PHILADELPHIA — When we learned my daughter Clara would matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, naturally her dad was thrilled: Here was my chance to make a proper pilgrimage to The Palestra, the most storied college basketball venue of the 20th Century.
As I’ve written here before, while my hoops allegiance today favors the overtly professional NBA, there was a two-decade period starting in the mid-1970s (just as John Wooden’s run at UCLA came to end) when I was a far more fervent college basketball junkie. The Palestra was central to that emerging fandom, which just happened to coincide with the sport’s surge into the national sporting consciousness.
College basketball and the NCAA Tournament are so popular today, so ubiquitous on television, it’s easy to forget their dual ascension is relatively recent. For all intents and purposes, UCLA and its 10 NCAA titles from 1962-75 effectively stunted the sport’s broader popularity (when certain teams/programs utterly dominate an underexposed sport, big cultural awareness only comes when some ridiculous win streak is snapped; think UConn, whose dominance has stunted women’ college basketball in the same way). Men’s college basketball should have taken off in the 1960s, but it didn’t because the only time anyone paid attention was when UCLA got beaten: first by Houston (1968’s famous Astrodome game), then by Notre Dame in 1973. These losses proved to be mere blips; the Bruins eventually won national titles both years. But someone finally did beat them when it counted (NC State, in the 1974 national semifinal). Then Wooden retired with one last title, in 1975. Suddenly the field was open and seeded. Take it from someone who was there: The idea that some team other than UCLA could win it all each year was novel and beguiling (!) — only then did the sport truly take off.
Growing up in New England at this time, our interest had already been piqued by a Providence College team led by Ernie D, Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes. The Friars went all the way to the Final Four in 1973 — that year WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence started televising a bunch of PC games. The following year, rival WPRI Channel 12 took the talented University of Rhode Island teams (led by Sly Williams) under its broadcasting wing. Even obscure UHF stations like Channel 27 out of Worcester aired weekly games (each of them called by Bob Fouracre and his magnificent toupée) featuring Holy Cross mainly but also Boston College — even tiny Assumption College, led by the immortal Billy Worm (look him up; he was a stud).
Soon the national networks and their affiliates in Boston got wise and started televising big regional games every Saturday afternoon. Here is where I got to know The Palestra. Hoop-rich Philadelphia was home to The Big 5, a city series featuring local rivals Villanova, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and LaSalle. Every Big 5 game was played at The Palestra and these were the games I watched with manic intensity each weekend. These were the memories dislodged to glorious effect earlier this month, when Clara, Sharon and Philly-born, erstwhile golf freak Mike Sweeney watched the Quakers beat Yale, 58-50.
When the 10,000-seat Palestra opened in 1927, it was among the largest indoor sporting venues on Earth (the name is derived from the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular space attached to a training facility, or gymnasium, where athletes would compete in public, before an audience). Today it’s a bandbox but still all I could have hoped for: seating stacked steeply with front rows right on the baselines/endlines; vaulted ceilings filled with banners; exposed brick everywhere — pretty much exactly as I remember it from the mid to late ‘70s.
But there was more to our Feb. 3 visit. Quite a bit more.
One of college basketball’s enduring appeals is the Cinderella narrative, an unlikely NCAA run that propels some unlikely team deep into the tournament, perhaps all the way to the Final Four. Providence in ’73, for example. Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, who came within a game of going undefeated and winning it all in 1979. Later, any sort of unlikely tourney run qualified for Cinderella status. Starting in the 1980s, hoop junkies would go gaga every time Penn’s great rival, Princeton, would almost beat some highly-seeded team in the tournament’s opening round; Tiger coach Pete Carril became something of a folk legend based on this run of compelling near-misses. Well, as a student of the game (and father of future Penn alum), I’m obliged to point out that back in 1979, an Ivy League team went all the way to the Final Four! Yeah, the Quakers were summarily bludgeoned there by Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Michigan State, 101-67. But still… This was a great team; the year before, it lost to national runner-up Duke in the regional final.
