John Feinstein: The Magic Lives On at the Palestra

Former St. Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson was the author of multiple chapters of magical finishes at The Palestra in Philadelphia, a tradition that lives on today.
Former St. Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson was the author of multiple chapters of magical finishes at The Palestra in Philadelphia, a tradition that lives on today. (Tim Shaffer - Reuters)

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

PHILADELPHIA

The Palestra scoreboard told the story Thursday night: With 40.4 seconds left, Temple had a 56-46 lead over Saint Joseph's with the Owls' Ryan Brooks headed to the free throw line.

The old building had been packed all night, rocking with noise from the beginning. But now, with the outcome apparently no longer in doubt, it was time for the sellout crowd of 8,722 to begin moving in the direction of the exits.

Except that no one moved.

"Everybody just wants to be in this building for as long as they possibly can be," Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli said a little bit later in the evening. "Or maybe they just know there's magic in the place."

Temple Coach Fran Dunphy thought roughly the same thing.

"It is a magical place," he said. "That's one of the things that makes these games special. We all love what the place means to college basketball."

As it turned out, all those people who didn't leave early knew what they were doing. Temple couldn't make free throws (missing 11 of 18 in the last 2 minutes 28 seconds), and the Hawks, who looked at times as if they couldn't score in their half-court offense with a court order, scored 13 points in 34 seconds.

That led to a frenzied final five seconds, with Saint Joseph's Tasheed Carr heaving a 35-footer when he still had two more seconds to get closer to the hoop. The shot was wide right, a desperate tip went off the rim and Temple escaped with a 61-59 victory.

Dick "Hoops" Weiss, the longtime basketball columnist for the New York Daily News who started going to Big Five doubleheaders as a kid in 1958, shook his head soon after the buzzer finally sounded and said, "This is why you never leave a Big Five game early."

You come early and you stay late when Temple, Saint Joseph's, Villanova, La Salle and Pennsylvania play one another at any place, but especially when they play -- as they frequently do -- in what Weiss dubbed years ago "The Cathedral of Hoops," the rickety old building on 33rd Street that was built in 1926 and is still, hands down, the best place in the country to watch a college basketball game.


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