Game 041:Pennsylvania 67, St. Joseph's 59 Tuesday, January 26, 2005 The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA
Let me tell you, those 27-game road trips are the worst. It seems like I've been traveling forever, hopping from arena to arena on my silly little quest to see a hundred college basketball games before April Fool's Day. Last night, I was able to return home for the first time in almost two months.
There's a mailing address where I receive my electric and phone bills, and there's what my driver's license says, but my real home is on 33rd Street in Philadelphia, between Spruce and Walnut. There, in the southeast corner of the Palestra's bleachers, I can lighten my load, stretch my legs and relax. Like many folks, I'm a renter ($12) and have a tenuous relationship with my landlord. It always seems like I'm getting kicked out, so I find myself virtually homeless most of the time. That long stretch between March and November is the worst.
But that's all fine, on balance. My house has high ceilings and running water, and it's always nice and warm in the wintertime. There's a kitchen that's fully stocked with all my favorite snacks: soda, popcorn and pretzels (although we're out of honey mustard sauce at the moment). And it's always been a great place to collect my thoughts. It was where I first realized the 100 Games Project would be more than a blog gimmick, and I still have the faded gameday copy of Palestra Illustrated from last year's Brown game, upon which I initially sketched the architecture of a schedule/geography database that would allow people to find local college basketball games.
It was good to be back. Hot Dog Man was there, as always, in his body-length frankfurter costume - so were the Zoot Suit crew with their "This Guy Hates You" sign. The yellow-coated peacekeepers were as smiling and friendly as ever, and that cute little red-haired Penn cheerleader has grown her hair out a little and curled it. I had found myself missing my many hundreds of roommates while I was away.
We even had some company over last night. The Hawk (who still hasn't returned my letter for some reason) was there, as was literary luminary John Feinstein. Feinstein was a guest on NPR's Morning Edition earlier in the day; instead of traveling to Wisconsin for their epic Big Ten showdown against Illinois, he told the host that on the whole, he'd rather be in Philadelphia. He had a much better seat than I did, but guests of honor should receive special consideration.
At just after eight o'clock, we all settled in for the evening's entertainment, a basketball contest between St. Joseph's and Penn. Both teams are currently hovering listlessly in the .500 range and don't stand to enjoy postseason consideration of any kind, but that doesn't matter. Even if both teams were 1-19 in late January, the Palestra still would have buzzed with manic energy. There is no such thing as a bad Big Five game.
Despite the building's status as part of the UPenn's campus, the St. Joseph's squad wore their white jerseys. The hallways and concourses were decked out in maroon and white, and the merchandise tables were piled high with Hawk gear and publications. It's rare to see the Quakers wear their road blues here, but the message is clear - the Palestra belongs to all of Philadelphia, not any one team.
And so for this home game for St. Joe's, Atlantic 10 logos were sprinkled over the court. The Fieldhouse Fanatics swarmed the west end, and alumni crowded the side sections. The Penn band was knocked out of its acoustically-perfect perch high in the south stands, crowded in behind one basket with the Quaker student rowdies. Even with the season-ticket holders in the chairbacks, Penn was outnumbered in a building where their mark graces the halfcourt circle.
But the hemmed-in Quaker faithful steeled their lungs and matched the Hawk fans shout for yell. To watch a Big Five game in the Palestra is to feel the back-and-forth, call-and response cheers deep in your skeleton, a roar that cascades down from above and swirls around you and into you. Each public address system announcement splits your skull like lightning, your breath becomes short, your heart helium-filled. All of this happens no matter if you went to either of the competing schools, or neither one.
Early on, it appeared Penn would dominate, as the Quakers rushed into the thirties while their opponents remained mired in the teens. But in the second half, the St. Joseph's crowd banded together and girded their team from underneath with a mighty sustained yell - the Hawks began to inch closer on the old hand-operated electric scoreboard. Down the stretch, every questionable call and miscue brought a cry of approval from one end and a shrill cry of disbelief from the other; the two massive noises collided at midcourt and bathed the players in an electric frenzy.
But in the end, the superior weaponry of Penn proved too much for the rebuilding Joes, who lost a Big Five tilt for the first time in three years. St. Joseph's voraciously tore into the deficit until it stood at just four with a minute left, but a well-executed offensive setpiece allowed Quaker forward Steve Danley to spin away from two defenders and penetrate deep into the paint. His slam dunk violently broke the spirits of the white-shirted Hawks, and the Quakers' survival was assured.
At times when the city is buried in snow, there is a single narrow pathway out of the Palestra, a five-man-wide artery that leads back to Walnut Street and the heart of University City. After a sold-out game, the walk becomes as jammed as the outbound Schuylkill Expressway at evening rush-hour, but the close quarters and lack of automobiles offer extended opportunities to make new friends of your neighbors. A wise-featured older gentleman in a tan overcoat and Penn-colored scarf stood shoulder-to-elbow to me for several minutes; he saw me scribble longhand notes into my small silver notebook, and asked me if I was some kind of journalist.
"No," I replied, giving a well-worn stock answer. "I'm just a guy trying to get to 100 games this season."
"Really?" he asked, pausing for a moment to consider the math problem. "That sounds like it would be difficult."