. Penn was so good, we still had high hopes. Those hopes were dashed almost immediately, when Villanova scored the first 16 points in the second half. I turned to my friends and said we'd never come close to a Final Four again.
That prediction almost proved untrue in the following season, when a gallant Penn team marched back to the regional final but lost to a North Carolina team that had 10 future NBA players on it. It was the last game Corky Calhoun, Bob Morse and Alan Cotler ever played for the Quakers. I was certain we would never get that close again.
But the Big 5 gods proved as unpredictable as the Philadelphia weather. In 1979, a team not nearly as talented as the '71 or '72 Quakers, and one that had lost five in the regular season, went on an unbelievable hot streak in the NCAA Tournament, defeating Iona with Jeff Ruland, third-ranked UNC and 10th-ranked Syracuse. In the regional finals, the Quakers drew St. John's, also an underdog, and won a nail-biter, 64-62. Penn guard "Booney" Salters made two critical free throws with the score tied to seal the win. The final buzzer sounded, and I had tears in my eyes, realizing that we were going to the Final Four. The fact that we lost in the national semifinals to Magic Johnson-led Michigan State, 101-67, did nothing to diminish the joy of that season. Ivy League Penn making it all the way to the Final Four! We played in the consolation game against Ray Meyer's DePaul Demons and lost in OT, 96-93. After that game, Meyer was asked how an Ivy League team had done so well, to which he replied, "That was no Ivy League team, that was a Big 5 team!"
Amen, Ray. Amen.
On Twitter: @GovEdRendell