In my house, the Palestra is known as the place where my wife, Christine, would send the police to look for me if I ever disappeared. I love it that much.
There are plenty of wonderful places that host college basketball — there’s no point trying to list them all here — but there’s only one Palestra.
It opened Jan. 1, 1927. Even though Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym and Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion are older and started hosting basketball games earlier, neither has the history or the tradition of the Palestra. In fact, no building comes close, given all the numbers associated with the building’s history.
But the Palestra isn’t about numbers. It’s about feel. Nothing feels quite like the Palestra for anyone who loves basketball and has spent any time here — as a player, a coach, a fan or a sportswriter.
“I still get chills every time I walk in here,” Lafayette Coach Fran O’Hanlon said after his team got blown out. “First time I came here was in the eighth grade for the Catholic League tournament. I’d been cut that year by our basketball team, so I was focused on baseball and football. Then I came here. Sat in the top row and couldn’t believe the whole thing. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to get good enough in basketball to play here.’ ”
That was almost 60 years ago. O’Hanlon became good enough to play in the Palestra and lead St. Thomas More High to the Catholic League championship in 1966. Then he played at Villanova, starring with Chris Ford on a team that reached the Elite Eight in 1970.
From there, he went on to a lengthy career playing and coaching overseas and starting his college coaching career — where else? — at Penn, working in the Palestra under Fran Dunphy until he got the job at Lafayette. Dunphy’s other assistant in those days was Steve Donahue, who is now Penn’s coach. Not surprisingly, Dunphy was in the building with his family Tuesday to watch his two proteges compete.
“I guess, truth is, if not for the Palestra, I might never have gotten into basketball,” O’Hanlon said. “Here I am, and they still can’t get rid of me. I tell people I only want to coach for another 15 years or so.”
That would make O’Hanlon 88, but what the heck; he looks considerably younger than 73.
O’Hanlon’s not the only one who would like to keep working for a while. Dwayne Gladden, one of the officials Tuesday, was talking before the game about how special the 100th anniversary game will be — on Jan. 1, 2027. Maybe there will be an old-fashioned Palestra triple-header with all six Philadelphia teams — the Big Five, plus Drexel.
“Now that’s a day I’d like to work,” Gladden said with a laugh. “But I’ll be 68. I don’t know if I can hang on for that long.” He laughed again. “Might be worth a try.”
I will certainly give it a try, and so will the two guys I sat between Tuesday: the legendary Dick “Hoops” Weiss, who, like O’Hanlon, first started coming here in the early 1960s, and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen, who is now the dean of Philadelphia sportswriters and writes about college hoops as well as anyone.
“I’ll give up the Final Four after next year because that will make 50,” Hoops said. “But I’ll never give up coming to this place.”
Everyone who loves the sport feels that way. Several years ago, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo agreed to let Penn State move its home game with the Spartans here. He knew his team would play in a roaring, packed, 8,722-capacity gym instead of a half-full (maybe) Bryce Jordan Center on Penn State’s campus.
“I didn’t care,” Izzo said. “I just wanted to say I coached a game in the Palestra. I told the kids before we got there, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to be like your palatial locker room at home. You’ll have to hang your clothes on hooks.' Then we got there, and there were no hooks! I loved it.”
He even loved it after losing a taut game to a rising Penn State team. Izzo felt so badly about how his team played in the first half that he apologized to the building. “The Palestra deserved better than what we gave it in the first half today,” he said.
Tuesday’s game had a bittersweet feel for everyone. The last game played here was March 7, 2020 — Penn’s Ivy League regular season finale. The Quakers beat Columbia that night to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the Ivy League tournament. They expected to play Yale a week later. Instead, after the Ivy League canceled the 2020 tournament and all of last season, they didn’t play again until last week, when they opened the season at Florida State.
A little more than seven months after that Columbia game, Jack Scheuer passed away. Scheuer had covered sports in Philadelphia for more than 50 years, ran the Palestra’s Wednesday noon hoops game forever and had a key to the back door of the building, provided to him by Dunphy when he was Penn’s coach.
There was nothing better than sitting with Scheuer during a game in the Palestra. Even at 88, he could recite key plays from historic games as if they had taken place a week earlier. I shuddered just a bit when I saw my seat and realized he wouldn’t be there, munching on a Philadelphia pretzel or stumping me with trivia questions.
“Was it tough without Jack?” Donahue asked me afterward, knowing how I felt about him. Like everyone else from Philadelphia, Donahue knew exactly how much Scheuer meant to the city — and to the Palestra.
It was tough, but nothing — not an accident on I-95 that cost me an hour going north, not stopped traffic on I-676 when I could see the South Street exit — was going to stop me from being there. I stopped at the Sign, walked down the ramp and felt the same chill that everyone else felt walking into the arena.
Before last week, “I hadn’t played a game in 996 days — since my last game in high school,” said junior Jonah Charles, who led the Quakers with 18 points. “Before we opened, a lot of the freshmen said, ‘What do I do to get ready to play my first college game?’ I said: ‘I have no idea. I haven’t played mine yet either.’ ”
Charles was hurt as a freshman, then lost his sophomore season to the pandemic. Now he’s finally getting to play.
In all, it was a night to savor. The crowd was small, reminding everyone that covid is still a factor in our world. In the past, when the Palestra was packed, the PA man would hand the microphone to Scheuer, and he would say, “We have corners!”
That meant the place was sold out and the seats in the corners were filled. There were no corners Tuesday and no Scheuer. But it was still the Palestra.
Home sweet home.