February Madness

The Palestra, Penn's venerable arena, celebrates basketball old and new.
The Palestra, Penn's venerable arena, celebrates basketball old and new. (Photo: Penn Athletics)
By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

No offense, Benjamin and Betsy, but I've spent enough time on your turf in Philadelphia. As fascinating as you and your Colonial kin are, sometimes I'd just rather renew my acquaintance with Pickles, Fatty, Speedy, Dudey, the L-Train, Pogo Stick and, of course, the Owl Without a Vowel.

These aren't names you'll find in a regular history book, but in the Philadelphia basketball world they represent a special place. Philly has a long and rich tradition in hoops, from the high school level up to the pros, and for the college fan in particular it's a sumptuous basketball buffet only a few hours away.

To have a great basketball tradition, you need great rivalries. In Philly, you've got the University of Pennsylvania, Temple, La Salle, Villanova and St. Joseph's. Known as the Big 5, they're within a few miles of one another, competing for students, players -- even coaches. It also has one of the country's most storied basketball arenas, the Palestra, which opened in 1927 on Penn's campus.

For the college fan, the advent of frosty winter evenings is a trigger of sorts: There must be a good game somewhere. And so it was for me earlier this month. After checking each team's schedule, I bought a couple of tickets online and headed north. My games: La Salle-Penn at the Palestra one night, followed the next evening by Temple hosting Xavier, a school from Cincinnati ranked in the Top 25 most of the season.

On the drive up Interstate 95, I thought of the great players with Philadelphia in their pedigree. Many of them had colorful nicknames, probably because they played during a time when sportswriters routinely slapped clever monikers on guys. Thus, city high school legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and Earl Monroe were nicknamed, respectively, the Dipper and the Pearl.

At the collegiate level, La Salle had Lionel "L-Train" Simmons and Washington's own Roland "Fatty" Taylor, plus coaches Bill "Speedy" Morris and Donald "Dudey" Moore. In the mid-'60s, St. Joe's had Clifford "Pogo Stick" Anderson, who was only 6 feet 4 but is considered one of the top centers in Philadelphia collegiate history. And Temple had both a great team nickname -- the Owls -- and such former fan favorites as Bill "Pickles" Kennedy and Bill Mlkvy, who of course was known as the Owl Without a Vowel.

The Penn-La Salle game offered an opportunity to revisit the Palestra, which I'd first seen in the early 1980s and which even then was considered hallowed ground. Fans used to today's luxurious arenas might find the Palestra dated and spartan. Half of the approximately 9,000 seats are uncomfortable; they're either backless benches or hard plastic seats envisioned for people with trim rear ends. The rows are so close together you can't help but knock the person in front of you with your knees. The lighting is poor, and the place is drafty. I looked around and counted about 40 ancient radiators around the arena.

The place is Old School, all right.

Still, it's a great place to watch a game. No seat is more than 30 rows from the court, and with everybody close to the action and jammed in, you get a wonderful atmosphere, even when the teams aren't the best. And if the game isn't so good -- La Salle beat Penn, 62-58, in a matchup of two schools with losing records -- there are always the history lessons away from the court. Displays adorn the walls of every corridor at the Palestra. The "Stars of the 60s" features photos of great visiting players, such as Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and a very skinny John Thompson, who happened to be a terrific center at Providence College before becoming a legendary coach at Georgetown.

Other displays honor visiting coaching legends, the best Big 5 teams of all time -- and even newspapermen and broadcasters. My favorites were displays of players from decades ago: You have to love their little shorts (dismissed by today's young fans as "booty shorts"), the knee pads, the leather basketballs that look as if they weighed 50 pounds.

The next night, I caught Temple's game with Xavier at the Liacouras Center, a few miles from the Palestra. If there is no place like the Palestra, the Liacouras Center, which opened in 1997, is like every other newish arena. The seating is more comfortable and the lighting considerably better, but you're also much farther from the action. At the Palestra, it feels as if the game is being played in a barn; at the Liacouras Center, the ambiance is more corporate, as if they're playing in your accountant's office.

Both teams started sluggishly, and the Temple fans, in the midst of a disappointing season, seemed passive, almost waiting for something bad to happen. Then help arrived, in the form of Christmas.

That's Dionte Christmas, the Owls' 6-5 junior guard and top scorer. With his first basket, the announcer informed the crowd, Christmas became the 44th Temple player to reach 1,000 points -- more history in the making. I looked over toward the Temple bench; behind it were several fans with jerseys bearing his name. One read "Christmas Mom."

Parental pride, such a wonderful thing.

True to the spirit of Philly basketball, the guy with the great name started putting on a show in the second half. When he hit consecutive three-pointers to make it 60-48 Temple with nine minutes left, fans rose to their feet and cheered heartily. Christmas Mom looked particularly proud.

Temple pulled away to a 78-59 upset, and at the game's end the students mobbed the players at center court; in a disappointing season, there was still a victory over a ranked opponent to cheer. And my guy Dionte led the way with 23 points.

As I left the Liacouras Center, I had to wonder what might have happened if he had played in an earlier era. Would we now know him as Dionte "Merry" Christmas? The possibilities abound.

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