The Palestra – Arena of dreams

Yale freshman guard Makai Mason looks on as Harvard celebrates a fourth straight NCAA tournament berth in front of a crowd of 5.256 at the Palestra. (AP)
Yale freshman guard Makai Mason looks on as Harvard celebrates a fourth straight NCAA tournament berth in front of a crowd of 5.256 at the Palestra. (AP)

If you play it, they will come.

For Saturday’s Ivy League playoff, the emotions ran the gamut from high to low, from hope to despair, from anxiety to exhilaration, as the Palestra played the role of backdrop to one final night of Ivy League theatre, regaining its role as the arena of Ancient Eight dreams.

Harvard-Yale was everything one could have asked for and more with the third game in the fierce rivals’ season series nearly needing overtime. Seriously, what could have been better? You take two evenly matched teams playing to the wire and feature them at by far the best arena in the entire conference.

All I ask is that we see this again.

Of course, based on history, we will see more one-game playoffs. This was the ninth time that there’s been an Ivy playoff and the last two – this game and the 2011 thriller between Princeton and Harvard – have been the epitome of exciting Ancient Eight hoops. At some point, maybe not for another decade, we will see another Ivy playoff.

But that atmosphere, with a packed Palestra echoing with the cheers of both sets of Ivy fans, needs to come back more than just every once in a while. It needs to be every year.

After all, there is nothing like a full house at the Palestra. A few weeks ago, the historic arena hosted the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs and was actually full, unlike Saturday’s solid attendance of 5,256 fans, and the electric atmosphere left nothing to be desired.

So it’s time that the postseason returns to the Palestra full-time. Every year. While I am the biggest proponent of a four-game Ivy League tournament, I also believe that it would be best formatted where the highest seed gets homecourt advantage. Unfortunately, in this case, the Palestra wouldn’t be used for a little while as Penn continues the rebuilding process.

But Saturday’s thriller displayed why it actually may make sense to put the theoretical four-team tournament, or at least the final, at the Palestra with both schools finding it easy enough to take the day trip to Philadelphia.

And it doesn’t even need to be the Ivy League. The American considered the Palestra for its conference tournament before ultimately choosing Memphis and Hartford the past two seasons. If the AAC wants to put its conference tournament in Philadelphia while counting Big 5 staple Temple in its membership, the Palestra would be the ideal choice with an intimate atmosphere and easy access (just a few blocks from 30th Street station).

Gone are the days when the Palestra is an NCAA Tournament host (ironically, Yale’s most recent NCAA Tournament appearance was at the Palestra), but that shouldn’t stop the arena from being a part of March Madness. Even a struggling Penn squad shouldn’t continue to hold back the Palestra.

While Harvard has played the role of Ivy League darling for the last four seasons, the Ancient Eight has seen dynasties come and go. Soon, particularly with the graduation of a senior class that includes former Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders and Saturday’s hero Steve Moundou-Missi, Harvard will go the way other Ivy greats and find itself on harder times.

But, to paraphrase James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, the one constant through all the years in the Ivy League is the Palestra. That arena, those games, they are a part of our past.

So if you bring postseason basketball to the Palestra, people will come. People will most definitely come.

3 thoughts on “The Palestra – Arena of dreams

    • There is absolutely no need for a 4 team playoff. Unlike the other greed driven conferences, the ivy league understands that basketball is 2ndary to education. By keeping Friday Saturday league games to minimize lost class time, the ivy league maintains integrity lost in the big business that college basketball has become. To discount an entire season is both unfair and unnecessary. What they lose in potential excitement, they gain in doing the right thing.

  1. The Atlantic 10 used to hold the pre-final rounds at The Palestra between 1989 and 1995 – back when there actually were 10 teams in the A-10. The tournament was held during Penn’s Spring Break, so there was a lot less congestion around that part of campus.

    The place was an absolute madhouse for those games. The school’s fans were quite passionate and most traveled well to the arena (back then the league had St. Joe’s, Temple, Rutgers, Penn State, UMass, GW, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Duquesne, and St. Bonnaventure). Additionally, Temple and UMass were two of the nations better teams symbolized by a heated relationship between John Calipari and John Chaney adding to the regular tournament drama.

    The atmosphere was so incredible that I would love to see it happen on a yearly basis. While I was always against a Ivy tournament, I am slowly coming around to the idea of a four team two day event on the weekend before selection Sunday to get that kind of passion and enthusiasm, not to mention national exposure for the league and its students/fans.

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