PHILADELPHIA -- The Palestra, the concrete and steel Cathedral of College Basketball, opened in 1927 at 215 South 33rd Street, near the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, it's hosted 52 NCAA Tournament games, hundreds of Big 5 and Ivy League tilts, and thousands of college contests.
In the winter of 2004, a not-so-young man with a failing software business sat in the last row of section 211 during one of those games and had an idea. A website full of scores and schedules for the Ivy League, and Patriot League, and all the other one-bid conferences that hadn't entered the information age yet. There wasn't a single source for all of that; scores wouldn't show up on ESPN or CNN/SI for days sometimes, and not every school had its own sports information site yet. The name would come later -- midmajorinfo.com, midmajor.net, something like that -- and so would supplementing the information with original writing or crazy 100 Game Projects would too. But the idea came here.
My first trip to the Palestra came in 1995. I was on an informal campus visit to Penn, and my girlfriend and I were walking up 33rd Street on a late Saturday morning. There was this brick building that people were walking into, we decided to check it out, and there were preparations for a Division I women's volleyball game going on inside. We spent the afternoon in this weird echoing church-gym hybrid, wondering what year we'd blasted back to.
Over the years, after I settled in Philly, I spent hundreds of nights watching Big 5 basketball, or Ivy games on the weekends. (My Drexel student ID would get me in free sometimes, depending on who was working the ticket office.) Seasons went by, and I fell in love with the place. On free weekdays, I would drop by the Palestra and sit in the bleachers with my 20-lb. 1997-model laptop, and I'd read books and just think. Before the CPIA, it was my place where good ideas just happened. Then I kept hearing all these stories about how it was haunted by the ghosts of old players, and it made me want to camp out there.
When I first pitched the idea to Penn sports information director Mike Mahoney, he was far more receptive than most people would be. Sleeping in the Palestra has become an annual student tradition in recent years: "The Line" has become the preferred method of student ticket distribution every November. That's tailed off a bit as the program has entered a historic period of struggle (as of this writing, the Quakers haven't won a home game in exactly 333 days), but sleeping there hasn't become quite as singularly rare as individual sleepover requests. But Mike cleared it with the facilities people, we picked a mutually agreeable Wednesday night in late January, and at 8 p.m., I trudged across Center City with my friend Roni's sleeping bag under my arm. I was ready to camp out in the Cathedral. Since a major renovation over the turn of the century, you can't just walk into the Palestra anymore. The street-facing front of the building has been redone with two decks of heavy wooden doors, and there's a sophisticated security system that restricts entry. After the end of a sad squash whitewash at the hands of arch-enemy Princeton in adjoining Hutchinson Gym, Mike brought me over to the main building. He swiped his ID card through a hidden passkey system that resembled that of a Dharma station. The door bolt cracked open.
"Last chance," Mike said. "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?"
"Hell, yeah," I replied enthusiastically.
It was 9:00 p.m., and I set up my camp on a camera riser in the southeast corner near section 211, right at the exact birthplace of The Mid-Majority.
At the start, I didn't have the Palestra to myself. A few Penn students had snuck into the gym with their own ID cards, sitting amongst piles of books in the bleachers. I slipped in without much attention, and jumped into the sleeping bag, idly reading a few pages of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, in which the former lead singer of the Talking Heads rides around the world's cities on a folding bike. But I was mesmerized by a whirring hum from some distant machine, and the radiator in the corner was very warm. I drifted off to sleep; my mind was a sea of black oil, dreamless and silent.
Until at 11:30 p.m., I was awakened by what sounded like a jackhammer. It was Brian Fitzpatrick from the Quaker men's team, shirtless, getting in some late-night practice. The curved roof of the building pointed the sound of his dribbling two basketballs directly towards my corner, echoing through the building. The acoustics of this place are amazing.
But then at midnight, almost on the dot, the lights went off. I was on my own.
At 2:30 a.m., I was awakened again by clanging and banging. I was prepared for the steam pipes, because I remembered what former Penn women's player and Palestra documentarian Mikaelyn Austin had told me when I interviewed her back in November 2007. She mentioned one late evening she'd spent in the Palestra taking pictures for a photography class.
So there I was, luckily with the help of one of my teammates, snapping away for my class assignment when all of a sudden we began to hear a noise that seemed to be coming from the corridor. At first it was a soft sort of clicking isolated to one corner of the building, but then it began to pick up in rhythm, began getting much, much louder, and was moving around us in a counterclockwise direction. It sounded as though a group of people were running around the corridor wearing metal shoes, getting faster with every bounding step. Needless to say, my teammate and I took one look at the horror on each others' faces, grabbed all my photography equipment and ran out of the gym, not stopping until we reached the front of my dorm four blocks away!
I later came to learn from my coaches that that sound was nothing more than the old Palestra pipes playing tricks on our ears. This may be true, but to this day I still refuse to go into that building empty late at night, or be the last to leave after an evening game!
I found that her description of the metal-shoed runners is dead-on. For about 45 minutes, around and around the concourse they ran. Clang, Bang! Bash! Klonk, Klink, Clang! The noise continued.
And then, just as suddenly as it started, the Palestra fell silent. A wave of cold swept over me. I pulled the sleeping bag tightly over my body, but the cold was inside me, throughout me like a popsicle in a freezer. I held out my hand to the radiator, and it was still on and burning warm. Was I catching the flu? What was going on?
