Saturday doubleheaders at the Palestra – was there anything better in the world?
For the hoops head, it was heaven, and not just because you got to see the best from the city’s Big 5 – Penn, Temple, St. Joe’s, La Salle and Villanova. You had Guy Rodgers and Jack Ramsay and Howard Porter and Chris Ford and Chuck Daly and Terrence Stansbury and Randy Woods and, damn, you could go on forever.
No, those doubleheaders were more than the game of basketball.
From the moment the paper streamers hit the court to the last blast from those ear-splitting pep bands, a Big 5 doubleheader was four hours of hoarse-throated sweat in a box.
We almost lost the Big 5. Network TV and the NCAA offered greater riches. Those quaint, old games between local rivals were sacrificed, a victim of big-money manslaughter.
After an eight-year absence, though, the Big 5 is back. Though it will not feature any doubleheaders, the unofficial local conference will show off a full schedule this season. All five schools will play each other.
The winners gets nothing more valuable than bragging rights.
Naturally, the best place to exercise those rights is over a tall, cold one at a favorite watering hole. The second-guessing about Coach’s defense, the whining about that ref’s lousy call, the comparisons and the predictions – they are best accompanied by a glass of beer and a bowl of pretzels and a bar full of fans.
Get your tickets and grab a hot dog – I’ve got the first round with Joe Sixpack’s guide to Big 5 dives.
The Palestra, 33rd and Spruce streets.
It’s the best basketball arena in the world, and fittingly, its home – University City – is the best sports junkie neighborhood in Philadelphia. Before and after every game, generations of Ivy Leaguers fill its pubs to rant about the Quakers.
There are so many places to celebrate victory or drown defeat there’s even room for the nearby Drexel Dragons crowd.
Smokey Joe’s (208 S. 40th St.) is a campus institution and shouldn’t be missed. But my favorite is Cavanaugh’s (119 S. 39th St.) because of quick service and an excellent selection of taps and bottles.
Shula’s Steakhouse (35th & Chestnut streets) has a zillion square inches of TV screens, big meat and lots of so-so beer faucets. After games, red-and-blue fans head to the New Deck Tavern (3408 Sansom St.) for quick service at loud, tight tables.
Avoid: The eggheads at the White Dog Cafe (3420 Sansom St.). Yes, it boasts an excellent beer list and good food. But the bookish reg’lars think Matt Langel is a Marxist philosopher.
The Apollo of Temple, 1776 N. Broad St.
TU’s dreams of turning North Broad Street into a destination will never happen unless someone opens up a decent watering hole. That and boot those so-called parking attendants who’ll watch your car for a buck.
For now, there is absolutely no reason to arrive early or stay late when attending Owls games.
Gone are the old Twist Bar and Doc Hollidays; Broad Street Eddie’s (Rising Sun and Germantown avenues) is still open and welcomes Owl fans, but it’s lost its campus feel.
Outside of a couple of pizza joints, the neighborhood offers nothing for hungry or thirsty fans.
The school hopes to solve that by next year, when it says it will open either a brewpub or a restaurant in its student center on C.B. Moore Avenue. On Park Mall in the center of campus, it is renovating a bar and grill that should be ready for next season.
Meanwhile, the Apollo has one big thing going for it on the suds front: It is the city’s only collegiate arena that serves beer. Unfortunately, it’s lame-o Bud/Heineken/Coors; limit: one per customer.
Avoid: The neighborhood and grab a beer in Center City or Fairmount instead. Then ride the Broad Street Subway – five minutes to the C.B. Moore stop.
St. Joseph’s Fieldhouse, 54th Street and City Avenue.
Big 5 fans owe St. Joseph’s big time. This school carried the Philly banner even as Villanova and Temple went national.
And now that the Big 5 is reborn, the Hawks are leading the return to the hallowed Palestra. St. Joe’s will play four home games in the West Philly arena.
The others are at Hawk Hill on the school’s City Avenue campus. This is a cozy (capacity: 3,200) place to watch a game; even the top row puts you within yelling distance of courtside.
Grabbing a beer is another matter.
Across the street, the Muddy Duck (183 City Ave.) looks promising, but it lives down to its name: it’s dirty and fowl.
You’re better off heading over to nearby Narberth, where a handful of bars welcome Hawks fans.
McShea’s Irish Pub (242 Haverford Ave.) features the best beer selection, including Yards hand-pumped on a beer engine. The Greeks (239 Haverford Ave.) is where the pre-Mike Bantom oldtimers hang out. The Great American Pub (Haverford and Narberth avenues) is full of TVs and chicken wings.
Avoid: The Lower Merion cops.
The Arena Formerly Known as John E. du Pont Pavilion, Lancaster and Ithan avenues, Villanova.
Most local fans would willingly banish ‘Nova from the Big 5 in exchange for, say, Drexel.
Not me. I’d trade ’em for Pharmacy.
Philly hoops tradition, though, thrives partly because of its villains, and these Main Liners have filled that role handsomely. The Wildcats take it in stride, of course; stumble onto their turf and start bragging about the Hawks, for example, and they’ll hand you your head. With a smile.
The passion is strongest on Lancaster Avenue from Ardmore to Wayne, where numerous suitable taverns feature cold beer and quick meals. Some, like Roache & O’Brien’s (560 Lancaster Ave., Haverford), have been around since Tom Inglesby was a Wildcat.
Increasingly, though, fans are heading over to an out-of-the-way section of Rosemont known as Garrett Hill.
There, you’ll find the Wild Onion (900 Conestoga Road), featuring roomy booths and a decent tap list (Sierra Nevada Celebration was pouring last week). Order early, though; food service is s-l-o-w.
Across the street, the Brick Bar feels like a campus beer hall: lots of cold drafts and a Jagermeister tap at a huge bar that smells like last night’s frat party. There’s no kitchen, but the bartender boasted, “We have a very impressive selection of snacks.”
Avoid: Smokey Joe’s. The longtime Wayne watering hole was closed last summer.
Tom Gola Arena, 19th Street & Olney Avenue.
I like La Salle. Three of my favorite Big 5 players – Ken Durrett, Michael Brooks and Lionel Simmons – played for the Explorers. One of my top Philly hoops moments was the night in 1990 when La Salle hosted Brigham Young and the Explorers’ 6-9 center Milko Lieverst dominated future Sixers 7-foot-6 stiff Shawn Bradley.
But these are memories, and more often that’s the only thing that keeps me going to La Salle games. Memories and hopes that this team reaches its potential.
Since the hoops squad moved its home games back to campus, that has meant trooping up to Olney – a largely beer-barren neighborhood.
It’s so bad, the team advises you to head over to Roxborough, about 10 minutes away via Chelten Avenue. There, you’ll find the Henry James Saloon (Jamestown and Henry avenues), a classic Philadelphia tavern with excellent bar food and an OK beer list.
A lot closer to campus, drop in at Kirk’s Pizza House, a campus haunt next door to the arena on Olney Avenue.
Avoid: The stairs. The arena’s on the third floor of Hayman Hall. Take the elevator.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a Victory Old Horizontal.