The game was on ESPN and the presence of the four-letter network tends to inspire “storm-to-be-seen” court invasions. And the Palestra was absolutely packed, every corner overflowing with a crowd officially listed as 8,722 but looking more like 10,000.
The buzzer sounded. All eyes went to the La Salle students, who were behind the basket near their bench, almost on top of the playing floor. The band played. The cheerleaders cheered. No one rushed the court.
“They get it,” said Jack Scheuer, longtime dean of the Philadelphia sports media. “This is the Big 5. Everyone here knows the difference between a nice win and a court-storming win.”
If you storm the court at the Palestra, it better be important. Beating a team with a 5-10 record coming into the game isn’t worthy of storming the court, no matter how many TV cameras are in the building.
“There’s nothing like playing in this place,” La Salle Coach John Giannini said after the game. “I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to play games like this in here every chance you get. This was a great day for everyone who was here. I’d feel that way even if we had lost.”
Because the game began at noon, the sun streamed in from the skylights above from start to finish. If you were watching on TV, the Palestra looked a little bit like Glenn Close in the Wrigley Field scene in “The Natural,” when she stands up and the sunlight seems to hit her directly as Robert Redford looks into the stands.
Eighteen miles away, waiting for the 4 p.m. tip of his team’s game against DePaul, Villanova Coach Jay Wright sat and watched the old place rock for two hours.
“The whole thing was so cool, even on television,” he said later that afternoon. “The sun coming in the way it did and bathing the court and the stands was unbelievable. I was transfixed. There really isn’t anything like it anywhere else in basketball.”
Dripping with history
Why is there nothing like the Palestra? Why do cynical basketball people practically weep whenever they set foot inside the building?
It is not the oldest on-campus gym in America where college basketball is played. Rose Hill Gymnasium at Fordham opened in 1925, two years before the Palestra, which sits on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in West Philadelphia.
It does have more history than perhaps any on-campus arena ever built in large part because it has been the home of the Big 5 — the yearly competition for city bragging rights among Penn, La Salle, Temple, Villanova and Saint Joseph’s — since it was formed 59 years ago and because there have been more NCAA tournament games played (52) at the Palestra than any other arena. This is true even though the NCAA, in its never-ending search for more money, has abandoned it since 1984. Even so, more college games have been played inside the 87-year-old museum/arena than any other basketball venue.
But what makes the building truly special isn’t so much the history — although that’s a factor — as the building itself. It’s so small, with the court below street level, that it’s easy to drive past the entrance on 33rd Street
without even noticing it. Because of its rectangular shape and because it’s so small, there are no bad seats in the Palestra. Sure, they’re uncomfortable — most don’t have chair backs — but none has a bad view. Fans sit almost on top of the court on all four sides. When they walk through the tiny lobby and across the narrow hallway to their seats, most will pause at the famous plaque with the sign that reads: “To play the game is great. . . . To win the game is greater. . . . But to love the game is the greatest of all.”
Corny? Sure, but sweet nonetheless.
Once, all Big 5 games were played in the Palestra. Now, it takes an act of God — or something close to it — to get the other four schools to agree to give up an on-campus game to make the trip to the Penn campus.
This is from the opening paragraph of La Salle’s game notes for last Saturday: “The schools (La Salle and Temple) agreed to bring the game to the Palestra for two straight seasons for the opportunity to bring ESPN GameDay to Philadelphia.”
God or ESPN. Whatever works. It had been 25 years since La Salle and Temple played in the Palestra. They will play there again next season as part of a two-year deal to split the gate and split the tickets. After that, it may take Dick Vitale being lowered from the skylights to get the two schools to come back.
“I simply don’t get it,” Giannini said. “If you split the gate times two, isn’t that just as much money as having the entire gate times one? All this talk about how hard it is to do I simply don’t understand. I’m a Chicago guy and I get what makes this special. Why don’t the Philly guys get it?”
The other Big 5 coaches — Wright, Temple’s Fran Dunphy, Saint Joseph’s Phil Martelli and Penn’s Jerome Allen — are all Philly guys, born and bred. They all grew up going to games in the Palestra with an understanding of the Big 5.
“One of my great disappointments in life was realizing I wasn’t good enough to play in the Big 5,” said Wright, who ended up at Bucknell. “To be able to come back as a coach and be part of it has been an amazing part of my life.”
Internecine politics have almost killed the Big 5 more than once. In the 1980s, after Villanova joined the Big East and became a national power, the school’s leadership and Coach Rollie Massimino didn’t want to give up four nonconference games to the City Series (as it is called) each season. Neither did Temple, whose president, Peter Liacouras, had visions of grandeur that included being a national power in both football and basketball.
Villanova opened the Pavilion on-campus in 1986 while Temple was planning what would become Liacouras Center. Villanova won the national title in 1985 and Temple spent a large chunk of 1988 ranked No. 1 nationally. Both felt the Big 5 was outdated and beneath them. In an effort to keep the City Series alive, Dan Baker, then the director of the Big 5, persuaded Temple and Villanova to sign a new contract in 1991 only by agreeing to cut the City Series games down from four a year to two. Eight years later, with Massimino gone and Liacouras about to retire, the complete round robin was restored.
Now, in an era when athletic directors hate to give up home games, the only City Series games guaranteed to be played in the Palestra each season are the two that Penn hosts. But everyone agrees that more days like Saturday should at least be discussed.
“There’s a lot involved, especially nowadays,” said Dunphy, who played at La Salle and has coached at Penn and Temple. “But if you love Philly hoops, you have to want to at least try to have more days like this one. It’s just a matter of figuring out ways to do it.”
No leaving early
It is 18 miles and a million years from the Palestra to the Pavilion. There is nothing wrong with the Pavilion, which seats 6,500 people and was full on a frigid January Saturday with Villanova 15-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country. And yet, after spending the first part of the day in the Palestra, the Pavilion felt quiet as a library by comparison.
Sportswriter Dick “Hoops” Weiss is another lifelong Philadelphian, who went to Temple and has been around the city scene his entire life. Now 66, there’s no one connected to the game in Philly who doesn’t know Hoops.
As the public-address announcer tried futilely to whip the crowd into a pregame frenzy, Weiss sat back in his seat and laughed. “This is the Main Line,” he said, “which means everyone sits back in their seat and prays that Villanova doesn’t lose.”
The team — not the place — ignited the Villanova crowd, which got loud as the Wildcats pulled away from DePaul in the second half.
There was still one game to be played in Philadelphia that day: back at the Palestra, another City Series game between Saint Joseph’s and Penn. The sunbeams were gone by the time the game tipped off at 7. But, as with the afternoon game, the Palestra “had corners.” That’s a Scheuer term for when the corners of the building are filled, meaning the game is a sellout.
Sadly, Penn is awful this season (3-10 coming in), but Saint Joseph’s is good (11-5). Not surprisingly, the matchup played out exactly that way, especially when the Hawks shot an astounding 13 of 15 from the three-point line in the first half. The margin at halftime was 57-23. Only when Martelli emptied his bench up 82-47 did the margin become more respectable. Penn finished the game on a 21-3 run against the Hawks’ walk-ons to lose 85-67.
But even a bad game in the Palestra is worth the effort. No one left early, even with the game a complete blowout. The building still had corners even in the final minutes.
A day of Philly hoops and a Palestra doubleheader — with a trip to Villanova in between—is always something to be savored. In the end, the score doesn’t really matter. The experience does.
To love the game — and the uniqueness of Philadelphia hoops — is the greatest thing of all.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.