31 January 2012

A Pilgrimage to The Palestra

The Palestra
I made my first visit to The Palestra Monday night to see Penn play Princeton in one of college basketball’s oldest rivalries. I arrived at both the venue and the rivalry as a distinct outsider: I did not attend either school, nor do I have a geographic affiliation with either (I was raised in North Jersey, far away from Princeton, and I am only living in Philadelphia now for about nine months). So if I don’t understand the complete backstory to a tradition or quirk, please forgive me.

Opened on Jan. 1, 1927, The Palestra is Ivy League library on the outside and modified airplane hangar on the inside. Everything about the place is old, but I mean it in a good way. It is fabled, it is history. Walking the three blocks from my apartment on this cold winter night, I felt I was gravitating toward the arena with hundreds, maybe thousands of others wearing winter coats with the collars turned up. I felt a little bit as if I had stepped into one of John Tunis’s unforgettable books that described a 1930s Ivy League education, Iron Duke and The Duke Decides, except I was at Penn to watch basketball rather than at Harvard to watch track.

I am hardly a hardcore college basketball fan, but I was really into the NCAA tournament as a kid, fell hard for mid-major college basketball as an undergraduate at Rice, and keep an eye on the televised college game whenever possible now that I work mostly in other sports. So I’ve heard of The Palestra. I tried to visit it more than two years ago, only to discover that “THERE ARE NO TOURS OF THE PALESTRA, but the public is welcome to visit during games.” Objectionable as I found this, I did want to see a game there, so I made the visit tonight. I had heard of The Big Five in Philadelphia basketball and read about some of the traditions, but I had never seen any of them in person.

I dodged the backed-up will call line and saw no line to buy a ticket at the walk-up window; I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the representative who sold me the ticket. I walked in and happened to move straight up the aisle to my appointed section. I soon moved several sections over from my assigned seat and attempted to take the place in.

The paint on the bleachers, the varnish on the floor, the shine of the basketball all seemed faded and worn, but the color and commotion and energy of the place kept it alive. Players and coaches sit in the front row of the stands, separated from fans only by a few rows of media, while fans on the other side sit with toes on the thick red stripe marking one sideline. ‘The Palestra’ is emblazoned in all the appropriate places, with ‘Ivy League’ and ‘Big Five’ each painted under one basket. Navy and red championship banners – a lot of them – hang low from the rafters underneath the curved roof.

The place plays to its mystique as much as possible. The team intro video seemed to have as much black-and-white footage as it did color, and there were definitely more layups and steals than flashy dunks. But it all worked. The starting fives trotted out onto the floor, and the ball was tipped, and we were off in an Ivy League basketball battle that could have been from almost any decade, save for the internet broadcasts from each side and the fancy videoboard at one end.

I spent the first half looking for ways The Palestra was special. I wanted to love the place, revere it, and get a sense of its lore and legacy. But I wasn’t really feeling it. The game was interesting, and I tapped out a lot of notes on my phone about the intricacies of the place, noting how the two Penn girls down and to my right slid halfway down their row when a group of Princeton fans sat down near them and started yelling. I saw the ‘Puck Frinceton’ T-shirts (and I thought ‘Tuck Fexas’ was original!), and the tricycle challenge during a timeout, and everything else. But it really felt like an older, more traditional version of other arenas I had seen.

At halftime, I planned to move to a different part of the arena to get a different perspective. I got more than I bargained for.

The concourse of The Palestra is a museum, a shrine, and a tapestry all in one. The side on which I started features great teams, players, and coaches who had played at The Palestra. At first I was confused – why did it matter that Johnny Dawkins of Duke and Dean Smith of North Carolina had seen action here. What did they have to do with Penn? Then I turned a corner, dodging some fraternizing Princeton and Penn fans (it does happen), and saw journalists, broadcasters, and memorable moments from The Big Five highlighted. Two-time Big Five MVPs – even ones who spent years beating Penn – are chronicled.

Moving over toward the opposite side, I found a tribute to the Penn-Princeton rivalry, termed the greatest college basketball rivalry ever because its winner almost invariably becomes the lone Ivy League team to qualify for the NCAA tournament. And I found the scoreboard: Penn 120, Princeton 102.
Rivalry scoreboard
At first I thought it was from a specific game – surely it must have gone to at least two overtimes to reach those numbers, I figured. Then I got it: It was the score of the all-time series between the schools. Tracked and displayed on the wall every day of the year. That sunk in. That meant something. Now I was not just seeing any college basketball game. This was what these players and students and fans pointed to all season. 122-102. That’s a lot of games.

I walked down the other sideline in a bit of a haze, reading bits and pieces of Penn basketball lore that I had never before known: Penn made the Final Four in 1979, Penn vacated an NCAA tournament bid in the 1960s to make a statement to the NCAA, and the list goes on. Tradition I had never known or appreciated. Finally I got back to the other end zone, the side where I probably was meant to start my tour. The front hallway of the University of Pennsylvania’s basketball arena features displays from each of the schools from The Big Five. Its four biggest rivals’ great moments are on display here, including Villanova’s 1985 national championship. Where else do you see rivals celebrated?

The halls are an amazing statement about The Palestra’s history, its narrative, and its mission. I moved to my second-half seat with a new sense of this place. It is neither a library nor an airplane hangar, though it wonderfully combines elements of both. It is the cathedral it claims to be, and it is well worth a pilgrimage.

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