PHILADELPHIA — The biggest moment the Penn State basketball team has had in years began — as best Tom Izzo can remember — about five years ago.
In his 22 seasons as Michigan State’s coach, Izzo has taken the Spartans just about everywhere important in college basketball on his way to a national title, seven Final Fours and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I was talking about the fact that I’d coached in just about all of my bucket list places,” he recalled Friday afternoon, not long before taking his team to practice at the Palestra. “We’d played in Cameron [Indoor Stadium]; Allen Field House; Pauley [Pavilion]; Madison Square Garden. I said, ‘I think I’ve covered just about all of them.’
“Someone said, ‘What about the Palestra?’ And I went, ‘Oh wow, that’s right.’ ”
Saturday afternoon, Izzo crossed the 90-year-old basketball museum off his list — albeit painfully — losing to Penn State, 72-63, before a delirious sellout crowd of 8,722 on a snowy Saturday in central Philadelphia.
“I’m so stupid, I pick somewhere every year to get my brains beat out,” he said afterward. “Even so, it was a thrill to be able to come in here and play. I loved everything about it — except the way we played.”
Some of that, as Izzo conceded, was Penn State. This may be the best team Pat Chambers has had since he became the Nittany Lions’ coach in 2011. One of the Philly-area kids, a 6-foot-7 freshman named Lamar Stevens, had 18 points and six rebounds to lead the way. But it wasn’t offense that won the game for Penn State (10-7, 2-2 Big Ten), it was defense and rebounding.
“We outrebounded them [38-28],” Chambers said. “That just doesn’t happen to them very often.”
The Palestra is 192 miles from Bryce Jordan Arena in State College, where Penn State plays its home games, but after Saturday, Chambers may petition the Big Ten to play all his conference home games here.
It was Chambers who made Izzo’s Palestra dreams into a reality. It was his team that made the afternoon a nightmare.
“I’m a Philly kid. I’ve got six Philly kids on my team,” said Chambers, who played at Philadelphia University. “I’ve coached here as an assistant, played here in college, coached here as the road team [against Penn and Drexel]. This is obviously a key recruiting area for us. I knew there was some risk giving up a home game, but I figured it was a risk-reward situation that was worth it.”
Actually, the risk was pretty minimal. Bryce Jordan seats 15,261 and is hardly ever sold out. In fact, for most games, a curtain is pulled to cover the seats upstairs to give the impression that the building is close to full. A January game, between semesters — even against Michigan State (11-6, 3-1) — was probably going to be played in a half-full building. Instead, Chambers got to bring his team to Philadelphia, give his players a tour of the Philadelphia basketball Hall of Fame that circles the concourse level and get a huge win.
“First thing I’m going to do when we get there is show them all the sign,” he said Friday. “Some of them played in here in high school, but I’m not sure they’ve seen the Hall of Fame, and they all have to see the sign.”
The sign symbolizes everything that the Palestra is and what it means to the sport. A small plaque just inside the lobby contains a simple yet eloquent message: “To win the game is great . . . To play the game is greater . . . To love the game is the greatest of all.”
An hour before tip-off, Izzo stood in his tiny locker room and looked up at another copy of the sign that is on the wall.
“The whole thing is so cool,” he said. “Sometimes I think I’m crazy doing these things and they’re good, so this will be tough. But, either way, I’m glad we put it together.”
The idea began to come together last winter. Chambers wanted to play a Big Ten game here. Someone had told him about Izzo’s publicly stated desire to play here before he retired.
“Once I got clearance from our athletic director to try to schedule the game, I texted Tom,” Chambers said. “I knew he wanted to play in the Palestra. Once he said he’d do it, we had to clear it with the Big Ten.”
Chambers paused a moment, then laughed. “Wait till Tom gets a load of the locker room,” he said. “I’ll bet he’ll love it because he’s old school.”
Chambers was right. Izzo, who also took his team on a tour of the Hall of Fame on Friday, walked into the locker room and felt like he’d stepped into a time machine.
“I loved it,” he said. “There were no WiFi outlets, no places to charge cellphones. I’d told my players they’d probably have to hang their coats on hooks and there were no hooks! I just took my jacket off, threw it on the floor and said, ‘This is the way it should be.’ ”
Izzo didn’t feel that way about his team’s play. “This was humiliating for me to be in such a great basketball city and such a great basketball venue and not have my team ready to play.
“I loved the experience. It was every bit as good as I thought it would be.” Then he added: “Give Pat a gold star for having his team ready to play after that game at Michigan Wednesday. Give me a red star. I apologize to all the great players and great coaches and fans who’ve made this building special. They got robbed today.”
Actually, no one got robbed. “What a magical experience,” Chambers said. “Man, was that fun. The home-court advantage was great. These kids will never forget this experience. There’s just something magical about this place. I’ll never forget this day.”
He spoke for Izzo as well. With 5:05 left and the Spartans down 59-50, Alvin Ellis III drove and forced a shot with the shot clock about to run out. The shot didn’t draw iron, wiping out a putback by Nick Ward.
As the crowd went crazy, Izzo folded his arms, looked around the building and grinned. Angry as he was heading into the snow after the game, he knew he wouldn’t forget this day for a long time either.
“To love the game is the greatest of all . . .”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.