Last year, I made my first Philly college hoops trip to check out Saint Joseph’s newly renovated Hagan Arena. It was a bone-chilling January day, so it was ironic that a year later, I was making the same trip South (this time down I-95, instead of using the I-476) on a 19 degree day to see the Cathedral of College Basketball, The Palestra. What a great trip this was as I arrived plenty early to soak in as much of the experience as I could. Getting to campus really is no problem, but finding parking isn’t fun as the gym has almost no parking. Its easier to use Exit 345 to go through Drexel and then I used the lot in front of the garage at Chestnut and 34th, which was nice because when leaving it’s a breeze to get back onto I-76. Be prepared for city parking prices as it cost me a ridiculous $15. I’m not one that likes seeking out street parking, but for those that do, go for it. Anyway, after circling the exterior, I was heading inside only to find the doors locked at 5:30 (game was 7:00). Penn’s website says doors open an hour and a half before the game. Don’t believe it, because it wasn’t until 5:50 that they opened and that’s only because the crowd gathering in the tiny entranceway was getting too big.
One of the great parts of the building is the museum that they built in the surrounding concourses with renovations earlier in this century. I spent about 45 minutes just going through and reading all the stuff on the walls here. Each hall has a theme: Pennsylvania basketball, the Big 5, the Ivy League and player appearances and performances. The walls feature murals, display cases, descriptions and pictures of the amazing history in the building. Stepping inside is like a blast to the past in so many respects, it just blew me away. The simplicity of the design and intimacy of the seats (both with each other and to the court) is sweet and I don’t think 8,722 seats could be this close to the court again. You can also feel the enormity of the history that has taken place in this building and people have said there are ghosts or spirits inside. Check out one of the pictures I took with an orb on the left side. Maybe it’s dust, maybe not?
This was a Big 5 game (more on that in a bit) and once you get to game-time on a packed night, those seats fill up fast and it is a chore to squeeze in to the bleachers and sit on your number. You’ll likely be touching the person next to you continuously and doing some sweating as I stripped off my jacket and sweatshirt, down to a t-shirt by the 10:00 minute mark. But putting up with the uncomfortableness is well worth it, as soaking up the passion and atmosphere is hard to match. The acoustics make this building loud and it’s just terrific to watch basketball.
The Big 5 is Philadelphia’s unofficial conference consisting of Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, Temple and LaSalle. Since 1955, they have played each other round-robin style to determine a champion, who gets pride and bragging rights. There was an interruption of the series in 1991-1998 (boo to Rollie Massimino and Temple’s former AD for that). This Big 5 game between Penn and Saint Joe’s brought a near-capacity crowd that was rocking despite the poor records of both. I would say it was split probably 5/8ths for Penn and 3/8ths for Saint Joe’s, but the Hawks had a bigger student section. The students have one of the cooler traditions during games called “Roll-outs”, which are long, clever messages rolled out on brown paper and then passed down the rows to the bottom for the other side to see. Penn’s crowds have not been as good during Ivy or non-conference games (averaging 3,000 – 4,000), but it’s still best in the conference and hopefully turns around when they start winning some more. Regardless on this night, with Big 5 action, the Palestra was rocking.
Pennsylvania ended up winning 73-61 in a game that was closer than that. It was pretty close until a late run around the 4:00 minute mark gave the Quakers the advantage for good. It was a really well played game with not many fouls, but still with an intensity. Tyler Bernardini impressed me with 27 from a variety of ways. I’m also surprised to see how far the Hawks have fallen as they’re now 5-13. I’d like to see them get good again, hard to believe it’s only been seven years since they went 27-0 in the regular season. As for Penn, Jerome Allen’s got them going in the right direction as they started 2-0 by winning their first two Ivy games this weekend. With Princeton having a terrific season, hopefully that final March 8th game will have some meaning at The Palestra once again. Definitely happy I was able to check out one of the most historic venues in college basketball, for the official review click to the right #98 The Palestra.