For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.
The Philadelphia Big Five
They call it the City of Brotherly Love but there ain’t no love among the city's Big Five.
There are few intra-city rivalries that can compare with the contingent of St. Joseph’s, Temple, LaSalle, Villanova and the University of Pennsylvania.
Not this year, not ever.
The games involving this quintet are usually played at the Palestra, the home court of the Quakers, but there is no advantage there. The other teams jam the facility with hooting, tooting fans who have lived with the heart and spirit of these games as long as we celebrate the 50th year of play. Usually, each team splits the 10,000 available tickets.
Some of the people who made the Big Five great are no longer with us. Bob Vetrone passed in the spring, leaving a big void in the city’s sports scene. He first covered the Five for the old Philadelphia Bulletin, which has gone by the wayside. Later he did public relations duty at Temple and LaSalle. John McAdams, who did the public address announcing at the Palestra and most other area arenas, died this past summer.
Andy Dougherty, who held forth at St. Joseph’s for so many years, moved on in the fall and Jim Boyle, who played for St. Joe’s under Jack Ramsey and then later coached there, passed away shortly after Christmas.
These men helped make the Big Five great.
On Feb. 7, Villanova (17-2) played St. Joseph’s (12-10) for the Big Five title. Each team was 3-0 in this race. St. Joseph’s held an early lead and led at halftime before the Wildcats raced to a 71-58 triumph behind the 25-point effort of the guard, Kyle Lowry, who had 17 of his game-high 25 in the second half.
I flew to Philadelphia on Monday, Feb. 13 to see the Connecticut-Villanova game. It was at the Wachovia Center where the local team plays some of its key games. I had expected to attend an earlier match with Louisville (Jan. 31), but after five hours on the Atlanta runway, the flight was cancelled. Few planes were landing. I remembered the song by the late Mel Torme which started out, “A foggy day in Londontown…” I never knew fog could stop someone from heading towards Quakertown.
I made my first trip to Philadelphia in the early 1940’s as a lowly private in the United States Army. I realized that my widowed mother, who ran a little dry goods store in Wyoming, Pa. (midway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton), would not be able to send me to college. A friend advised me of an army program designed to train soldiers to be engineers (The Army Specialized Training Program – ASTP), so I promptly enlisted while still in high school.
Assigned to the University of Pennsylvania that fall, I bedded down at the school’s Quadrangle Barracks in Building A. My assigned roommate was a folksy character out of Abingdon, Va. – a few miles slightly east of Tennessee – named Foxy Birchhead (his real name), who turned out to be a whiz at chemistry and math. We did not have a chemistry department at my small high school (only 61 seniors graduated that year).
I was obviously over my head.
Foxy had some sage advice regarding chemistry which I found out early was an advance course – Chemistry III.
“Whenever an instructor comes around, turn on the Bunsen burner and look like you are doing a project,” he said.
“What’s a Bunsen burner,” I replied.
“We’re in trouble,” Foxy exclaimed. I readily agreed.
I managed to salvage almost two years of collegiate education over one long summer and then it was off to the infantry. But that’s another story for late in the summer when I am running short of column ideas.
My stay in Philadelphia would allow me to eventually meet Eddie Gottlieb, the owner-coach of the Philadelphia Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Society) – the forerunner of the Warriors and 76ers.
The Sphas played at a local dance hall and sponsored a dance following each game. They played a semi-regular schedule against the great touring cage teams of that era – the original New York Celtics, the Harlem Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Whirlwinds among others. Gottlieb also promised any number of events involving the Negro Major League teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Homestead Grays with the home-run hitting Josh Gibson, who some say rivaled Babe Ruth, and the Kansas Cty Monarchs, who featured Satchel Paige.
“The Mogul,” as he was often called, promoted these events all over the Eastern seaboard – New York, Baltimore, Washington, anywhere where there was a suitable facility.
He even allowed me to pick up a few dollars working some venues for him in my spare time.
I was soon to see Gibson hit and would later get to meet Satchel when he pitched for the Cleveland Indians and I worked in that team’s farm system.
Gottlieb opened a lot of Philadelphia sports doors for me and eventually became one of my early mentors. I had easy access to any local sporting event, be it baseball, basketball, football, boxing, you get the picture. All Eddie had to do was make a phone call.
His chief aide de camp was one of the great public relations men of that era, the legendary Dave Zinkoff, who had done his military service stationed in of all places, Iceland. The Zink already had ties to Abe Saperstein and the ‘Trotters, became famous for his charity endeavors and handled the mike at virtually every athletic and social event in this city.
It was Gotty who told me to take the Milwaukee job years later even if I had to take a substantial pay cut.
