Keeping a Tradition Alive, The PCL Thrives as the Big 5 Fades at the Palestra

The Palestra has had fewer fans below the banners in recent years. (Edmonds/PN)

The Philadelphia Big 5 isn’t what it used to be. There were zero teams from Philadelphia in the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. And at times this season, attendance at The Palestra felt like a zero as well. 

On November 30, a doubleheader between Big 5 opponents at The Palestra drew less than 3,300 fans. As Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski wrote about the next day, the gymnasium was devoid of energy: no chants, no banners, no bands and no cheerleaders. “Since I played,” said former Temple great and head coach Aaron McKie, speaking with the Inquirer. “the landscape of college basketball has changed.”

These days, many city school students that live on campus have their own cars and won’t drive to West Philadelphia and suffer the inconvenience of finding parking, especially when they can watch the game on TV or follow live on an app from the comfort of their dorm rooms. 

The lack of competitiveness in the Big 5 has hurt the product too. Under Jay Wright, Villanova became a national powerhouse and won 25 consecutive Big 5 games. Saint Joseph’s hasn’t had a winning season in seven years. Temple has qualified for the NCAA Tournament once since 2016; Penn has accomplished the feat once since 2007; and La Salle, once since 1992.

While the colleges in the city have forgotten how to bring appeal to The Palestra, the high schools haven’t. More specifically, the Catholic schools.

In the 2023 Philadelphia Catholic League Boys Basketball Semifinal, security personnel and school officials had to keep West Catholic (PA) students from bursting onto the court. 

“It’s a special place for sure,” said 23rd-year Neumann-Goretti head coach Carl Arrigale. “When I’m done, I’m going to miss it,” Arrigale said.

Arrigale, a South Philly native who starred at Penn Charter in the 1980s, is part of an age group that remembers the allure of The Palestra across multiple generations. As coach of the Saints, he has won 12 PCL titles. . 

“They know it’s special to be here as a high school team and to play in these games,” Arrigale said. “This is the best thing that happens here now. …They could charge $50 a head on Monday and this place would be packed.”

The boys teams aren’t the only ones that still value the Cathedral of College Basketball.

Ahead of its Feb. 27 win against Archbishop Wood in the PCL championship, Lansdale Catholic’s girls team spent three years dreaming of the building.

“It’s just amazing; it’s been a dream since freshman year to play at The Palestra,” said senior wing Gabby Casey. “Me, Alana [Ciccocelli] and [former player] Cassidy [Saulino] made a pact freshman year driving to The Palestra that we’d be back our senior year, and thankfully we are.”

The high schoolers and their coaches haven’t forgotten what the Palestra means. Last year, PCL Championship attendance was better than that of at least 24 Division I conference championships.  

At the Palestra itself, the biggest college draw in recent memory came from a non-Philly school. Penn State’s January 8 loss against Purdue was sold out by both schools’ fanbases, and the Nittany Lions traveled their band, mascot and cheerleaders while having a packed student section.

“Hats off to coach [Pat] Chambers for pulling this off and the idea to have this game here,” said then-head coach of Penn State Micah Shrewsberry. “It’s a great environment. Especially while our students are on break. To just bring the game here, it’s something that we want to continue to do.” 

For some, the high turnout for that game was also a result of it taking place during a prime time in the sports calendar, unlike the Big 5 games. 

Former Philly high school great Wilt Chamberlain is commemorated inside the Palestra (Edmonds/PN)

“We used to play a lot of these Big 5 games in January and February,” said Penn head coach Steve Donahue. “That’s when the Eagles are done and the city can concentrate really on college basketball. That’s hurt the Big 5 and I think we have to figure out the right model going forward.”

After the low turnout at the doubleheader in November, representatives from the Big 5 schools plus Drexel – met to discuss the future of the local league and how to increase game attendance before next season. In April, it was announced that a new tournament format would begin in 2023-24 at the Wells Fargo Center.

The new format divides the six schools into two pods, with each school playing the other two in their respective pod. The early-round games will be played on campuses and culminate in a December tripleheader for the championship, third place and fifth place games. 

“We’re going to try for a year or two and see how it works and see if it fits for us,” said Temple athletic director Arthur Johnson. “Obviously disappointing that not one school in the city got into the [NCAA] Tournament. So that probably says ‘Hey, we’ve got to make sure we make our basketball programs in this city relevant again and make sure people are paying attention to it as an opportunity.”

With the new-look BIg 5 transitioning to the Wells Fargo Center, the PCL is now the non-Penn draw to The Palestra, continuing to make the building special. 

“I played in the PCL and the [public league],” said former West Catholic and Math, Civics and Sciences forward Naadhir Wood. “Yeah, Liacouras is good and the [public league] has good bump, but the Palestra is different. …The Big 5 definitely messed up with that one. It’s cool though, the young bouls got it. They’re going to turn the Palestra up like they did this year.”

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