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Pride of Philly: Gym is part of city's texture
John Garrity discovered The Palestra more than 25 years ago, when his girlfriend's brother played basketball for the University of Pennsylvania.
Garrity eventually ditched the girl. But not The Palestra.
Each season he returns, often alone, always in the bleachers. He arrives hours early, biding time with a book or memories of games gone by.
So how does a west Philadelphia gymnasium named for a Greek rectangle inspire loyalty and passion many a couple would envy? It's certainly not youth or beauty. After all, The Palestra is pushing 80, and fresh paint has its limits.
Garrity cites intimacy. Each of The Palestra's 8,722 seats, three-quarters of them bleachers, snuggle against the court, the squeak of sneakers audible throughout the high-ceilinged, barn-like structure.
Retired broadcaster Les Keiter, who has a few years on The Palestra, cites history. The first games of the first NCAA tournament were played here in 1939. So are most games among Philadelphia's storied Big Five of Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova.
Hampton's own Boo Williams, a 1981 Saint Joseph's grad and a member of the Big Five Hall of Fame, cites fans. They're as crazy as they come, including Pennsylvania's recently inaugurated governor.
But for the most eloquent testimony we turn to Chuck Daly, coach of the original Dream Team, the 1992 U.S. Olympic squad. Daly has worked basketball venues from Boston to Barcelona, but only The Palestra, where he coached Penn from 1971-77, leaves him smitten like a schoolboy.
It's "like having warm maple syrup poured all over you. It's got a charisma that you don't find anywhere else in the country today," Daly says.
He's right, you know. Vintage arenas such as Madison Square Garden, Fordham's Rose Hill Gym and Princeton's Jadwin Gymnasium dot the Eastern landscape, but The Palestra stands alone. And the charisma hits before you stroll through the doors.
It starts with the neighborhood. Driving down South Street toward 33rd, The Palestra is merely one of three grand sports venues. First there's Convention Hall, where Chamberlain's Sixers dethroned Russell's eight-time defending champion Celtics in 1967. Then there's Franklin Field, 108 years old and former stomping ground for Red Grange and Norm Van Brocklin.
A 3-pointer from Franklin (before flying his kite, ol' Ben founded the university) sits the Quakers' home arena, The Palestra, its red-bricked exterior similar to the stadium's and masking the history within.
Inside, the concourse smells like a backyard cookout. Hot dogs are grilling, soft pretzels baking. The $2 pretzels, warm, doughy and salty, are a bargain at twice the price.
The concourse, renovated in 1997 for $2 million, doubles as a shrine, with photo collages at every turn. Hall of Fame coaches: Temple's Harry Litwack and John Chaney, Saint Joe's Jack Ramsay, Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Indiana's Bob Knight, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Penn's Daly.
National championship teams: La Salle (1954) and Villanova (1985). All-America players: Temple's Guy Rodgers and Mark Macon, La Salle's Tom Gola and Michael Simmons, West Virginia's Jerry West, Massachusetts' Julius Erving and Virginia's Ralph Sampson. Philly high school phenoms: Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant.
Bobby Kennedy campaigned here. Grace Slick and Barbra Streisand performed here.
"If you want to be measured in Philadelphia, then this is the building you have to play in," says Saint Joe's coach Phil Martelli, a city native. "You have to do well on this stage to be special."
On this Saturday night, Martelli's Hawks, among the Atlantic 10 Conference's best teams, share The Palestra stage with defending Big Five champion Penn, class of the Ivy League. During warmups, a ball bounces toward me on the sideline, and I make eye contact with Quakers forward Ugonna Onyekwe.
Ugonna Onyekwe? Yes, the Big Five, once the private domain of players from the Northeast, has gone international. Penn and Saint Joe's alone have players from Russia, France, England and Germany.
I feed Onyekwe, a senior from London, a textbook chest pass into the lane. An assist! I'm going to have an assist at The Palestra. But no! Onyekwe, a 52-percent shooter and the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, back-rims a left-handed jumper.
It is my only disappointment.
"This is a great basketball town," Garrity says, "and this is a great place to sit and watch a basketball game. The sounds echo in here. They seem to gather in intensity. You'll see."
Indeed, moments before tipoff, the joint is rocking. Every seat is occupied, with the crowd divided evenly among Penn and Saint Joe's partisans. Penn's pep band breaks into "Pinball Wizard."
Trust me. If Tommy were at The Palestra, that "deaf, dumb and blind kid" would experience sensory overload.
My neighbor along press row is Bob Lyons, a former sports publicist at La Salle. Witness to more than 400 games here, he published a book last year on Big Five basketball, "Palestra Pandemonium." Throughout the game, he regales me with stories.
