Big Five a Philly phenomenon

PHILADELPHIA -- Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli tells coaches whenever he does a clinic that they should make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia. With six Division I schools within a 15 mile radius, it's one-stop shopping, really, for any coach looking to pick up a few tips.

"It's the most unique setting in all of college basketball," Martelli said.

Well, Bristol University doesn't play Division I basketball, but ESPN.com did win this year's campus championship. So, I took Martelli up on his standing invitation. But I wasn't looking for coaching tips. No, I wanted to see if one could experience all the passion of Philadelphia basketball in a single day.

So, off I went. No time for cheesesteaks, just Philly hoops. Six schools in a single day. Well, I tried ... but failed, managing to visit just five of the six Division I schools. And even that was a stretch.

The day started at 4 a.m. in Connecticut and a flight from Hartford to Philadelphia. It ended a little past 8 p.m. when Penn coach Fran Dunphy got into his VW Bug outside of Franklin Field in the unseasonably warm early October evening air.

In between, the day was filled with watching players at five of the six Philly schools work out prior to the start of another season. It also included plenty of traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, which foiled the plans of making an appearance at all six schools. Nevertheless, thanks to the alternative route through Philadelphia's inner city while following Philly native John Gallagher (a LaSalle assistant and former Saint Joseph's player), only Temple was left off the day's tour.

And after going from Drexel to LaSalle to Villanova to Saint Joseph's to Pennsylvania, it was clear that the passion for Philadelphia college basketball is as intense as it ever has been with the coaches and players at the six schools. A return trip to St. Joe's the next morning, and a call to Temple coach John Chaney a few days later, just confirmed this city's love affair with college hoops.

Welcome to the neighborhood
The phenomenon is called the Big Five, and it's been around for a half century. The passion for the nation's most unique city championship is unquestioned in Philadelphia, but under-appreciated outside the city limits. It's safe to say, few west of the Mississippi can even name the city's school that isn't among the Big Five. (It's Drexel, a relatively newer member to the Division I ranks in the past 30 years. But the city is adopting the Dragons as one of the city's own through the Philadelphia Classic, a tripleheader at the Palestra featuring all six teams.)

With all the conference shuffling going on, the Big Five might as well break into its own league. The games among the teams from three different leagues -- the Big East (Villanova), the Atlantic 10 (Temple, LaSalle and Saint Joseph's) and the Ivy League (Penn) -- mean as much, if not more, than any conference matchup. And what makes these games so intense is the proximity of the schools.

"This is a city where Drexel can walk to a road game," said Dunphy of his neighbors.

Just how close these schools are to each other becomes obvious when you drive past the Palestra to get to Drexel's campus. The building, which opened in 1927, is on the Penn campus and home to the Quakers. But it's also at the core of the Big Five frenzy.

On this day, Drexel was home working out in the morning just two blocks away from the Palestra, where Penn would be arriving later in the day for its weekly kickboxing conditioning session. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint and Dunphy actually played for the same high school coach two decades apart.

Dunphy has become the caretaker of basketball in this city. He grew up in the area and played at LaSalle. But he takes his job as a coach in Philadelphia as seriously as any coach does in the city. That's why Dunphy was the one who literally and figuratively stepped in to mediate when Villanova coach Jay Wright and Chaney threatened to call off their Big Five game this offseason.

Villanova and Temple couldn't agree on a date to play this season after Villanova wanted out of a Nov. 21 date so it could play two Division III teams in California before going to the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Those games were scheduled before Villanova talked to Temple, according to the Owls, thus infuriating Chaney. He threatened never to play Villanova again, at least as long as Wright was in town. But it was Dunphy who brought the two schools together.

That's right, the Penn coach, who knew keeping The Big Five series going was bigger than any personality conflicts, facilitated a game between two feuding schools in the city. Dunphy knew if Temple and Villanova didn't take part in this city's championship, the Big Five could have been in jeopardy again. As recently as the mid-90's, the five schools didn't have a complete round-robin schedule for seven years because Villanova didn't want to add more non-conference games to an 18-game Big East schedule.

Eventually, at a Coaches vs. Cancer golf outing attended by all six Philadelphia coaches in early October, Wright and Chaney shook hands and Chaney expressed his concern to Wright personally over the schedule conflict. But, according to the other Philly coaches, the game wouldn't have likely been scheduled for 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 21 had Dunphy not stepped in and cooled the situation. Once again, old ties were the key. Dunphy played baseball with Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw at LaSalle and originally got Wright together with Bradshaw at a meeting at Dunphy's house.

