You only get one chance to experience The Palestra for the first time. And you only get one chance to write and react about your first time at college basketball’s holiest of churches. So I wanted — had — to document it.
I knew that had to be it. That oversized war memorial gym-looking, all-brick building set back behind the construction site. I quickened my gait up the only walkway available outside the abandoned-for-the-night patch of renovation in front of the historic building. I narrowed my eyes and made sure. I could barely make out the letters at the top; dusk challenged my scope. But that was it, all right, in such an unassuming, ordinary appearance. That made my hunch feel more rewarding — I guessed right. The rectangle cement sign engraved with the building’s name told me.
The anticipation for the trip was tingly and excruciating, like waiting for the package you know is coming in the mail that day. Under battleship-gray skies, I took the train from Stamford, Conn., and snaked approximately 140 miles down to Philadelphia. The Amtrak car slid through and under the thick slabs of New York City, then cruised by the repetition of architecture in northern New Jersey until the tracks were slipping behind the simple, Monopoly-looking houses along nearing border of Pennsylvania.
I got out at 30th Street Station, took a left and briskly made my way through Drexel’s campus, which serves as the buffer in walking from the Station to The Palestra. I too had a backpack on, and amid the end-of-day student shuffle, felt like an undergrad again as I made my way toward New Deck restaurant on Sansom Street. After inhaling the crab dip there, I quickly made my way toward the general direction of the reason I was in Philadelphia to begin with.
Walking into The Palestra was a blast of déjà vu. I’d never been, but there was familiarity in the moment I approached the 85-year-old monument to our sport. I couldn’t have picked a better time to enter into the arena. One small thing I love about going to game is the walk from the concourse, through the tunnel entrance and into the cavernous space where the action happens. No matter the venue, when transitioning from bowel to bowl, your eyes seek upward, the head coinciding as it tilts back in obligation or awe. This felt like both. It was aided by a soundcheck, the perfect one. As I walked through section 202’s tunnel and entrance, the Star-Spangled Banner was booming from the body of the 13-year-old girl who had the privilege of performing that night.
The room was bigger than I’d expected. Gray tint arches, 10 of them, support the structure across the top, below the baby-blue ceiling. There are no beams that block anyone’s view. Fifty — 51 if you count the Ivy League flag that hangs above at center — banners are draped, all of them related to Penn’s accomplishments. Temporarily, the Ivy and Big 5 banners/representation are not dangling from the wires. Although The Palestra is the Big 5’s home, the place belongs to Penn. The sliced P logo is at center court and all Penn home games are hosted here.
The single-floor concourse that surrounds the shell of the gymnasium is a Philadelphia basketball sports hall of fame. Dedications to Temple, La Salle, St. Joseph’s and Villanova are treated with equal esteem and respect as Penn. There is only one level to circumnavigate, and the white brick is covered every few feet by some sort of plaque, mounting, window encasement or dedication to teams, coaches, media and games past.
Structurally, there isn’t much to The Palestra; its simplicity is what makes it so embraceable. I was able to dip behind the bleachers and investigate every corner of the place in less than an hour prior to tip-off. The only rooms I didn’t walk into where the locker rooms, which I saw well after the game had finished. The officials’ locker room is tucked near a utility closet and is unguarded. The laundry room is four steps from the visitors’ locker room. The media room, which can’t be more than 100 square feet, is behind/underneath the bleachers on the “main side” of the gym. All storage rooms — rooms of any kind — are at court level. It’s a basic build. Simplistic and charming and economical.
Old-style radiators, at least 40 of them that have faded white paint cracking off, are aligned along the top of the seating rows. Not that you’d need them. The place bakes up pretty well once more than 6,000 bodies getting to clapping and yelling, which was the case for the Harvard game on this Friday night.
The building feels comforting in its haunt. It’s also fairly poorly lit, which is of course intentional. The lights that dip from vertical steel rods, and are spaced fairly far apart, give most of their energy to the floor, signaling to everyone in attendance: that’s all you need to concern yourself with. Not that you’d ever want to do this during a basketball game, but if you tried to read a book in the upper rafters behind either basket, it’d be impossible without a portable light of your own.
Still, there’s a clash of contemporary vs. fastened, old-style beliefs in The Palestra now. Players still sit on plastic bleachers, the way most of them not so long ago during AAU games. (Those things just kill your back after 30 minutes.) It still feels like you could be watching a game in 1964, except for one bright addition. There’s a new HD video board that’s been installed on the east side of the structure. I get the idea most think it’s completely unnecessary, like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park adding a monster screen. Just pay attention to what’s happening on the floor, lest you miss it, well, that’s your problem.
