Game 056:at Pennsylvania 73, Columbia 66 Friday, February 11, 2005 The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA
Every game counts, but the sad flipside of the Ivy League season is that it is cruel and short: only fourteen games over six weeks. Each team gets three weekends at home, two midweek contests against a travel partner... and then just like that, it's all over. Since the NCAA has never awarded an at-large bid to the Ancient Eight, the winner takes everything.
So Friday evening's Pennsylvania home game against Columbia would be my last game in my beloved Palestra until the dead leaves of October clog November's gutters. Penn's final home weekend ( Dartmouth and Harvard) coincides with a tradition the Ancient Eight so vigorously opposes: conference tournament week. there are other bouncing balls I'll be following then.
So I made that last cold evening trudge through University City, down along North 33rd Street with its flickering streetlights. The wood and glass doors flung open again, I took my place in the toasty and sweaty arena as I had so many times before. My eyes tried to capture and record everything I could, build the mental picture I'd rely on for nine long months. There, the old guy in the end stands with the camcorder who only videotapes the breaks in the action; over there, the intricate stitching on the EIWA Wrestling Championship banners. The game went by in a hazy blur.
But it's just a building, some might say. An really old one, at that. In an new world of glass-and-steel sports palaces with skyboxes and cupholders, it wouldn't seem that there's much room for an outdated throwback of a barn like the Palestra. So is such tearful clinging misguided, should we simply give up our nostalgia and embrace progress?
Mikaelyn Austin spent four years of her life on that historic court as a star guard for the Penn women's team - she wore the 22 jersey, and helped the Quakers capture two Ivy League championships whilst draining 126 three-point shots. Since Mikaelyn graduated last year, she's been applying her fine arts degree towards a laborious labor of love, a documentary called The Palestra: Cathedral Of Basketball (her student-project preview of sorts can be found here). She wants to make sure that the stories of the gracefully aging hall will be told to future generations, so that they might better understand what makes the place so special.
"What the Palestra has that these other buildings don't is precisely what you come for," she said. "Just basketball. Everything about the place, and the few surviving arenas of its kind, is about the experience of the game of basketball. Not the fancy amenities, or the flashy scoreboards... it's not about any of that. It's about basketball."
"It's not because of all the bells and whistles that - in the end - really have nothing to do with the game at all," she added. "It's the pure, exciting, and intense experience of watching two teams battle for supremacy over a game that is truly amazing... whether you hate one, love both or know neither. The Palestra is one of the few places that still provides that, and nothing else. No bells, no whistles."
In this particular chapter of Palestra history, Penn won by seven points and continued their dominance over the Ivy League. Despite the seeming resurgence of Columbia basketball this year, the Quakers only had to step on the gas once, dropping a gamebreaking run midway through the second half.
At nine o'clock, the paid-attendants gathered up their jackets and hats, said their farewells to friends, and bustled back out into the chilly Philadelphia Friday night from which they came. A few minutes after play ended, the colorful electric score panels that dominate the east and west ends sizzled, and then slumbered. The bleachers were cast into grey shadow.
But I didn't want to leave, not just yet. As the cleanup crew with their brooms and trash bags crept through the aisles in slow-motion, I held fast to my seat. It's tradition that the kids come out afterwards for the chance to play on the storied floor, so I looked on as a team of young scrappers in gold played a team of rambunctious rascals in white. As the coach-referee shouted encouragement and an assistant kept score on a portable electronic scoreboard, the gold team won 77-74. After the contest was over, the teams posed for pictures around the dark red center circle.
At 10 p.m., a full hour after the Lions and Quakers had finished play, I was wandering the hallways. I spent some time furtively attempting to memorize each of the giant panels that make up "Palestra 2000," a project by Penn AD Steve Bilsky. Five years ago, he embarked on a mission to revitalize the dank concourses by converting them into a brightly-lit museum of Philadelphia basketball. There are hundreds of pictures, anecdotes and artifacts on display, such as the original Big Five trophy and Villanova's 1985 NCAA championship banner.
"I wanted the next generation of fans to appreciate what makes this place special," Bilsky said at the time. "The history and tradition of Philadelphia basketball was built by all the legendary people who have walked through the Palestra doors. I hope we told their stories well."
Before leaving, I took one last look out at the seating bowl. The court itself was empty, except for one little squeaky-shoed kid who was shooting hoops. I recognized him from the game earlier. Dan Harrell, the wise and kindly old caretaker of the Palestra, just sat patiently in the first row of chairbacks, arm up on his mop, smiling.
The boy was a little under five feet tall, probably about eleven years old. He'd spent most of the game on the bench, and it was becoming clear why. He missed shot after shot; he lunged his tiny, fragile body upward and forward as he vainly tried to score a goal. Each attempt featured a slight alteration of elbows or arms, as if he was trying to find the correct mechanical combination that would bring him success. Each time he missed, he missed badly - he spent more time clamoring after the ball in the deserted student section than he did on the court.
I did what any sympathetic, able-bodied person would. I crossed that invisible boundary that normally separates fan and player, stepped out onto that legendary ash-blonde court. I rebounded for him.
Shot after shot fell short of the rim, or bounced wildly off the glass. I calmly stood under the basket, caught the ball each time, and passed it back. One failed attempt lodged itself between the rim and backboard, and I leapt up high to retrieve it. When he did convert on a free-throw line jumper, a perfect swish from left of the elbow, I clapped in encouragement.
One time, I held it for an extra few seconds. "Just one?"
The kid nodded in approval. I stood in the low right post, my knees bent, looking up to the basket. Through the glass I saw the darkened scoreboard. As I held the ball in my hands, I thought of Wilt Chamberlain and David Robinson and Tom Gola and Bill Bradley, of all those great players who had once stood where I did. I started shaking a little.
"C'mon, man," the boy cried out in a thin little voice. "Put it up already!"
And so I did. My layup glanced off the glass and fell through the net; I caught the ball in my arms.
Later on, I asked Mikaelyn about her first made basket at the Palestra. "I definitely remember it was a three-pointer," said the long-range shooting specialist. "I remember glancing over at the young kids in the stands... I remember thinking that those kids are looking at me right now dreaming about playing ball for Penn and hitting a three pointer like me, just like I once did when I was their age watching Kate Starbird and Jamela Wideman playing for Stanford!"
My first and only bucket on the Palestra floor didn't count for any points, and the scoreboard wasn't awake to record it. I passed the ball back out to the perimiter, let the kid continue his efforts, turned and finally said goodbye for another year.
Maybe he had an inkling about how lucky he had it, getting to learn his shot there on that legendary floor; maybe it will be a few years before he realizes the impact the Palestra has had on the history of Our Game. It doesn't really matter much either way - it is just basketball, purely and simply.
"We mustn't forget why we fell in love with a ball and a hoop," Mikaelyn told me. "Not just over 100 years ago when the game was invented, but when we were little kids playing horse with our fathers or learning how to spin the ball on our fingers like Pistol Pete. One thing will never change - at some point in every player's, fan's or coach's life, you fall in love with the game, and regardless of how much - or how little - money you make off of it, that will always be there."