Out & About: Hoops history

Penn boasts its share of historical landmarks, from soaring Irivine Auditorium and stately College Hall on campus to the elegant Penn boathouse on Boathouse Row. But perhaps the most important historical building on campus, at least in the mind of a sports fan, is Penn’s storied basketball arena the Palestra.

Built in 1927, the Palestra is considered by many to be a cathedral of basketball, not only for its classic design, but also for its significant place in the history of the game. Given the number of luminaries that have graced its floor, the Palestra could rightly be called the most important arena in college basketball history.

The revered building on 32nd Street has hosted more games, more visiting teams and more NCAA tournaments than any other college arena in the country. Besides being home to Penn basketball for decades, the Palestra was also home to Philadelphia' famed Big Five basketball clashes for more than 30 years. The building also hosted the first ever NCAA championship, way back in 1939.

With such weighty history behind it, it’s no wonder that when ESPN recently asked its top basketball experts to name their favorite arenas, the Palestra was right at the top. Commented ESPN analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas: “It is one of the true gems of the sports world, right up there with Wrigley Field.”

If you haven’t taken the chance to tour this piece of Americana, then, it’s about time you did. Like Bilas said, it’s like having Wrigley Field in your backyard.

A walk through history

Always a gem of a building, the Palestra took on the feel of a museum in 2000, when a $2 million renovation gave the building a much-needed overhaul—and added a series of displays, located throughout its concourses, that tell the impressive story of both the Palestra and college hoops as a whole. The four displays you’ll find along the brick corridors each cover a different theme: one showcases the best players ever to suit up for Philadelphia’s Big Five (Temple, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle, Villanova and Penn); the next tells the history of Quaker basketball, including the ongoing Penn-Princeton rivalry; another honors the broadcasters and journalists who covered Palestra basketball, and helped shape its legend; and the last shows, in a series of photo collages, the litany of top players and coaches who have stepped on the building’s floor through the years.

Some display highlights include the game ball from Temple’s 1000th victory in 1974, a championship banner from Villanova’s Cinderella championship season in 1985, a shrine to the famous St. Joseph’s Hawk mascot, and a large scoreboard, centered in the Penn-Princeton rivalry display, that keeps track of the schools' all-time record against each other (after this season's results, including the Quakers' stunning comeback against the Tigers in February, Penn is now comfortably ahead, 115 to 96).

Though all of the displays are worth a look, the most impressive—and the one that provides most compelling proof of the building's importance—are the photo collages that showcase the many legends who have played or coached there.

The list is a who's who of basketball history: Coaching luminaries such as Bob Knight, Adolph Rupp, Rick Pitino, Dean Smith, Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Lou Carnesecca and Digger Phelps; superstar players like Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Austin Carr, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Chris Mullen, Marcus Camby and Kobe Bryant.

Even cranky and perceptive television basketball analyst Billy Packer, who called the Final Four for CBS this season, is pictured—he played at the Palestra while a guard at Wake Forest in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Of course, the highlight of any visit to the Palestra is the court itself. From the old-school grandstands to the multitude of championship banners hanging overhead, from the vaulting arched ceilings to the historic hardwood floor, the arena just feels like basketball.

Newer arenas may be bigger, or glossier, or boast more high-tech amenities. But few, if any, can match the Palestra for its charm. Which is why it remains, in the eyes of many, the best basketball arena in the country.

The Palestra is open to the public during Penn athletic events. For more information, go to www.pennathletics.com.

Originally published on April 14, 2005