“Bennie would take care of you,” Eddie explained, “if he ever hits it big.”
It might have been the first time that Gottlieb was wrong.
My sojourn in Philadelphia was a series of wonderful events. The Penn football team that fall was to lose only to the powerful Army and Navy gridders.
They had a star freshman quarterback of note named Al Sica, who strangely enough a year later, would start for the Naval Academy.
I often regale Ed Stefanski, the Nets’ GM, who also went to Penn (but obtained a degree) with the plaintive old school drinking song which goes like this, “Drink a high ball at night fall. Be good fellas while you may. For tomorrow may be sorrow, so today let’s all be gay.”
It was war time and it was a fun time. Incidentally, the government took over the Palestra and the Army and Navy cadets chowed down on fabled courts.
But on to that Monday’s UCONN-Villanova game.
It was 19 degrees when I left my home in Alpharetta, Ga. at 5 a.m. in the hope of eventually finding a flight to Philadelphia for that nights’ Big East conflict between Connecticut and Villanova.
The East had been blown away by a terrible snow storm over the past weekend with New York getting the most snowflakes in 40 or so years. Philly was hit with only 20 inches.
I flew Air Tran this trip since I knew they would leave on time and sooner than expected. That was my experience in recent trips.
Most of the snow had already been dispensed by the time the plane landed there and the temperature was 10 degrees higher than Atlanta’s. It appeared actually like a late December day.
Like most NBA people, I stay at the Airport Marriott (love those points) but this one actually resides inside the airport.
I was surprised to find that UCONN was actually staying there also, having beaten Seton Hall the previous Saturday and, figuring it would be foolish to attempt to return home with the inclement weather coming, rolled to the airport hotel.
An old friend, George Blaney, was sitting in the lobby as I entered the hotel and I greeted him by saying “No one was at the airport to meet me.”
He, of course, knew I was kidding. We chatted awhile and then I said that “tonight’s game reminded me of the old Big Five.”
It turned out to be even better than that – what some writers would call “the best game of the collegiate season.”
Chris Grant, the Assistant General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, provided transportation to Dennis Lindsey of the Houston Rockets and I to the game which would be played at the second home of the Wildcats.
The crowd totaled 20,859, the largest in the history of Philadelphia basketball, which may have included the 76ers who also play in the statuesque Wachovia Center, named for a bank.
The previous high mark occurred Jan. 27 of this year when Syracuse provided the opposition. Some 281 fans less attended that effort.
The game provided a throwback to the glory days of Quaker City basketball. Back to the days of Arizin and Gola, of Fulks and Rogers, of the great Penn teams of Jack McCloskey. Remember the Dipper, but we refer to the collegiate heydays.
The Cats and Huskies traded baskets throughout the first half before Villanova’s sophomore guard, Kyle Lowry, made a driving layup followed by a jumper from UCONN’s Hilton Armstrong, sending the Cats into the locker room leading 33-32.
Lowry’s goal was the sixth straight field goal of the initial half, including a long attempt from 3. He also hit 3 of 4 from the charity stripe, had four steals and one assist to lead both teams with 16 points in 18 minutes of play. He was to add another two markers in the second half to finish with 18.
But the tables turned the visitors’ way in the second half when Nova’s shooting hit a brick wall. They were 0-8 as the final half started and saw their one-point lead turn into a 12-point deficit.
UCONN started a 13-0 run behind the sophomore forward Rudy Gay. Held to only seven points in the first half, Gay took over. He hit a couple of deep threes, drove to the corner and then back for a big rebound and dunk. After two Armstrong free throws, the Huskies had a 45-33 lead.
With a blowout expected by even the most casual observer, the game changed.
The senior Allan Ray (who finished with a game-high 25 markers) hit the first of his three straight threes. Then the junior forward, Will Sheridan, who finished with 13 points, and the freshman, Dante Cunningham (seven rebounds), helped out. Will tipped several errant shots to teammates and Dante grabbed two rebounds. Ray kept hitting threes, some from way past NBA range, on the wing.
Ray continued launching (and making) shots and Will and Dante kept charging the boards and Nova started to climb back into the fray.
Another Ray bomb made it 47-45 for the Huskies.
Enter the junior guard Mike Nardi, who has been under the weather with a severe case of the flu. He only played 16 minutes tonight, 10 in the second half, but he hit his only goal of the night, a 23-footer that gave the Nova men a 48-47 lead. The visitors came close, battling back to a one-point deficit at 50-49 before another Ray loft (this time from 19-feet) gave Villanova a four-point lead.
Sheridan hit a 12-foot J, grabbed two other boards, and made a running dunk before Ray made another basket.
