The Palestra: Big 5's hallowed ground

Darnell Foreman (left) and Jamal Lewis of Penn react during a second-half Penn run against Temple at the Palestra on Dec. 9.

Mid-January. Colder than a graveyard. The worshipping pilgrims shuffle in small circles and stomp their feet against the frosted night, and at the first sign of movement inside they look hopefully.

Expectantly.

Anxiously.

Prayerfully.

Waiting for the doors to swing open and grant them entrance to the Holy Place … to the Cradle of College Basketball … to the Cathedral of Hoops … to …

The Palestra.

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There’s not a better place to be in the dead of winter than here, right here, on 33d Street, on the fringe of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, just above the railroad tracks and the Schuylkill, and cheek by jowl to Franklin Field, that wonderful old dinosaur, repository of great and glorious deeds. Inhale the cold night and you can smell the history.

For a hoop head this is Mecca. More college basketball games have been played here than in any other arena anywhere … and still are … including an homage this week to the sweet-used-to-be: a Big Five doubleheader. Oh be still my beating heart.

Here we have two games to be played in a venue like no other, by four teams in a rivalry like no other. They are virtual neighbors, barely a couple of three-point buckets apart.

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The Palestra opened on January First, Nineteen Twenty-Seven. The Big Five was birthed in Nineteen Fifty-Six. The seating capacity was listed at 8,722, but that depends on which way the fire marshal happens to be looking. Well, he will most likely be in a benevolent frame of mind Wednesday night, when La Salle plays Temple and Penn plays St. Joe’s in the first Big Five City Series doubleheader since 2004. The occasion celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Big Five.

The Shrine

Over the years the aroma inside the Palestra has been a rich and pungent mixture of carnival midway staples — sweat and hot dogs and pizza and disinfectant and tobacco and pretzels and popcorn … especially popcorn.

The building itself is an architectural marvel, open and airy, the gracefully curved roof arches, bending like a whale’s flukes, and in great contrast to that openness are the bleachers, hard and unyielding and designed to test the stamina of your gluteus maximus. They flow like lava from ceiling down to the court, coming to rest virtually on the boundary lines so that it looks as if you could insinuate yourself into the action: “Hey, over here, I’m open. … Hit me.”

The floor itself is polished to a Northern Lights high sheen and is treated as reverently as hallowed ground. No street shoes allowed. No exceptions. None!

One night, so the story goes, a lone figure is shooting casually at one baseline. He wears loafers. The second bounce is a dying echo, and from out of the darkness booms a thunder clap of admonition: “No shoes. Get off the floor!”

Chastened, the lone figure obeys. “I thought it was the voice of God,” explained Julius Erving.

The Neighbors

Six teams. The City Six. Thirteen miles apart. The Big Five and Drexel, the kid next door. Yes, the proximity is absurd, and also part of its quirky charm. A road trip is a cab ride … or less. The Palestra is home base for Penn. Drexel has merely to cross the street and walk two blocks. Temple is across town. La Salle hunkers down in Olney. St. Joe’s is perched on City Avenue. Villanova roosts on the Main Line.

In its earlier days, the Big Five was Happy Days and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, ponytails and high-top sneakers and the invention of the jump shot. The ’50s rolled in with “Rock Around the Clock” … the ’60s were a time of street riots and protest and flower children, and then came the turbulence of the ’70s, followed by the ’80s and Greed Is Good, and slowly, painfully, we all got in touch with our inner self and the Big Five splintered, and we were all the poorer for it … all of which makes these occasional trips in the Way Back Machine so special.

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Take a walking tour along the concourse and corridors, and at each stop along the way there are snippets of grainy black-and-white photographs … links to the past when giants roamed the land. … Remember?

  • La Salle. Tom Gola. He was the best of the best. He won championships at every level, and still holds rebounding records.
  • St. Joe’s. Cradle of those feisty Philly guards, who wore their floor burns with honor. Also, the best mascot of all, anywhere, and second place isn’t even close. The Hawk Will Never Die.
  • Temple. Home of the Old Man, that raspy-voiced, cantankerous tyrant who held vespers before the sun was up. Coaches came from three time zones away to rub the sleep out of their eyes just to watch John Chaney and that confounding zone defense. Oh, yes, along the way he saved some young souls.
  • Penn. The best home-court advantage there is. The building speaks to the Quakers, some say, and when they come down that ramp and onto the floor, the noise lifts them until they swear they can run on air.
  • Villanova. Right or wrong the Wildcats forever will be accused of crippling the Big Five. They will also forever be remembered for the Perfect Game, the night they slew the Georgetown dragon and won a national championship.

“What you learn right from the start,” says Chaney, “is that no matter what or where you’re ranked in the polls, you absolutely, no excuses, have to beat your neighbors. It’s all about honor. … You’re playing to save your honor.”

So then, six teams … the City Six … 13 miles apart. Surely we have died and gone to Heaven.

Bill Lyon is a former Inquirer columnist.  lyon1964@comcast.net