The Palestra: Basketball’s Ultimate Oasis
By John M. Miller, Fall 2008

The Palestra
Matthew Marcucci Wikimedia Commons
The Cathedral of Basketball on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

At 220 S. 32nd street in heart of the City of Brotherly Love stands a red-bricked building, one of the most revered in sports history. It is called the Palestra. The origin of the name dates back to Ancient Greece. Dr. William Bates, a professor of Greek studies, first recommended the term "Palestra," an obscure term for a rectangular gymnasium or "a public place for training and exercise in wrestling or athletics." After eight decades of basketball at many different levels of competition, the building has come to be known by other names, such as the "Cathedral" for its gothic appearance and the "Mecca of Basketball" in reference to a Muslim's required pilgrimage to their holy city once in a lifetime. For basketball fans and especially Philadelphians, the Palestra is a must-see venue.

The fame surrounding the famed arena stems from its history of close and competitive matchups of teams not just from around Philadelphia, but the country. The Palestra is home to the men's and women's varsity basketball teams of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition and perhaps more importantly it houses one of most legendary rivalries in the history of American sports: the Big Five. Consisting of the biggest five universities in the greater Philadelphia area—Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova—these schools formed a profit-sharing league in the mid-1950s in an effort to create the finest inner-city competition that would overshadow other famous rivalries like Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale, according to Palestra Pandemonium, by Robert Lyons, a sports correspondent for the Associated Press.

The Palestra is notably the oldest sports venue in the United States still in operation today. It lies at the heart of the Philadelphia sports scene of the mid-20th century. Nearby, Franklin Field, which now hosts the annual "Penn Relays" competition as well as Penn home football games, was home to the Philadelphia Eagles' 1960 NFL Championship team. Also in the area, while it stood, was Connie Mack Stadium, named for the celebrity manager of the Philadelphia Athletics (1909-1954). The Phillies shared the park with the A's, beginning in 1938 before moving to the now demolished Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia.

The Palestra Interior in 1927
Hoopedia.nba.com
The interior of the Palestra from its opening in 1927.

Capacity seating at the Palestra, in the beginning, sat just under 10,000. It hosted its first game between the Penn Quakers and the Elis of Yale University. On New Year's Day, 1927 the two teams battled to a 26-15 result, low by today's standards, with Penn the victor. A 1987 refit of the Palestra decreased the number of seats by a thousand from 9700 to 8700. Its largest crowd before the overhaul had been 9,648 in the 1958 Temple-St. Joe's men's game.

As the first 25 years of the Palestra played out, fans and athletic officials alike wanted something differentůsomething originalůsomething big. The principal mind behind the foundation of the inner city league, Penn athletic director Jerry Ford, in cooperation with other athletic directors from La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova, created the Big Five on November 23, 1954. Years later, Drexel University would be named an honorary member. "The Big 5 was part of the fabric of life in Philadelphia; there's no other way to describe it," says St. Joseph's current Athletic Director Don DiJulia. Today, the Big Five is looked upon as a one of the greatest rivalries in collegiate sports. And most interleague matchups are played out on the floor of the Palestra. For use of its arena for Big Five play throughout the season, Penn was paid a courtesy fee for by members of the conference. However, all five teams shared equally in the overall revenue brought in by the games.

"The Palestra is to college basketball what Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are to baseball," John Feinstein wrote in his book, A Season Inside. "It is a place where you feel the game from the moment you step inside." Inside, there is very little difference between a seat courtside or behind a school band at either end of the building; you're practically on the court with the players. "With the streamers, the rollouts, the mascots, and the bands, the Palestra is an entirely different atmosphere from a professional game," said Harvey Pollack, a Big Five statistician. "The logistics are great, you can see anywhere and you're right on top of the action." said Les Keiter, the voice of the Big Five during the 1960's. Keiter recalls no other arena in his career that was as loud and full of energy as the Palestra. "I don't think there's a place on earth that is comparable to it," Keiter added. "I've broadcasted games all over the world and no matter where I was I would always say 'you don't know what it's like until you walk into the Palestra.'"

Palestra Program
University of Pennsylvania Archives
Program cover for the first Big Five basketball game in 1955.

Fred Shabel, former athletic director at Penn once described centre court at game time. "When you're that close to the floor, right on top of the action, it's a different world." Until joining the Penn faculty and later as vice chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, Shabel coached at Duke University and had despised the Palestra for its uniquely intense atmosphere. "We didn't like coming to the Palestra to play a game. It was one of those situations where it was very difficult to win." Sometimes visiting coaches would feel claustrophobic from the crowd breathing down their necks and "hollering" in their ears. Gary Thompson, coach at Wichita State, once said: "Our treatment by the officials and off the floor by those damn, horn-blowing, hollering St. Joseph's fans was atrocious." Dave Wohl, a former Penn guard, said he noticed that officials would give inner city teams extra room to play more physically. "It's nothing like the NBA, but you could hold and grab a little more, you could bump a little more and you could bang under the boards a little more."

