Forty-five summers ago I attended the Jack Kraft basketball camp in Green Lane, Pennsylvania. I was 11 years old. Kraft was then the basketball coach of Villanova University on the Main Line. I - born in West Philadelphia, living in Penn Valley -- was one of the few Jews at the camp; most of my fellow campers were Catholic boys from Philly's inner city. They were all far better players than me.
At that age I looked like a young Alvy Singer, with about 30 extra pounds. OK, maybe 40. OK, maybe 50. My point is I didn't exactly blend in with the rest of the Krafties. Not that I minded. The camp was total immersion basketball, and I was away from home, on my first overnight.
I wasn't much of a shooter from the perimeter or the low post or even the key, but I was a regular Bob Cousy from the free-throw line. That summer I won the foul shooting contest in my age group. The prize was to play a game of 21 against my hero, Billy Melchionni, the star guard of the Wildcats. Two years later Melch - as pale as paper, and nearly as thin -- would be a key bench player on the greatest-ever Philadelphia 76ers team.
Today, as March madness grips the land, I'm still passionate about Philadelphia athletes and the Big Five, that Philly fraternity comprising Villanova and neighbors La Salle, St. Joseph's, Temple and the University of Pennsylvania. As a kid, I had dreamed of some day playing for 'Nova, of crossing myself at the foul line like a good Catholic lad, of praying to be the Wildcat who would drain the game-winner in the NCAA Finals.
By age 11, bowing to the harsh realities of existence, I had lowered my sights to Temple and Penn. I knew that my parents -- both Temple grads -- hoped I would attend a college where at least one of my classmates could spell dreidel, much less spin one. It was not until my Bar Mitzvah that I realized I had a better chance of owning a professional sports team than of playing for one.
On that momentous afternoon at Kraft's camp, I was as jittery as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. After I popcorned in a couple of free throws, Melch sank a dazzling succession of hooks and long jumpers and fadeaway bank shots. He won the game faster than Dave Zinkoff, the semi-mythic voice of the 76ers, could say "Mel-kee-ohhhhhhhhh neeeeee."
During the 1965-66 season, Melch scored a Villanova senior-record 801 points. Forty came against Oregon; 44, against St. Bonaventure. Though 'Nova was trounced by NYU in the semifinals of the 1966 NIT, Melch was named MVP. The following year, when the hometown rookie helped Wilt Chamberlain's Sixers win the NBA title, I smiled a secret smile. I alone knew that a basketball-shaped Alvy Singer had prepped him for that championship season.
Most of my childhood and all of my adolescence centered on Big Five basketball and its mecca, the Palestra. With its widthwise floorboards and basket stanchions that seemed to have taken root in the court, the Palestra was a hoops cathedral like no other. "The Palestra has a tweedy look and a tenured ease, like some red-brick-and-sandstone Mr. Chips," Alex Wolff wrote in his riveting hoops travelogue "Big Game, Small World."
"It fits snugly, rightfully, on the Penn campus, both with its name, thought up by a classics professor at the time of the building's dedication in 1927, and its location, just steps from the math and physics lab and the school gym."
For any kid growing up in Philly in the 1950s, '60s or '70s, there was no better place to spend an evening than inside the old Quaker meeting house. Over the course of four hours you could witness amazing college doubleheaders that featured at least two of the Philly schools. The games were intense, the noise was ear-shattering, and the smells, as Wolff rhapsodized, were a circus-like interlacing of popcorn, "sweat, pizza, hot-dog steam, pretzel salt, stale tobacco smoke, wood, and all the different brands of disinfectant used over the years."
All five schools regularly produced great teams, and often their rosters were wadded with teens from the Philly-opolis. In true Philadelphia fashion, the locals were often the underdogs. But like a certain cinematic boxer, these underdogs, unleashed at the Palestra, would often overachieve. Among the most glorious upsets were St. Joe's 1962 victory over Bowling Green, with Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives; the Hawks' 1964 victory over Wichita State (Nate Bowman and Dave Stallworth); and La Salle's 1971 victory over Western Kentucky (Jim McDaniels and Clarence Glover).
The greatest upset ever by a Big Five team was, of course, Villanova's triumph over Georgetown 25 years ago in the NCAA title game. The defending champion Hoyas were the No.1 team in the nation and had the great Patrick Ewing at center. The Wildcats, on the other hand, weren't even ranked and had lost to Georgetown both times they met in Big East play. As true 'Nova fans can recite from memory, the Cats shot 78.6 percent (22 for 28) and won, 66-64.
Still, for me, the most memorable Big Five upset of all was St. Joe's 49-48 victory over top-ranked De Paul in the second round of the 1981 Mideast regionals. Jim Lynam -- the prototypical Philly point guard during the Hawks' '62 conquest of Bowling Green -- was then St. Joe's coach, and I was a callow Los Angeles lawyer. I spent the afternoon watching the game on my office TV, unaware of the deposition down the hall. When the Hawks won the game on John Smith's last-second layup, the attorneys abruptly adjourned the proceeding -- they feared someone in the building was having a heart attack. To this day I choke up at the famous photo of Lynam falling into the arms of his 15-year-old daughter Dei, who's both sobbing and laughing.
A year later I was named General Counsel of the San Diego Clippers. When the head coaching job opened up in 1983, I leaned on the front office to hire Lynam. Jim brought along Don Casey, the onetime Temple coach. With Michael Brooks of LaSalle at small forward, the Clips were a kind of Big Five West.
Players like Lynam and Melchionni inspired me to pursue a career in professional sports. They bricked into my brain the idea that when you're from Philadelphia, you've got guile and know no fear. Those very qualities define the three Philly-area college players I represented in last year's NBA draft: Gerald Henderson of Duke, Wayne Ellington of UNC, and Tyreke Evans of Memphis - the current front-runner for Rookie of the Year. All three were first-round picks.
In a weird way, being a player agent is a natural extension of my civic heritage. Whenever I feel challenged or apprehensive, I think back to the Big Five players of my youth. They're dashing onto the court before a big game at the Palestra, confident of pulling an upset.
With no brotherly love lost, I know I will, too.