As the game gets underway, the first thing I notice is the constrained, swirling echoes of chants from the student section on the floor. In the elevated press box, the sound from down there is canned and tinny. In the second half, when Miles Cartwright hits a 3 for Penn to tie the game at 30 and complete a 7-0 Quakers run, the 7,000 (I’ll deduct the 462 other souls accounted for as Harvard fans, team members and media in attendance) people cheering hits me in the face and slams me in the ears. It’s the combustion I’d hope for all night long. I’d love for it to get louder, but Penn’s shooters won’t oblige me or the crowd.
Late in the second half, I couldn’t resist anymore. I’d been eyeing it all night, and I had to make the move. Row 1, Seat 13 on the opposite side of the benches and scorer’s table had been vacant since I arrived. During a timeout I scooted down there, asked the gentleman next to the seat if I could sit for a few, and he had no issue at all. He wanted to talk, I wanted to watch. I sat for about 12 minutes, essentially taking in the game as a spectator. You’re right there, a leg stretch from being a nuisance. It’s one of the best seats in the city. That photo is from Row 1, Seat 13.
Harvard went on to win, 56-50, continuing on its path toward the team’s first NCAA tournament berth in 66 years. The W in this building means as much to this team as any other non-tournament win it will get this year. Perhaps even as much.
After the game, fans filed out into the streets of Philadelphia, onto South 32nd or Walnut Street, driving or walking or training or cabbing their way home, to campus or a local bar. Thirty minutes of interviews went by, and then I moved from the upper press box down to court level to write my game story. I couldn’t concentrate. The buzz was still humming in my brain as much now as it was when I walked in four hours earlier. There were a dozen kids on the floor, just shooting on the hoop. About 100 bodies still occupied the arena and no one was in an obvious rush to leave. It was a scene many who attended high school basketball games would recognize.
I learned that’s the essence to The Palestra experience. You come, you watch, you stay afterward and get a few shots in. Anyone can. Fran Dunphy emphasized this sort of culture and community when he got to Penn in the late ’80s, and his vision has remained a principle of the Penn program and The Palestra ever since.
The Palestra is the world’s gymnasium. Doesn’t matter who you are — anyone can get some shots in on either one of the hoops. I wanted mine. But I wanted to wait. At 10:09, a bald black janitor strolled past me, a white towel tucked into his khakis, gray bucket in hand, filled with cleaning supplies. Three of Penn’s players shot on one hoop, and on the other, four children, a teenager and a grown man continued to toss jumpers. He’s used to this.
“Nobody wants to go home,” he said to me.
No, we don’t. The bodies linger afterward for as long as they’d like. Eventually the crowd thinned out. A loose ball skipped my way and I didn’t wait any longer. While guys like Dick Jerardi from the Philly Daily News were squeezing in work on deadline, I snapped a few dribbles and took my first shot from about 22 feet out.
I almost called it quits immediately. I could be 100 percent from the floor for my life at The Palestra. Fortunately, I’m not a perfect man. The dopamine rush had begun. Ball players know there’s not much better way of personal introspect and therapy than by shooting alone. I was getting my chance in a unique, cherished setting.
At first, though, it was a few of us shooting hoop. The grown man I mentioned above, his name is Charles Lanier. We immediately shared two things in common: an insatiable love of college basketball and our first trip to The Palestra. Lanier is in his ‘50s but on the court his energy, like mine, resembles an 11-year-old's. He attended the ’78 and ’82 Final Fours. He’s from North Carolina, and this is his vacation. His loving wife understood and made the trip with him after all those years of waiting. Lanier had a mean sweat going. He was squeezing as many shots into a 20-minute window as he could.
We exchanged stories. He’s the one who took that picture of me. Soon enough, he was off, as was almost everyone else. I had another 15 minutes of practice in me. I took off my sweater to see oval stains of sweat sopping parts of the arms of my dress shirt and felt more moisture in the middle of my back. It was more than a half hour of nonstop shooting. The silly fadeaway jumpers, mandatory half-court heaves, tempting 3-point shots and seriously paced free throws — a hoops fan’s dream. Eventually, second-year Penn coach Jerome Allen came onto the floor to take a few pictures with his son and his friends. I asked if he needed the final ball to be put away.
“Young man, you can shoot yourself to sleep,” he said.
I nearly did. I know I could have. I’d love to know what it’s like to sleep in that church. Eventually, I dribbled the ball into Penn’s quaint locker room and placed it back on the rack. I had a train to catch. I began to pack up my computer. I looked up and listened and had my first chance to stop and experience the place without a crowd around. Six janitors slowly milled about, the clinking and rattling of cans and ricocheting bouncing off the walls. Two hours after the game had finished, it was only me and them now. They were scattered. Two sat, slouched over in Section 116. Another hauled one of those big black garbage bags over his shoulder. I wasn’t outlasting them, nor should I.
I slowly showed myself out.