Freshmen were ineligible when La Salle played at Niagara in 1966, and at halftime a tiny guard from the freshman team wowed the home crowd with world-class baton twirling. The following season at The Palestra, the baton twirler torched La Salle and its best defender, future Virginia Squire Fatty Taylor, for 52 points. The baton twirler was future Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy.
For more than 30 years, fans littered The Palestra court with streamers upon a game's first basket. Finally, in the early '90s, officials had had enough. Streamers were banned. Technical fouls were to be assessed. But Penn coach Fran Dunphy and Saint Joe's coach John Griffin decided the tradition needed a proper sendoff. So they encouraged their fans to bring streamers, and when referees assessed technical fouls to both teams, the coaches instructed their foul shooters to step over the line.
During the 1968-69 season, Frank McGuire brought South Carolina here for the Quaker City tournament, handing La Salle its only defeat that season. When McGuire's players complained about the spartan locker rooms, he told them, "If they were good enough for Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Bradley, they're good enough for you."
Penn recruited Dave Wohl as a football player. But strolling the campus he happened upon The Palestra, walked in and was smitten. He tried out for the basketball team and never returned to football. Wohl twice earned first-team All-Ivy honors, and in 1971, he, Corky Calhoun and Craig Littlepage (now athletic director at Virginia) led the Quakers to a 28-1 season that ended with an East Regional final loss to Big Five rival Villanova.
When Kentucky advanced to the 1992 East Regional at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, coach Rick Pitino first brought the Wildcats to the Palestra. He wanted them to feel the history.
Early in the second half, with Penn unable solve Saint Joe's man-to-man defense, Lyons points across the court. "There's Ed Rendell," he says.
Sure enough, four rows up sits Rendell, sworn in as governor four days earlier. Rendell, a Penn grad and former Philadelphia mayor, is also a Palestra devotee.
As if on cue, referee Joe DeMayo calls Penn's Andrew Toole for stepping out of bounds under the basket. Rendell bolts from his seat and screams at DeMayo.
It's that kind of night for the Quakers, Ivy League leaders and a probable tough out come the NCAA tournament. They shoot poorly and have no answer for the Hawks' talented perimeter of Jameer Nelson, Pat Carroll and Delonte West. Saint Joe's wins 66-48.
At the final horn I find Keiter, the former broadcaster. He's 83, long since retired to Hawaii. But he flew East to be inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame.
Keiter cameoed in several episodes of "Hawaii Five-O," and he used to close sportscasts in Honolulu with Big Five scores, undoubtedly baffling the hang-ten crowd. But he is most remembered for Feb. 20, 1965.
Telecasting a Villanova-Saint Joe's game, Keiter became an unwitting player in a bomb scare that prompted authorities to evacuate The Palestra.
"I was right up there in the catbird's seat," he says, pointing across the court. "The cops kept pointing. 'You, too. Out.' The manager of our station called and told my statistician, 'Tell him he's not going anywhere. All across the city people are calling friends and neighbors to tell them to turn on Channel 6 because a bomb is about to go off. These are the best ratings we'll ever have.'
"So I stayed on. Two cops started climbing up the ladder and said, 'If you're not down in 10 seconds, we'll come up there and carry you out.' But the opening was very narrow, and we just pushed all our equipment over and blocked the opening. Even now, living in Hawaii, people come up to me and say, 'Tell me about the bomb scare.' "
Yes, The Palestra has its characters - and character. But it always comes back to the players and coaches who for the last 50 years have made a Big Five championship the ultimate in Philly bragging rights.
Boo Williams knows. In 1980 he made two free throws with no time remaining to force overtime against Penn. Saint Joe's prevailed in triple-OT, with Williams scoring 27 points. The Hawks eventually won the Big Five, their four victories coming by a combined seven points.
"It's an extraordinary experience for players, coaches and fans," says Martelli, the Saint Joe's coach. "All the other places people talk about, Pauley Pavilion, Cameron, they don't compare to this building. Here tonight you had Saint Joe's fans on one side, Penn fans on the other. The building was split."
Has anyone ever dared suggested razing the joint?
"People would chain themselves to the building," Martelli says. "It's a Philadelphia institution, like cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and water ice. It gives our city an identity that no one else has."
Does today's generation of players appreciate the institution?
"I don't think they really understand," Martelli says. "Shame on us, really, that we don't do more with the history of our game, because all we are is the latest. We're not the greatest."
So Martelli beams when his best player, Nelson, says beating Penn is critical, "especially in this building."
Outside the building, the air is miserably cold. The wind howls. But after an evening in The Palestra, the weather is irrelevant.
I've been doused by warm maple syrup.
POSTSCRIPT. Saint Joseph's is 2-1 since the Penn game, losing to George Washington, and defeating Rhode Island and Villanova. The Hawks (16-3) play at Fordham on Saturday.
Penn is 3-0, defeating LaSalle, Dartmouth and Harvard. The Quakers (10-5) travel to Cornell tonight.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com