The competition is fierce among The Big Five college basketball teams in Philly. Irrespective of the year, when there is a Big Give game, forget each school’s national ranking. On any given night, any Big Five team can beat another Big Five Team. Particularly if the game is played at the Palestra. Remembering which colleges comprise The Big Five in Philadelphia is like remembering which letters are vowels: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. In letters there are six, and some would say in relevant Philly college basketball teams are six – if one includes Drexel. But as in my day in the City, folks in Philly really only speak about five team: Villanova, Temple, St. Joe’s, Penn, and sometimes LaSalle. LaSalle gets little respect, but tonight in their first NCAA berth in 21 years the 21-9 Explorers beat Boise State to move on in the Western bracket.
The top three Explorers in the history of the school may be the best players ever to come out of the big 5. The most recent, a 1990 grad, was Lionel Simmons. The L-Train was a first round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings, selected #7 overall in the draft. He led LaSalle to three consecutive NCAA tourney appearances, finishing his career third on the all-time list of NCAA scorers. He is the only player in NCAA history to score more than 3000 points and have over 1100 rebounds.
Recognize this guy? Only if you’re a die-hard Phila’elphia sports fan. He graduated college in ’75 and played for the Sixers. He had a world of talent and man could he jump — earning him the nickname Jellybean. Outside of Philly he is known as a legend not because anyone recalls his college or NBA career, but because his son has made the family name a legend – perhaps the most universally recognized name in basketball: Bryant. Kobe’s dad is Joe, from LaSalle.
Bonus points if you recognize the LaSalle grad in this picture. You’d have to be at least as old as me to remember seeing him play professional basketball for his hometown Philadelphia Warriors before they became the 76ers. He graduated LaSalle in 1955 after setting what is still the all-time NCAA rebounding record. Get this: he averaged a monstrous 20.9 points and 19.0 rebounds per game over 115 games. I first saw Tom Gola in a game at the old Convention Center in Philly in 1960 when he teamed with Paul Arizin and the incomparable Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. This guy didn’t have a flashy nickname and was one of the most unselfish players I have ever seen. It’s worth taking a few minutes to read this beautiful piece about him by Dick Jerardi.
It would be quite something to see LaSalle advance deeper into the NCAA tourney this year. I can think of four alumni who would get a special kick out of that – the three above, and the head coach at Temple, Fran Dunphy. The Explorers have the tall task of facing #4 seed Kansas State on Friday afternoon. It makes for a nice Big Five Friday: Temple plays at 1:40, LaSalle at 3:20, and Villanova tips off at 7:20. Let’s Go Explorers!