PHILADELPHIA—John Garrity discovered The Palestra more than 25 years ago, when his girlfriend's brother played basketball for the University of Pennsylvania.
Garrity eventually ditched the girl. But not The Palestra.
- Part 1: The Palestra
- Basketball pilgrimage
THE PALESTRA* Location: University of Pennsylvania campus, Philadelphia.
* Named for: Greek word for rectangular enclosure.
* Opened: 1927.
* Cost: $750,000.
* Capacity: 8,722.
* NCAA games: 51, including six regional championships.
- College Basketball
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So how does a west Philadelphia gymnasium named for a Greek rectangle inspire loyalty and passion many a couple would envy? It's certainly not youth or beauty. After all, The Palestra is pushing 80, and fresh paint has its limits.
Garrity cites intimacy. Each of The Palestra's 8,722 seats, three-quarters of them bleachers, snuggle against the court, the squeak of sneakers audible throughout the high-ceilinged, barn-like structure.
Retired broadcaster Les Keiter, who has a few years on The Palestra, cites history. The first games of the first NCAA tournament were played here in 1939. So are most games among Philadelphia's storied Big Five of Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova.
Hampton's own Boo Williams, a 1981 Saint Joseph's grad and a member of the Big Five Hall of Fame, cites fans. They're as crazy as they come, including Pennsylvania's recently inaugurated governor.
But for the most eloquent testimony we turn to Chuck Daly, coach of the original Dream Team, the 1992 U.S. Olympic squad. Daly has worked basketball venues from Boston to Barcelona, but only The Palestra, where he coached Penn from 1971-77, leaves him smitten like a schoolboy.
It's "like having warm maple syrup poured all over you. It's got a charisma that you don't find anywhere else in the country today," Daly says.
He's right, you know. Vintage arenas such as Madison Square Garden, Fordham's Rose Hill Gym and Princeton's Jadwin Gymnasium dot the Eastern landscape, but The Palestra stands alone. And the charisma hits before you stroll through the doors.
It starts with the neighborhood. Driving down South Street toward 33rd, The Palestra is merely one of three grand sports venues. First there's Convention Hall, where Chamberlain's Sixers dethroned Russell's eight-time defending champion Celtics in 1967. Then there's Franklin Field, 108 years old and former stomping ground for Red Grange and Norm Van Brocklin.
A 3-pointer from Franklin (before flying his kite, ol' Ben founded the university) sits the Quakers' home arena, The Palestra, its red-bricked exterior similar to the stadium's and masking the history within.
Inside, the concourse smells like a backyard cookout. Hot dogs are grilling, soft pretzels baking. The $2 pretzels, warm, doughy and salty, are a bargain at twice the price.
The concourse, renovated in 1997 for $2 million, doubles as a shrine, with photo collages at every turn. Hall of Fame coaches: Temple's Harry Litwack and John Chaney, Saint Joe's Jack Ramsay, Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Indiana's Bob Knight, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Penn's Daly.
National championship teams: La Salle (1954) and Villanova (1985). All-America players: Temple's Guy Rodgers and Mark Macon, La Salle's Tom Gola and Michael Simmons, West Virginia's Jerry West, Massachusetts' Julius Erving and Virginia's Ralph Sampson. Philly high school phenoms: Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant.
Bobby Kennedy campaigned here. Grace Slick and Barbra Streisand performed here.
"If you want to be measured in Philadelphia, then this is the building you have to play in," says Saint Joe's coach Phil Martelli, a city native. "You have to do well on this stage to be special."
On this Saturday night, Martelli's Hawks, among the Atlantic 10 Conference's best teams, share The Palestra stage with defending Big Five champion Penn, class of the Ivy League. During warmups, a ball bounces toward me on the sideline, and I make eye contact with Quakers forward Ugonna Onyekwe.
Ugonna Onyekwe? Yes, the Big Five, once the private domain of players from the Northeast, has gone international. Penn and Saint Joe's alone have players from Russia, France, England and Germany.