As the NCAA basketball season inches towards tournament time, allow me to highlight my favorite place on the planet to watch college hoops.
As Philadelphia’s most revered sports venue, the Palestra is appropriately called the Cathedral of College Basketball.
Recognized as the birthplace of college basketball, this hallowed arena opened its doors on the University of Pennsylvania campus on January 1, 1927. On that seminal day, Ivy League rivals Penn and Yale tipped off in what would become the first of thousands of games held in this building.
Named after an ancient Greek rectangular enclosure, the sparkling new facility was designed to house 8,722 spectators.
However, more than 10,000 excited fans crammed into the Palestra to witness Penn beat Yale 26 – 15 on its opening day.
Since then, the Palestra has hosted more NCAA college basketball games than any other arena in the country.
Beginning 1955, the Palestra has also served as the home court for the round robin of Big 5 college basketball games. Though not an official league or athletic conference, the Big 5 boasts five successful college basketball programs located within a 17 mile radius of center city Philadelphia.
Each year, the Big 5’s Penn, LaSalle, Temple, St. Joe’s and Villanova compete against each other in the city’s iconic Palestra. No other metropolitan area in the country can make the college basketball claim to have five programs this good, this close to one another and also this willing to schedule games each season.
In 2007, an ESPN Classic documentary chronicled the Palestra’s enduring legacy by featuring its iconic building and its storied basketball tradition.
In 2000, the Palestra enjoyed a welcome renovation and the addition of a Philadelphia college basketball museum.
The documentary highlighted the concourses surrounding center court of this beautiful brick building, with nearly a century of memories adorning the walls. Banners, trophies and even pictures of mascots capture die hard college hoops fans.
However, it’s the enviable Palestra Hall of Fame that totally enraptures visitors. The glass enclosed photos and awards cases recognize Big 5 coaches and players as well as the city’s greatest high school player ever – Wilt Chamberlain – who hailed from center city Philadelpia’s Overbrook High which is just a short cab ride from the gym.
Worthy coaches such as Penn’s Chuck Daly, LaSalle’s Tom Gola, St. Joe’s Dr. Jack Ramsey, Temple’s John Chaney and 1985 NCAA National Championship coach Rollie Massimino of Villanova are also recognized.
The unique rapport of the Philadelphia college basketball coaching fraternity has long been admired. Traditionally, Big 5 coaches eagerly share game film on opponents whose schools were located outside Philadelphia. Ironically, or even admirably, this Big 5 coaching cabal would never offer coaching tips or game film on any of the Big 5 rival schools.
“Easy” Ed Pickney of Villanova, Jerome Allen of Penn, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant of LaSalle, Norman Black of St. Joe’s and Bill “The Owl Without the Vowel” Mlkvy of Temple are some of the best Big 5 players that laced ‘em up at the Palestra.
In addition to Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant and Eugene Banks are other high school prodigies who never played college basketball at the Palestra. However, they were known to ran up and down the pristine hardwood court during high school all-star and playoff games.
Because fans are able to sit so close to the court, the Palestra lives up to its billing as arguably the best place to watch a college basketball game.
And, the plaque that greets Palestra visitors once they enter its hallowed basketball halls reinforces the aura of the place.
It reads: “To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.”
I doubt few would argue.
MIKE on sports!