Guess who was honored at halftime of the Penn-Yale game earlier this month? That’s right, this very Quaker cohort. They were all there: James “Peanut” Salters, the silky, sinewy point guard; Ronnie Price, the 6’5” scoring machine who seemed way too good for the Ivy League; Matt White, whose awkward-but-effective 6’10” frame allowed Penn to truly play with (and beat) the big boys… To think that I would see them all again, 40 years later, at The Palestra, because my own daughter was a student there? Pretty fuckin’ cool.
The Palestra, I would learn, isn’t famous just for being old (à la the original Boston Garden, a rat-infested dump where I covered many games as a young sportswriter). Unlike Delaware North, the University has done an formidable job keeping the place up: squeaky clean and not a brick out of place. But the history is inescapable… For many years, the same outfit owned both The Palestra and Madison Square Garden; in order to play MSG in NYC, teams were often obliged to schedule games in Philadelphia, as well. Penn would acquire the facility in 1939, and Philly would soon develop a storied basketball tradition of its own. Even today, when there’s a big college or high school game to be played, The Palestra serves as host.
This long, diverse, illustrious history doesn’t merely waft about in the rafters. It is scrupulously catalogued by a series of pictorial exhibits located all around the concourse. There are life-sized images of all the great college stars who played here through the ages, from LaSalle’s Tom Gola and Michael Brooks to Princeton’s Bill Bradley; from Villanova’s Rory Sparrow and Easy Ed Pinckney to Temple’s immortal Mark Shakin’ Bakin’ Macon. All the Penn greats get extra attention, of course — not just the cagers, but the wrestlers and volleyball players who starred here, too. The high school exhibit features a bunch of guys I’ve never heard of, but several anybody would (Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant). And lest we forget, a whole raft of famous coaches cut their teeth or made their bones at The Palestra: Dr. Jack Ramsey (at St. Joe’s), Chuck Daly (Penn), Jon Chaney (Temple) and Rollie Massamino (‘Nova) are but a few to earn oversized pictures on the concourse.
There was even a displaying honoring notable Philly sportswriters, the ink-stained wretches who labored here at courtside, including the immortal Dick Weiss who covered hoops for The Daily News but also, in the early 1980s, single-handedly produced Eastern Basketball magazine. Further warmed to the college basketball phenomenon up by emergence of the Big East Conference in 1979, I subscribed to this publication in the early 1980s, at college. I recall that my housemates couldn’t believe anything so arcane even existed — frankly neither could I. Accordingly, Dick Weiss would become one of my sportswriting heroes and role models. I never had a clue what he looked like until Feb. 3, 2018.
Ironically, The Big East — for all its successes — would eventually overshadow and ultimately diminish eastern basketball in general and The Palestra in particular. When the league hijacked St. John’s, Syracuse, Providence and UConn from the old ECAC and Yankee conferences, each of these lesser leagues splintered into even weaker sisterhood, or extinction. When The Big East plucked Villanova from the old Eastern 8 conference (which then became the perennially outgunned Atlantic 10), the Wildcats used their new riches to build a fancy, new, on-campus gym. In this diversified, enriched media/conference universe, the Big 5 would lose much of its cachet. Today, only a few rivalry games are played here. In many ways, The Palestra in 2018 is simply Penn’s home court.
It seems as though Penn is content with this evolution — eager to tout The Palestra’s broader history but just as happy the old barn still so ably serves the university’s many athletic programs. As the Big 5 has ebbed, Ivy League games have taken on more importance — they are one’s ticket to the NCAA tournament, after all. At this writing, the Quakers are 19-6 overall, 9-1 in conference, poised to earn yet another bid (after many years of holding out, the Ivy will conduct its first conference tournament in 2018, with the winner advancing to the Big Dance). More important perhaps: Penn swept Princeton this year. The Tigers are 3-7 in the league and the Quakers are loving it.
Out on the concourse is yet another display, this one a simple tally board that tracks this long and bitter rivalry between the Ivy League’s two traditional powers. Following the Quakers’ win on Feb. 6, it reads, “Penn 126, Princeton 113”.