Dec. 6, 2008
by Pete Spiewak '10
Author John Feinstein called it the Fenway Park and Wrigley Field of college basketball. Former Hawk great Matt Goukas said playing there was like playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Broadcaster Les Keiter called it his "Field of Dreams."
It is the cathedral of college basketball. The home of the Big 5. The Palestra.
The Palestra, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most storied building in all of basketball. The hallowed halls of The Palestra have hosted countless cross-town battles. The Palestra has also seen many great national powers fall at the hands of scrappy Big 5 teams.
The history of The Palestra is unparalleled. It has been the site of more NCAA basketball games and NCAA Tournaments than any other arena in college basketball. As a part of 19 NCAA Tournaments, there have been over 50 tournament games played there, including the first one ever, in 1939, when Villanova topped Brown, 42-30.
And not many basketball arenas have as intimate an atmosphere; at The Palestra, the fans are packed in tightly. The Palestra holds 8,722 people--many of them rubbing shoulders with their neighbors because of bench seating. The fans are seemingly seated right on top of the action, helping The Palestra foster one of the best environments to watch a game in all of sports.
The Palestra has been a great attraction for college basketball fans in Philadelphia since the inception of the Big 5 in the mid-1950's. Fans have been treated to events such as the Quaker City Tournament and Big 5 doubleheaders.
The Palestra is a building that was well ahead of its time. College basketball was not popularized until the 1950s.
"Even in the 1950's, there were very few major basketball arenas on college campuses across the country," said Don DiJulia, Saint Joseph's Director of Athletics, who has been a part of the Big 5 since his playing days on Hawk Hill in 1964. "By then, The Palestra had long been built."
"[The popularity of] college basketball began to climb in the 50's," DiJulia said. "But in the 60's, The Palestra was still the place to see college basketball, because if you look at the top 10 teams in the East today, none of them had an arena at that time. The Palestra and Madison Square Garden were the two places where teams from the Midwest, West, and the South aspired to play basketball."
Although it may technically be the home court for Penn's basketball teams, The Palestra belongs to each of the members of the Big 5, Saint Joseph's included. Each school - Saint Joseph's, La Salle, Penn, Temple and Villanova - has left its mark on The Palestra, and has helped make it the legendary building that it is today.
Over the years, The Palestra has become a place where no highly-ranked team was safe.
Saint Joseph's, like every Big 5 school, has more than a few memories in the 81-year-old arena. One of the most memorable Palestra victories in Hawk history came in 1962 when the Dr. Jack Ramsay-led Hawks stunned highly-regarded Bowling Green. Future Hawk coach Jim Boyle nailed a jump shot at the buzzer that gave the Hawks a 58-57 win over one of the top teams in the nation.
That wasn't the only time one of the nation's top teams a got a rude welcoming to the Palestra from the Hawks.
In 1964, Ramsay and the Hawks were at it again. Saint Joseph's shocked Wichita State, the No. 2 team in the nation, 76-69, in the championship game of the Quaker City Tournament that year. Saint Joseph's guard Billy Oakes played a pivotal role in the upset, scoring 21 points on one of the nation's best teams.
Wichita State's miffed head coach, Gary Thompson, promised to never return to the building.
On February 20, 1965, Saint Joseph's forward Cliff Anderson, who stood at a mere 6-foot-3, had one of the most dominant individual performances of all time on The Palestra hardwood. Anderson dropped 36 points on Villanova and grabbed 24 rebounds for the Hawks in a 69-61 victory.
However, Anderson's performance will forever be overshadowed by another event that occurred on that February night. Between the Western Kentucky-La Salle and Saint Joseph's-Villanova games, there was a bomb scare in The Palestra. All 8,375 fans in the building had to evacuate for 40 minutes. One man who stayed in the building was Les Keiter, a television play-by-play man for the Big 5 in the 1960's. Keiter refused to go off air during the delay, disobeying the police's orders.
Of course, The Palestra is known for much more than being the site of upsets of highly-rated teams from out of town. When two of the Big 5 teams meet at The Palestra, records don't matter. Any team can win on any night, and on January 16, 1966, struggling Villanova, who stood at 5-7 on the season, was on the verge of upsetting SJU, the No. 5 team in the country.