Fifty-two post-season games have been played in the Palestra — more than any other court in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history. It also hosts the annual Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) state tournaments involving high school and junior high school basketball leagues in the keystone state. "If you won at the Palestra in the winter, you could talk all summer on the playgrounds," says former Penn coach Fran Dunphy, who competed in the Big Five at La Salle. Dunphy replaced another famous Big Five coach, John Cheney, at Temple in 2006. Cheney took a .500 Temple squad in 1982 and turned it into a 26-5 league success story in 1983-84, winning a share of the Big Five title with La Salle and a trip to the NCAA Tournament for first time in 25 years. The only thing missing from Cheney's resume when he retired was an appearance in the NCAA Final Four. Since the early '70s, 195 players, coaches and sportswriters have been inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame.

A memorable event happened during a Feb. 20, 1965 game one of a doubleheader (common at the Palestra) when a bomb threat forced the building to be evacuated causing a 40-minute delay to the St. Joe's-Villanova game. The only person who refused to vacate was long-time Palestra broadcaster Les Keiter. He earned a reputation for dedication in broadcasting during what turned out to be a hoax. Another beloved figure in Big Five history was "Yo-Yo," the unofficial mascot of the conference created by middle-aged gentleman Harry Shifren. Yo-Yo would amuse the crowd by traversing the sidelines smoking cigars and shooting foul shots at halftime. Some of professional basketball's most elite have passed through the walls of the game's sacred shrine like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Dan Harrell was a part-time student while he mopped the gym floor twice a day. His favorite place for study and conducting other extracurricular activities was the "john." "Do you know there are 50 different names for it?" he said. "It's a great place to check out the horses for the next race. Your boss can't find you there." Over the years, Harrell became a legend among legends for his frequent counseling of students and athletes on matters of life. "I think he's the greatest Penn success story," said Cynthia Johnson Crowley, who played basketball at Penn in 1950s. "There isn’t anything he won’t do to make your life better. And in return, it all comes back." Dunphy calls him "kind of a hero of mine."

Palestra Interior
John Shadle Wikimedia Commons
The Palestra some thirty minutes before tip-off of a St. Joe's — Penn game in 2006.

In a March 2000 column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Vitez wrote of Harrell showing up to work "at 4:55 a.m. on a March Tuesday, the day of the big Penn-Princeton doubleheader. Inside, everything was dark. The only sound was Big Daddy Graham talking sports on all-night radio." Graham hosts an overnight talk show on Sportsradio 610 WIP. Harrell sympathizes with those who believe the school legend that ghosts of former players and fans haunt the Palestra. "I've seen them plenty of times," he insisted. "Their faces are misty, and they remain in view only long enough so you know they’re there." Harrell spent 20 years at the General Electric Company, starting in the mail room and ending in marketing. However, in 1981 his division was disbanded. The need for a job brought him to the Palestra. For time served, Penn compensated two of Harrell's six daughters' education at the university.

Much like Harrell, Edwin V. Byrne of Collingdale, Pa. spent the better part of his adult life as a mobile vendor at Philadelphia's ever-changing sports stadiums. He personally worked at the Palestra during at the height of the Big Five age during the ’60s and ’70s. His wife, Agnes, recalls visiting her husband along with their youngest daughter, Mary and how they would climb over the counter of the concession stand to speak with Mr. Byrne on his break. Mrs. Byrne describes her husband during that time as a workaholic with a kind of "nervous energy" that he picked up as a child struggling to make ends meet before serving in the European theater in World War II. "He made lots of friends because he was such a recognizable face," she says of his reputation for vending all over the city, most often at Veterans Stadium. Like Harrell, Byrne worked at places like the Palestra to both stay active and to have some supplemental income for his four children: Ed Jr., Jim, Tom and Mary. Mrs. Byrne believes her husband had other motivations for spending so much time trotting up and down concrete staircases on weekends away from his 9-5 job in a South Philadelphia GE plant. "He loved the excitement of the games."

Throughout its history the Big Five has seen every team reach the NCAA Final Four. However, the only university to win a national championship was Villanova in 1985 when they stunned the basketball world by defeating the number one-seeded Georgetown Hoyas. It is considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The greatest previous glory had been Temple winning the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1969. Teams that are not accepted by the NCAA Tournament selection committee are generally invited to the NIT. Despite having shared Philadelphia's "curse" of success without championships, the Big Five has been represented in either post-season tournament in every year since its inception except during the year of America's bicentennial (1975-76). That year, all five teams had losing records.

As the 21st century approached, the Big Five would be slowly outsourced from the Palestra. Beginning in 1991, the league suspended its traditional round robin format. When it resumed during the 2000-01 season, a few changes were made. Not all Big Five matches would be played on the Palestra court and each team would only be required to schedule two league opponents during a season. This transformation might have left behind the original concept of the Big Five and reduced the Palestra to a notable landmark in Philadelphia. But remnants from the old days remain. The inner-city rivalries still thrive. Doubleheaders are played throughout the regular season. The young stars and starlets of tomorrow are trained first in PIAA action and then shine as a Quaker, an Owl, a Wildcat, an Explorer or a Hawk and if they're fortunate, the National Basketball Association (NBA) or the Woman's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Though this process, the tradition lives on but as more of a living legend in the city it was born in: Philadelphia. And the place it dwells? The Palestra.

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