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Monday, October 27, 2003
My love affair with Philly hoops

By Joe Lunardi
Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The best basketball game I ever saw -- Duke over Kentucky for the 1992 NCAA East Regional title -- was in Philadelphia.

The best player I ever covered -- La Salle's Lionel Simmons (1987-1990) -- was Philly born and bred.

The winningest coach in basketball history, college and pro combined, spent the largest portion of his Hall of Fame career in this city. He is ESPN's own Dr. Jack Ramsay.

And none of these reasons, or the dozens more that could be cited, are why I'm so proud of being a Philadelphia basketball guy.

In Philly, basketball appeals as much to the mind as to the body. For the generational descendents of Ramsay and other coaching icons such as Harry Litwack, Al Severance and Jack McCloskey, the game is nearly an academic experience.

Which isn't to say it is without passion. Put six Division I schools within the same 15-mile radius, and there will certainly be emotion. Give birth to the NBA and a guy named Wilt, still the most dominant player in the game's history (sorry, Michael), and you will also have unusually knowledgeable fans.

Yet even in a pro town in which Donovan McNabb's thumb gets more attention than championship performers in other sports, there is only one game here that is uniquely Philadelphian.

College basketball.

The Philadelphia Big Five. The Palestra. Indeed, everything you've ever heard is true. It isn't always the best basketball anymore -- BCS conferences have seen to that -- but it is generally the most cerebral. And it is the passion, combined with that thinking-man's approach to the game, which make it different.

There is nothing quite like a winter night in Philadelphia when thousands of fans, many still wearing a jacket and tie from work, venture onto Penn's campus and the Palestra for a Big Five game. Student cheering sections typically take their cue from these alums, not the other way around as it is at Cameron or the other legendary venues. Undergrads with painted faces may get on camera, but it's the Philly hardcore hoopheads who make our scene one of a kind.

These alums, who grew up in the same neighborhoods before heading off to the different colleges in town, both think and feel the game. The only thing better than a well-played contest -- "Good hoops," longtime A.P. scribe Jack Scheuer still whispers along press row -- are the bragging rights that come after the fact.

It wasn't enough, for instance, that Saint Joseph's led Villanova last year, 40-9, on the way to the Hawks first win over the Wildcats since 1994. It mattered more to some of the hardcore types that a Villanova male cheerleader, who dared jump the fabled Hawk mascot during a timeout, was tackled by a 40-something alumnus emerging from the sidecourt seats.

There aren't as many nights like that anymore, thanks to differing conference affiliations and the need to place NCAA Tournament credentials ahead of City Series wins, and this may not be a bad thing. The national spotlight shines more on each of the Big Five schools when they reach the Final Four -- and each one has at least once -- than it does when they pulverize one another. But bragging rights last longer than championship memories, if only because they are personal and not vicarious.

That's why the 10 best games in Philadelphia this year will be when La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova match wits. Throw in a few extra games involving Drexel and, regardless of a round-robin that no longer resides exclusively at the Palestra, you've got yourself quite a winter menu. Nowhere else do all the teams from the same city -- not New York or Washington or Los Angeles -- do this kind of intramural dancing.

And that's the reason being a Philly hoop guy is second to none.

Philly guy Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN Radio and ESPN.com. His first 2004 NCAA Tournament projections will appear the week of Nov. 10.