By: PJ Guippone
The city you grow up in has a lot to do with the things you decide you love. For me, Philly gave me music, food, but most importantly, basketball.
For the last few years, Philadelphia has been the laughing stock of the nation in all things basketball. Thanks to the New York Boroughs (see: the Nets, who have been boned by the Celtics for multiple years and aren’t quite done bending over yet, and the Knicks, whose .359 win percentage over the last four years, paired with the relentless drama makes the process look fantastic) we aren’t the absolute bottom of the figurative dumpster. Look past that, though, and Philadelphia is a city rich with basketball culture and a prolific history.
I grew up in this fantastic city, and from a very young age, this basketball culture was instilled in me. Both of my parents went to Villanova, so ever since I understood the concept of the beautiful game was to put that orange ball through that metal thing, I lived and died by the Wildcats. As I’m sure you can imagine, Kris Jenkin’s shot off of the beautiful feed from the king of my world, Ryan Arcidiacano, was the absolute fulfillment of all of my hoops hopes and dreams. The more I fell in love with Nova, the more I wanted to find out about the teams they played and the city that they dominated for most of my life. I started to love the Big 5, which is the most Philly thing that has ever existed. Its catchphrase is “They say there’s no trophy for winning the Big Five. They must not be from Philadelphia” for god’s sake, which may just be the most Philly sentence of all time. Admittedly, any sentence that can be loosely translated as “We don’t care what you think, fuck you” is really the most Philly sentence of all time. The faux-conference is made up of LaSalle, Nova, Temple, St. Joe’s, and Penn. Since 1955, these schools have played each other in preseason round-robin format mostly in the mecca of basketball, the Palestra. Located on Penn’s campus, all my basketball dreams came to fruition in this sub-9,000 seat time warp. The Big 5 has been home to players such as Aaron McKie, Jameer Nelson, Tom Gola, Lavoy Allen, Randy Foye, Kerry Kittles, Ed Pinckney, and my hero, Scottie Reynolds. Four of the five teams in the Big 5 are in the top 40 of all time wins in NCAA history, with those four combining for 8 Final Fours (or 10 if you include the 1961 Hawks and the 1971 Wildcats, which were both forced to be vacated by the NCAA) since the creation of the Philly alliance. The prolific history keeps the alliance strong and is the basis for all things basketball in Philadelphia. It gives the people of the city something that is wholly theirs, no matter what part of the city they call home. Maybe it is the preppy, upper-middle class Main Line, home to St. Joe’s and Nova. It could be University City, home to one of the country’s most well known and elite educational institutions in UPenn. Maybe still from the row-home, rough and tumble neighborhoods of North Broad, which are home to La Salle and Temple. No matter where you are from in the city, basketball is a part of your culture, and the big 5 is simply an illustration of that.
Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, there were two options for me going into high school. Option 1 was to utilize the public-school system and be forced to endure mediocre basketball for four years. Option two was to go to a private school and get to witness one of the best high school basketball conferences in the country, the Philadelphia Catholic League. I chose the latter option, and in hind sight, I like to say that I did it entirely for the hoops. Hosted by the brilliant basketball mecca in University City, the Palestra, the PCL semifinals and finals get a stage like no other. In front of sold-out crowds, 18-year-old kids have a chance to show what Philly is about on the court. And somewhere in the 200 level thanks to a ten-dollar ticket, there I was, enamored by kids that were old enough to roam high school hallways with me. This is where my pride for my city and the sport fully blossomed. I had the pleasure of watching Ja’quan Newton, Miami guard, turn into molten hot lava and lead Neumann-Goretti to five straight PCL titles. I got to see the purest shooter I have ever seen in person, Steve Vasturia of Notre Dame, lead the St. Joe’s Prep Hawks with one of my best friends on the same team. I got to see most of Penn State’s entire current team: Tony Carr, Shep Gardner, Lamar Stevens and Nazir Bostick, ball out wearing the Purple and Gold of Roman Catholic. I was in the building when now-household-name Derrick Jones Jr. of the Phoenix Suns scored his 1,000th point while rocking his short shorts and an Archbishop Carroll uniform. Quade Green, the highest rated recruit from the PCL, ripped my heart out by choosing Kentucky over my beloved Nova, but I will still always watch him and cheer for his success because I watched his game evolve and he will always be one of the PCL’s children.
And of course, the professional level. My cherished Sixers. The Process has really been a bit of a blanket over the history and legacy, and losing never really helps anything, but this franchise is one of the best in the history of the NBA. Behind only the Celtics and Lakers, its nine Finals appearances, including three Finals wins, is the third most all-time. The real highlight of the franchise is from the all-time starting five. Allen Iverson revolutionized the game with his swagger and his electrifying crossover. Hal Greer was a Philly lifer and a career 20 ppg scorer. At small forward is the great Julius Erving, whose ahead-of-his-time athleticism played second fiddle to his afro, which is easily the best in the history of basketball. Moses Malone was a three time MVP who absolutely ate on the offensive boards, which is an attribute I will always respect. Last, but certainly not least, the stilt himself, Wilt Chamberlain, whose three best stats of all time are 50 points per game in 61-62 (which is under the Warriors franchise, but Wilt was one of our own, all his achievements are of Philadelphia), 27.2 rebounds per game in 60-61, and an alleged body count of 20,000+, which has been talked about since he wrote it in his book in 1991. Four of those players are Hall of Famers. Then in my lifetime, there was the time we beat the Bulls thanks to Derek Rose’s first ACL tear, a.k.a. the most depressing injury ever, and then proceeded to bring the Big 3 Celtics to 7 games in the year they were destined to break the Larry Bird curse. There is a long history of players with huge games and bigger personalities, and we are finally getting back to that. Simmons is raising the cat, Embiid is the king of social media, and TJ McConnell is a scrappy, pass-first point guard with the clutch gene of Michael Jordan. Hinkie died for our sins, and it looks like his self-sacrifice has put the Sixers back on the path they are meant to be on.
Without Philadelphia, I would not have the love of the game the way I do. I would not know pride the way I do when I see a Newton or a Vasturia thrive at a high level. I would not know loyalty to a city based on nothing but a sport, but overall, I would not know basketball the way I do, and that would be a loss of the thing I am most passionate about. So thank you Big 5, thank you Nova, thank you Sixers, and most of all, thank you PCL for helping me grow up with the greatest sport.