"It's extraordinary that another coach, at another school in the same city, would take so much pride in a game between two other schools," said Martelli of his close friend, who doesn't want any credit for saving the game. "That wouldn't happen in any league in America, let alone a loose alignment of teams in the same city. He had nothing at stake personally."

That's not entirely true.

"What has gone on before needs to be protected," said Dunphy, whose office wall is adorned with as many photos of coaches in the city as his players. "I'm representing the coaches who were here like Jack Ramsay and Chuck Daly. I just happened to be the coach at Penn. A lot of guys have worked hard to keep this thing together. Philly is an interesting town and has a reputation of taking care of its own.

"Phil didn't go to Saint Joe's, I didn't go to Penn, Bruiser (Flint) didn't go to Drexel and John Chaney didn't go to Temple and Jay Wright didn't go to Villanova. None of us graduated from our schools that we coach ... but we're all Philly natives."

The only outsider in the group is LaSalle's Billy Hahn. But Hahn recruited Philadelphia for Rhode Island, Ohio and Maryland so much that he's just as much a part of the scenery. And getting to LaSalle from Drexel makes it seem like the Explorers are the outsiders.

No, the campuses aren't that far apart -- as any Philly native you ask for directions will tell you. It's just that the signage to get to LaSalle is, well, poor at best. Getting lost was pretty easy. It took a phone call to Saint Joseph's (again), and directions drawn up by Martelli and assistant Monte Ross, to set me straight.

"Philly knows me," said Hahn in his raspy voice that screams of passion for this place and makes him sound like he's been here for years. "They didn't like me coming in here because they were pissed I used to steal players out of Philly. I've got Philly roots, and that helped me, but I'm not Philly."

Neither is this reporter, so getting from LaSalle to Villanova to Saint Joseph's in the heart of the afternoon was impossible. That's why the stop at Saint Joseph's was a brief one, long enough to see first-team All-American Jameer Nelson slice through the lane for a couple of layups. The stops at Drexel, LaSalle and Villanova were long enough to get a decent look at all of their respective big men.

And that's why a return trip to Saint Joseph's in the morning was a must.

It's just a Philly thing
On a bulletin board in one of the cramped dungeon-like coaches' offices at Saint Joseph's -- where coaches are stacked up next to each other in a setting that demands proper hygiene -- is the Big Five's creed. It reads, "They say there is no real prize for winning the Big Five. They must not be from Philly."

Anyone who doesn't agree, clearly hasn't talked to alumni, players, coaches, or been to one of The Big Five games at the Palestra, Hawk Hill, or even Villanova's Pavilion, which can look like a Ski Lodge under the right lighting.

"I'm not going to lie," said Villanova sophomore forward Jason Fraser, a native of New York. "Before I came down here, I didn't know it was going to be this good. It's two levels above what I thought it would be. You're in a basketball bubble in one big environment. You can't understand this unless you experience it in the city of Philadelphia.

"The adrenaline is pumping through you during these games. It's breathtaking. There is so much passion for basketball that words can't explain it. I look at how much passion these people have for the sport and I'm tongue-tied."

Wright was one of Villanova freshmen who were stunned last season during the Philadelphia Classic when Saint Joseph's fans jeered the Wildcats as they went into the locker room during the Saint Joseph's-Drexel game.

"They came into the locker room saying, 'What happened?'" Wright said. "They were all chanting 'Nova sucks,' and we weren't even playing Saint Joseph's.

"Guys don't understand it until they go through it. You have to understand, we see each other all of the time. If you go do a TV show in the city, you're probably going to see another one of the coaches there. And you might have played each other the week before. If you go to a high school, there could be one of the coaches there. All of the high school coaches know all of us very well."

Even the players on these teams seem to have a genuine affection for each other. They certainly share mutual respect, a relationship that is almost brotherly. The players get together throughout the offseason, deciding to play pickup basketball at Temple, LaSalle or sometimes at Drexel. Drexel's Jeremiah King said he's always playing pickup with Nelson and David Hawkins of Temple, and said the players do hang together a lot during the summer.

