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Hoops Heaven at the Palestra

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.

A Big Five game at the Palestra means a packed and divided house and all the traditions that have been part of this city's games for so many years. Most fans ride the subway and walk through the University of Pennsylvania campus to the tiny lobby, where they are greeted as they walk in by the famous plaque that says so much about why the heart of hoops resides here.

The plaque says, very simply: "To win the game is great . . . To play the game is greater . . . But to love the game is the greatest of all."

Corny? Sure. But in Philadelphia they really do love the game. That's why, even with all the sea changes that have come to college basketball, the Big Five schools all play one another every year. It doesn't make the coaches' lives any easier to add four rivalry games to their league schedules -- it's a little easier for Temple, La Salle and Saint Joseph's because they're all in the Atlantic 10 -- but they all revel in the games and the camaraderie of Philly hoops and in the magical old building with all its special traditions.

The bad-humor boys at the NCAA took one tradition away in 1985 when they banned the tossing of streamers onto the court by each school's fans after their first basket of the game. Saint Joseph's and Penn brought the tradition back in 2006 for one night to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Big Five.

Other traditions continue. The students still devise "roll-outs," clever signs rolled out to mock the opponent that are passed down through the student sections. On Thursday, the Temple fans came up with one in Spanish to honor Sergio Olmos, their starting center. Clearly prepared, the Saint Joseph's students immediately responded with a Spanish rollout of their own, mocking Olmos.

Many fans arrive early to line up for a pregame pretzel and stay late to play on the hallowed floor, which is always allowed postgame. Others wander the hallways looking at the display cases filled with Big Five and Palestra memorabilia. There are national championship banners for La Salle (1954) and Villanova (1985) and Big Five championship trophies dating from 1956. Among the banners is one for John McAdams, the building's longtime PA announcer who died four years ago. The entire Big Five, coaches included, turned out for his memorial service.

There are other traditions that aren't as famous. Whenever Weiss is in the building, he sits next to Jack Scheuer of the Associated Press, who has covered the Big Five for more than 35 years and has played lunchtime hoops in the building every Wednesday for just as long.

"Jackie is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Palestra," Weiss likes to joke.

On a night like Thursday, when the place is completely full, Weiss or Scheuer will nudge each other and say quietly, "Corners." That means the upstairs corner seats are occupied early, meaning the game is a complete sellout.

The players get it too.

"I was thinking about that this afternoon," said Temple's Dionte Christmas, who led both teams with 19 points and 11 rebounds. "I realized this would be my last game in the Palestra, and I wanted it to be special. I live for nights like this. To play in here in a game like this is one of the reasons I wanted to go to a Big Five school."

If only players at Washington area schools could feel that way about playing local rivals. If only Maryland and Georgetown and George Washington and George Mason and American would form their own Big Five and start a new tradition of playing one another every year. Verizon Center isn't the Palestra, but it could be a wonderful venue for some spectacular games if the local coaches would move past childish disputes and just play.

There's nothing like the Palestra, but memories are made by people more than by buildings. Dunphy, who first attended a game at the Palestra in 1958, played there for La Salle and has coached there at both Penn and Temple, still vividly remembers a special night almost 45 years ago.

"I had tickets to see Davidson play Saint Joe in here," he said. "Davidson was ranked in the top 10. Lefty [Driesell] was the coach; Fred Hetzel was the star. Saint Joe was coached by Jack Ramsay and the star was Matty Guokas.

"My mother scheduled my great-grandmother's 100th birthday part for that night. She told me, 'You will not be going to the Palestra for the game.' I went to my dad. I said: 'Dad, it's Davidson-Saint Joe's. Come on.' He said, 'I'll speak to your mother.' "

Dunphy went to the game. Saint Joseph's won 77-64. The attendance was 9,207, meaning a lot of people were standing in the corners.

You can bet none of them left early that night either. Even back then, there was magic in the building.

Fran Dunphy, who was 16 at the time, felt it then. On Thursday night he could still feel it. He wasn't alone.

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