Throughout the years, the UPenn men’s basketball program has had a lot of great memorable moments. In 1971, they went through the entire regular season undefeated. On January 26, 1972, the program notched its 1,000th win with an 80-66 victory over La Salle. Fast-forward to January 14, 1981 when Ken Hall, captain of the team, hit a 25-foot buzzer-beater to lift Penn to a 51-49 victory over Temple.
Unfortunately if you are a Quakers fan today, there has not been a whole lot to cheer for. Penn’s men’s basketball team has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 2007, when they lost to Texas A&M as a No. 14 seed.
The team is entering its final stretch of home games. The Quakers play back-to-back games this Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, and finish their season Tuesday at home against long time rival Princeton. Although the program is in the midst of a slump, one thing going for Penn basketball is their home court. The Palestra is heralded as one of the gems of college basketball.
What’s the Palestra?
Located on University of Penn’s campus off of 33rd and Spruce streets, The Palestra hosted more NCAA games and fans than any other arena in history. It is also the oldest major college venue in the country.
The Palestra was opened in 1927, and its name is a nod to Ancient Greece. Dr. William N. Bates, a professor of Greek Studies at Penn in the early 1900s, came up with the name. He pointed out young men of Ancient Greece would train in a gymnasia then compete in front of the public in an attached enclosure called a Palestra.
As you turn off of 33rd street and walk up the slanted walkway, you’ll notice the Palestra’s tremendous size. The Palestra seats approximately 8,700 people, but as many as 10,000 have packed the place to watch basketball games. The first game ever played took place on New Year’s Day, 1927, when Penn beat Yale 26-15.
Because of its old-school architecture and it being around for so long, The Palestra is associated with other historical sporting venues such as baseball’s Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston.
Despite the Palestra’s great reputation, a newcomer to the venue would not be overwhelmed with bright lights and top-tier technology. Consider a facility such as the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That stadium has a video board that measures 72 feet high and 160 feet wide right above the field:
The Palestra’s version of this of technology is two new Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision video displays, which measure about 2 feet wide apiece. Nothing in the Palestra screams new or fancy. It’s the facility’s age and history that make it celebrated.
The Big 5 schools — University of Pennsylvania, La Salle University, Temple University, Villanova University, and St. Joseph’s University — began calling the Palestra home in 1955. At that time, the University of Pennsylvania Trustees’ Committee on Student Affairs obtained a loan to renovate the Palestra by adding seats and implementing new features. From there, the athletic directors at each school collaborated a plan to start the city series, as the Palestra was chosen to be the site of the series. Since 1955, this is where the teams compete for bragging rights every year. Every season, a handful of Big 5 match-ups are scheduled at the Palestra instead of either of the teams’ home courts.
In addition, Drexel and Penn also squared off in its “Battle of 33rd Street” rivalry, where 15 of 16 games were played at the Palestra from 1997-2012. The only game not played at the Palestra was played at Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center in 2008. The series between the two teams is split, with each team winning eight games. Drexel currently holds a five-game winning streak. However, Drexel has not played at the Palestra since its last meeting with Penn because coach Buiser Flint no longer wants to play “home” games there.
The Palestra is also home to the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs, where the Philly Archdiocese’s high school basketball players meet for the semi-finals and championship. This is a tradition that dates back to 1942.
ESPN aired a one-hour documentary, “The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball,” in the summer of 2007, in which players, coaches and broadcasters paid tribute to the venue.
In it, Dan Baker, the former Big 5 Broadcaster and Big 5 Executive Director and current PA announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies, had this to say: “There’s no better place to watch a college basketball game than the Palestra… The sight lines… the way the noise is retained… the way that the building was constructed… the proximity to the floor… everything about the Palestra makes it the best place ever to watch college basketball.”
But it might be legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who summed it up best. “The fact that Big 5 basketball is so unique in the United States is something very special, and it takes a special venue to hold that and the Palestra certainly is a special venue.”
Photos from Wikimedia Commons