Penn all-time moment No. 6: The Palestra opens in 1927

We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Penn is next because SQUIRRELS

Do you know why the other seven Ivy schools will always suck even if they win? Because they play their games in high school gyms.

I ask you, would Duke still be “Duke” if they played at Levien, or the Alfred E. Newman Senior Citizen Center or that bullshit place where Harvard plays? (By the way, Cameron Indoor was designed by the same architectural firm as the Palestra. That’s why they look the same.)  If clothes make the man, then the stadium makes the team. In this arena Penn has, and never will have, any competition.  The Palestra is called “The Cathedral of Basketball” with good reason.  Since it was built, Penn’s home court has hosted more games, more visiting teams and more NCAA Tournaments than any other facility in the country.  It is unquestionably the “birthplace of college basketball.”

For me, it is just an electric place to watch a game and its unobstructed views make every seat a winner. Naturally the internecine Big 5 contests as well as the annual Penn-Princeton games are, without doubt, locked in my memory.  Ironically, however, the one game I remember the Cathedral at its very best was neither a City Series nor an Ivy matchup.  In 1981, I saw an 18-year-old Patrick Ewing, who had become a national phenomenon, play against Villanova in the nascent Big East.  (Four years later, Ed Pinckney and the rest of his Wildcat freshman class, would go on to defeat Ewing and Georgetown for the national championship in “The Perfect Game.”) The place was sold out, suffocatingly hot and cigarette smoke hung languidly in the air like April ground fog. I bought a scalped ticket ($25, expensive!) for a back row bench in the southeast corner. Even though I was physically as far away from the court as possible, I could still see every pimple on young Patrick’s face.  (I also couldn’t hear for two days following the game.) Although I’ve witnessed it countless times, it is almost impossible to explain the Palestra at full voice. I think former Penn coach Fran Dunphy sums up the feeling of being there best when he said,  “When it’s filled, and it’s a crazy atmosphere, it’s kind of indescribable. I don’t think you can ever pinpoint in words what it’s like. I think people have to experience it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

1 thought on “Penn all-time moment No. 6: The Palestra opens in 1927”

  1. I agree with the general premise of this post that The Palestra is an amazing place to watch college basketball, clearly the best in the Ivies and probably the best in college basketball, period. It’s fantastic that The Cathedral, such a grand celebration of the sport, is in our conference.

    But The Palestra does not look much like Cameron Indoor Stadium other than the fact that they’re both old school facilities without modern amenities. And The Palestra certainly isn’t the birthplace of college basketball. To be the birthplace of anything, you’ve got to do it first and The Palestra was far from first. What is it with Penn people, re-writing history to aggrandize Penn’s already prominent place in the past? Part of being a great institution, which Penn most certainly is, is knowing what you are and what you are not. Penn alums can’t quite accept what Penn is not, whether it’s being founded in 1740 or being the birthplace of college basketball.

    In the immortal words of Harry Callahan, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”


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