"It's somewhat indescribable," said Flint, a player at Saint Joseph's in the '80s who returned to coach in his native Philadelphia after he left UMass three years ago. "The one thing here is that the media really covers college basketball. You're recognizable here. A lot of kids don't leave the city. They go from high school, and if they're good enough, they play at one of these schools. It's almost like a fraternity. All Philly guys are real close.

"You go to the Big Five games as a kid and then as you progress, you play in them or coach in them. "The media understands this and treats it as something special."

Chaney remembers hitching rides on a trolley to get into games at the famed Palestra -- one of the top five places to watch a college basketball basketball (at least on this reporter's list).

"I used to be the one who would pull the chord down to stop the damn trolley and run out and go to the games," said Chaney, who played at Ben Franklin High, but then went to school at Florida's Bethune-Cookman.

And, leave it to Chaney to be critical of the approach the old guard has taken with the Big Five.

The Hall of Fame coach is not pleased that Drexel doesn't have full membership, although Flint questions if his university is ready because of the commitment it would mean for non-conference games. Drexel isn't playing LaSalle or Villanova this season. If the Dragons added all Big Five schools to their schedule, they would have to play their other four non-conference games outside of Philadelphia before an 18-game Colonial Athletic Association schedule. The Dragons are moving out of their upstairs gym to a field house in the old Armory on campus, but that won't be for another two years.

But, of course, who did Drexel get to open the building in 2005-06? Saint Joseph's. Martelli said he would do it for a friend.

And, again, that remains the most unique aspect of this consortium of schools. The six coaches are extremely active in the Coaches vs. Cancer events. They have meetings together, group breakfasts, promote golf outings, hold a practice with all six schools in the same day at the Palestra, and play the Philadelphia Classic tripleheader with plenty of photo ops.

Remember, these are coaches who not only want to beat each other on the court, but battle just as hard in the recruiting game.

"Gary Williams (of Maryland) asked me how do we do that? Can you imagine Gary, John Thompson (when he was at Georgetown) and Tom Penders (when he was at George Washington) all getting together all the time?" Hahn said. "It wouldn't happen."

When the season ends, two, three and sometimes as many as four of the Big Five go on to play in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, only Penn and Saint Joseph's reached the NCAAs. But the winner of the Big Five takes the opposing coaches and their wives out for dinner on his tab. The past two seasons, Dunphy and Martelli have done the honors after winning the Big Five title. Even though Drexel isn't in the Big Five, Flint is still invited.

"I never have to pay for dinner because I can't win the Big Five," Flint said. "But they always invite me."

But these coaches aren't just friendly in social circles. The relationships carry on throughout the season, even when they're not playing Big Five games. Hahn talks to Temple assistant Dan Leibovitz nearly every day -- and they're in the same league, let alone the same city.

"When we got beat in the Atlantic 10 tournament last March, I was upset in my room so Dan said I should call coach (Chaney) to come up to my room (in Dayton)," Hahn said. "He was great. He came up -- and Temple was playing the next day -- and talked about everything. He told stories and just shared his knowledge. Can you see that happening in the ACC tournament? For coach Chaney to do that is mind boggling."

These coaches genuinely like each other, never mind the recent Chaney-Wright spat. They have know each other for years. Martelli's first high school game was against a Chaney-coached team.

It's clear, Philly coaches take care of each other ... and Philadelphians.

When Flint took the Drexel job, the first person who came into his office, on the first day, was Calvin Hicks. He's a 41-year old Drexel lifer who Flint said is developmentally disabled. He has been part of the fabric of Drexel basketball, going on the road with former coaches Steve Seymour to Bill Herrion and now Flint.

Hicks doesn't have a regular job but he helps the program. Flint said Hicks asked him if he was going on the road with the team. Flint didn't know him but said, "sure." What has occurred in the three years since is that the players and the staff have made their most trusted and cherished fan a part of their program.

"Everyone knows Calvin," Martelli said. "He'll be at Big Five dinners, at games, at everything."

Hicks rooms with assistant Geoff Arnold on the road. And Flint went so far as to buy Hicks a new suit last season -- for game days.

Of course, on the day that we zipped through Philadelphia, Hicks was the first person to come strolling into Flint's Drexel office.

"I try to sell that you're coming here for the experience," Flint said. "You build a bond with other players at other schools. This is a great place to go to college. Everything is so tight here and you can go hang at other schools. A lot of other cities don't have what we have. This is something special."

And it took less than 24 hours to confirm what we already knew.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.