In typical Palestra fashion, this Holy War was a game that would not be decided until the very last play. With only a few seconds remaining and the score tied, 69-69, a Hawk recovered a loose ball and hit a long jump shot at the buzzer. But it wasn't a standout like Anderson, Guokas, or Oakes who made the play that won the game. It was Steve Donches, a rarely-used bench player, who hit the 29-footer to win the game. Donches was only on the court to replace Oakes, who fouled out with less than two minutes left.
In 1994, the Hawks won another memorable Holy War on 33rd Street, this time as a heavy underdog. For the first time in six seasons, the Saint Joseph's-Villanova game was held in the Palestra, due to Villanova pulling out of the traditional Big 5 round-robin format. The 22nd-ranked Wildcats were more talented; they even featured a future NBA lottery pick in sharpshooting Kerry Kittles. But Saint Joseph's head coach John Griffin led his team to a 60-57 upset. Dmitri Domani hit a couple of clutch free throws for Saint Joseph's, and current Hawk assistant Mark Bass added a key three-pointer down the stretch to help the Hawks pull off an upset against their Main Line rivals.
The Palestra was the site of a high school game that didn't have much meaning to Hawk fans at the time, other than the fact that Saint Joseph's highly-touted recruit Darrin Govens would play his last game for Chester High School before donning the Crimson and Gray. Chester was eliminated from championship contention in the state semifinals that night at the Palestra by Lower Merion High School.
It turns out that the Chester-Lower Merion game featured not one, but two future Hawks. When Govens arrived to 54th and City Ave., a familiar face would be waiting for him: Garrett Williamson, one of the stars of the Lower Merion team that knocked off Chester that night in the Palestra, and eventually won the PIAA Class AAAA state championship. Williamson didn't commit to Saint Joseph's until after his senior season.
The Palestra has not only been home to many classic games, it has also seen many of the game's greatest players play on its hardwood. The Palestra has been the stomping grounds for some of the Big 5's all-time best like La Salle's Ken Durrett and Lionel Simmons, Penn's Corky Calhoun and Ron Haigler, Saint Joseph's Mike Bantom and Jameer Nelson, Temple's Guy Rodgers and Marc Macon, and Villanova's Wali Jones and Howard Porter.
Some non-Big 5 players that have played in the old brick building include Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Bill Bradley and Rick Barry. Lower Merion's Kobe Bryant played in the Palestra as a high schooler as well.
There have been plenty of remarkable individual performances in The Palestra. Visiting Calvin Murphy, of Niagara, once scored 52 points against La Salle. Cliff Anderson once grabbed 32 rebounds. La Salle's Ken Durrett scored 45 points on Western Kentucky. La Salle's Lionel Simmons and Florida State's George McCloud each scored 36 in a 101-100 shootout, in which La Salle upset the 12th-ranked Seminoles. SJU's Pat Carroll once made eight three-pointers against Temple.
The Palestra has always been the second home for Saint Joseph's, but that doesn't mean that the Hawks are taking the chance to play there for granted.
"The opportunity for our program to play in the most historic building in college basketball is an honor," said Phil Martelli, who is in his 14th season as head coach.
Williamson is looking forward to the opportunity.
"Playing there is a privilege," Williamson said. "I'm looking forward to spending the whole season there."
This year's version of the Hawks will have to make adjustments in order to get used to being away from cozy Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse while it is being renovated.
The Hawks will lose the home-court advantage that they have become accustomed to having in a sold-out Fieldhouse. The biggest challenge they will face is adapting to the new atmosphere of an arena that will not always be completely filled.
"What we're going to miss is the `100-percent capacity feeling' that we've been used to for majority of the games," said DiJulia. "The predominant advantage in a home court is the percentage of its capacity."
Although the Hawks will be faced with a new travel routine and arena for home games this season, Saint Joseph's will undoubtedly benefit from its past experiences in The Palestra.
"All of the players are there for at least six games a year," DiJulia said. "The familiarity of the building will help [their transition.]"
And some, like Govens and Williamson, have known their way around The Palestra for even longer.
After a 2-3 start to the season, with their only home game coming at the Wachovia Center, the Hawks are certainly looking forward to coming to their new home.
"It's a beautiful place," Govens said. "There's nothing like the Palestra atmosphere."