Then I heard a soft, low murmur. It slowly intensified and got louder. I surmised that it was another trick of the pipes, some kind of hissing steam. Or maybe it was like the ringing in the ears that comes when things go totally quiet, the rushing of blood in the head. Or maybe it was more hearing problems, or gusts outside against the windows (there was a wind advisory, after all). Or maybe it was me going nuts.
Because I could have sworn it was voices whispering. There were enough of them that I couldn't make out any words, like the chatter at the symphony before the conductor raises the baton.
OK, that's it, I thought. My descent into hoops madness is complete and final. Or perhaps this was all just a dream. You know those dreams you have when you're in the exact place where you're sleeping? And you wake up in the place where you just were, and you're completely disoriented?
My iPhone alarm went off at 4:00 a.m., because I'd forgotten to turn it off the previous morning. But now I was up and awake, and the Palestra was dead-silent again. My mouth was desert-dry. So I padded down the bleachers, into the east concourse, past the all-time Penn-Princeton scoreboard. Down the ramp, around the perimeter of the floor, making as much noise as a cockroach in my stocking feet. I tested the door of the media room, a place I knew well, and found it opened easily. The refrigerator was empty and locked. So I scurried over one door to the Class of 1971 Lounge; that swung open too. Behind the bar, there was a liter bottle of Coca Cola. There I was, in the palace at 4 a.m., drinking warm Coke out of a Dixie cup, looking at the Big 5 memorabilia in the lounge. Surely, this must be heaven, I thought.
At 5:15, there was the distant sound of a heavy door. I knew it was Dan Harrell, the 65-year-old longtime custodian and caretaker of The Palestra. Mike had warned me that the facilities staff hadn't forwarded the message to Dan that I'd be there, so I stayed in plain sight in the bleachers. I didn't want to startle him. He rummaged around in the back rooms, and turned on a tiny boom box next to the press room door that echoed WRTI, the jazz-classical station, around the Palestra. It was Billie Holiday singing "It Had to Be You."
Dan was still surprised when I approached him. "You slept where?" he asked. I pointed towards the southeast corner. "You should have slept in the locker room on the training table."
The 6 o'clock hour came, marking the WRTI changeover to classical music and the beginning of a trickle of Quaker basketball players and coaches into the Palestra for a 6:30 practice. Nobody got on the floor until Dan finished wiping the floor down with a solution-dipped towel attached to a 45-lb. oaken weight, which he dragged along behind him.
Dan told me a story about a homeless person he found sleeping in a locker room one morning, before the 2000 renovations and the increased security. "'You're going to call the cops on me, right?' the guy said. 'Yeah, I'm going to have to.' 'Can you let me take a shower first?' I let him take a shower. So when the cops showed up, I told them to wait for a few minutes. I had to grab the guy a towel."
"You didn't hear anything, did you?" Dan asked me. It was the kind of leading question that the responder knows is being used as a request for validation.
"I heard whispers," I admitted.
Dan's eyes lit up. "See? It's not just me," he exclaimed. "I wouldn't say the Palestra is haunted... it's more like... maybe, spirited. Zach believes me, right? You've been here late at night and heard things, right, Zach?"
Sophomore guard Zack Rosen, the team's leading scorer, was jumping rope nearby. He nodded seriously. He didn't elaborate, though. Zack Rosen had secrets.
Over the next two hours, with stirring classical music as backdrop, the 1-13 Penn Quakers prepared for their opening Ivy League weekend at Yale and Brown. It was like a montage scene from an underdog basketball movie like Hoosiers. (Hoagies?) The coaches had one of the managers run out and get me coffee. Halfway through the practice, Mike Mahoney came in and sat next to me. "So... how did it go?"
"I think I heard voices," I said. "I'm pretty sure I did, but not totally sure."
"Like The Others in Lost?" Mike asked.
"Yeah, maybe," I replied, laughing a little. "I have been thinking a lot about the new season, after all. But I think I saw stuff too."
"It wasn't like a replay of the 1939 NCAA Regionals out on the floor or anything," I said. "I'm telling you this, because I feel compelled to say it out loud. Tell me if I'm totally crazy or not."
On the west side of the Palestra, were the Penn band and the Red & Blue Crew are during games, are three entry passageways, alternately painted red and blue. They lead fans from the front concourse and the ticket windows to the arena itself. Late at night, when the gym lights went out, the concouse lights stayed on, providing three shafts of light across from where I slept.
But at around 3 in the morning, in the silence, I saw a dark shadow cross left to right behind the first passageway. The backlight was erased, and then it was bright again. But it didn't pass across the other two. I didn't hear any of those front doors, which are very heavy and loud.
In my socks, I got up quickly out of bed, ran down the bleachers, down into the east side entryway, around the south concourse. It took me about 45 seconds to get from one end of the building to the other. I peeked around the corner to the west end. But it was quiet and empty there, just the displays for the Big 5 teams and the plaque about loving the game being greatest of all. There was nobody there.
The percentage of Americans who believe they've had a brush with a ghost has doubled in the past 14 years from nine to 18 percent. A full 100 percent of Americans have been entertained by some form of media having to do with the paranormal. But what is a ghost? An apparition? A lost spirit in search of a voice or a body? Is there another "side" trying to make contact with ours And really, why bother? Using that logic, we'll all be across that border sooner or later. Can't it wait?
Do these supernatural concepts represent the power of our overactive and underutilized imagination, an easy explanation for the inexplicable? Are they a way to make our own boring existences more interesting or meaningful? Who knows. It's certainly not something that a basketball website born in an old gym in Philadelphia is going to solve. But when I slept over in the Palestra, I wasn't the only one there. Whatever the second, or third, or 80th actually was, I can only pretend to guess.