Allen had scored only six in the first half, missing all three of his three-ball attempts, while shooting 3 of 9 from the field.
Of course, he was to explode in the second half, hitting five long threes in seven attempts, to finish with 25 points. He hit 6 of 12 in the second half including the above mentioned triples. He also was perfect from the line (2-2), had four rebounds (two offensive) and had three of his teams’ 13 steals.
For a while it appeared that the senior Huskie guard, Rashad Anderson (12 points), might duplicate Ray’s heroics. Anderson, who specializes in long threes, had made 3 of 5 attempts in the opening half but only added one more the rest of the way.
The Huskies seemed flustered by the Nova press and had eight turnovers in the second half, often at crucial moments.
And the team’s main point guard, the junior Marcus Williams, committed three each half and his teammates lost the ball 17 times to Villanova’s nine turnovers. Williams did have five assists and 12 points.
The UCONN senior center, 6-11 Hilton Armstrong, who sprang from obscurity this year, did an effective job off the boards and blocked five Nova shots, but he only had three scoring opportunities in the game. His first goal was a mid-first half follow stuff and he hit his only second half field goal attempt, a running 5-foot hook.
His defensive efforts kept them in the game right down to the wire.
Gay had 10 rebounds to tie for game-high honors with Sheridan, dividing the 10 evenly (five offensive and five defensive), and shot 5-8 in the second half and 8-13 for the game. However, he missed a pair of pressure free throws down the stretch.
Randy Foye, who can really shoot it, had only seven points in the first half and made only 1 of 4 long field goal attempts. He missed six straight attempts from 18:26 of the first half to 3:00 minutes of the second. He did hit a crucial three in the second half, though.
Sheridan and Ray were the heroes of the game with Will grabbing the aforementioned 10 boards and hitting 6 of 11 shots for 13 points. He and Cunningham each had three blocks, the entire total for the winners.
UCONN fell out of first place for the first time in five weeks, and is now ranked fourth. But they will bounce back. They have too much talent and Nova, seeded fourth before the game in most polls (including mine), has moved up to second following its win over Georgetown on Sunday.
The game was an epic contest. The last time Villanova had eaten a first place team was on February 18, 1995, when they defeated these same Huskies, 96-73. Their first ever win over a No. 1 ranked club came on this date – Feb. 13 – but in 1983 when they visited North Carolina and came away with a 56-53 win.
Their all-time record versus No. 1 teams, however, now rests at 5-14.
The excitement was mired by the post-game celebration as thousands of Villanova students rushed the court.
Earlier this year, the same thing happened following Georgetown’s upset of Duke in Washington. I was present at that game, too. But I was seated two seats down from John Thompson, the former Georgetown head man, who had the foresight to be surrounded by a small contingent of security people.
Tonight I was smart to pass up a press seat close to the court, obtaining a seat 20 rows up, dead center. I had a perfect view.
Someone has to crack down on these rushes to the court.
It brought back memories of a trip I made in 1972 to San Juan, Puerto Rico, accepting an invitation from that country’s basketball federation to attend the World Championships.
An old friend, Gene Bartow, had coached the US team. He was very popular there having coached Puerto Rico in the previous event in Germany four years earlier.
Another friend, Armandito Torres, was the coach of this year’s Puerto Rico entry in this event and who naturally served as one of the hosts. He provided us with all-access tickets.
The tourney went by smoothly with outstanding basketball played by most teams. But on the third day, Torres suggested that I had better go back to the Caribe Hilton, the headquarters of the event, and watch the game on television.
I seemed puzzled but he quickly came to my rescue.
“We play Cuba next,” he explained.
“There is no love between our countries.”
A few minutes later, a large contingent of security people and militia entered the area, many of them struggling to contain police dogs and they started to circle the court and eventually faced the crowd.
I made a hasty retreat.
I do not recommend that response but I am sure the Big East and other conferences will do something about the above before someone gets seriously hurt.
Meanwhile, one game does not make a season. But his is one that Philly fans will long remember.
Marty Blake's Top 10 College Teams
- Duke - back on top
- Connecticut - UConn's route of Villanova inches them closer to No. 1
- Villanova -- Would like a UConn rematch in Big East Tourney or NCAA Tourney
- Memphis - still breezing along
- George Washington - has won 16 straight
- Gonzaga - moves up via big win over Stanford
- Tennessee - Bruce Pearl is Coach of the Year?
- Ohio State - QUIETLY slipping up on people
- Florida - despite surprising upset losses they have great young talent
- I could name 10 teams who could slip here - Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Illinois, Kansas, Washington, Georgetown, Rutgers, etc., so take your pick