Because no website has ever thought of anything like this before -- to my knowledge, at least -- TMM will be running an interview series at the end of each week throughout the college basketball season. I know, I know, this has been done before, in other places. But we'll be chatting with coaches, players, broadcasters, superfans, and other folks who help make our game the greatest anyway.Future interviewees in this space will have a incredibly hard act to follow. Our first subject is Mikaelyn Austin, talented shooting guard and filmmaker (philm-maker, actually). Austin recently chronicled the history of Philadelphia's Palestra, college hoops' greatest cathedral and second home to many, in a fantastic documentary that had its national television debut on the ESPN networks over the summer. We e-chatted this week about the grand and ghost-filled old barn on 33rd Street, her championship playing career on that hallowed hardwood, Ivy League women's basketball in general, Philadelphia's tragically cursed sports scene, and her current film projects too.TMM: Here's a softball for starters... why the Palestra?MA:
Why not the Palestra? That is why the Palestra. Rather, I should say, that is why I chose to produce a documentary on the building. As many of my fellow former Penn basketball players would agree, The Palestra is a second home. After beginning to research the documentary idea, I was appalled to learn that nothing had been made to glorify its history. Everyone talks about The Garden, or Cameron, or the Pit, or Rupp Arena, etc., as the greatest arenas of the game. Looking at the history behind Philadelphia basketball in the Palestra, the storied rivalry of the Big 5, the development of TV broadcasts by Al Meltzer and WPHL, in the Palestra - the origins behind the popularity for college hoops traces back to that building. TMM: You got the ESPN networks to show the Palestra doc earlier this summer. How's that helped the visibility for the project, and did you get any sense of the reaction from the national showings earlier this summer?MA:
To have the documentary picked up for national broadcast by ESPN was a dream come true for me, not only as a filmmaker, but as a fan of Philadelphia college hoops in general. As a documentary that is, without a doubt, a "regional title," this national placement truly speaks to the importance of Palestra basketball and the storied rivalry of the Big 5, not only in the greater Philadelphia area, but across the country as well. The response to the airings really encouraged this broadcast decision by ESPN, and as such, we're coming "back by popular demand" on Comcast SportsNet starting next Friday, November 23rd at 7pm! TMM:
We talked a couple of years ago about great old buildings like the Palestra fading into the background, crushed by big money, glass-and-steel arenas and generic rock n' rap "arena experiences". Have things like George Mason and the increased coverage for mid-majors help stem that tide, or is it really a question of old ways being lost forever?MA:
I definitely agree that the underdog tales of schools like George Mason have increased the coverage of mid-majorities. Every college basketball fan LOVES a good upset. That's what March Madness is all about! However, I don't think this increased coverage has really affected the way in which fans reflect on the game or its "Cathedrals", so to speak. The necessity to experience unadulterated basketball, The Palestra being one of a few hosts left, is, and I fear will always be, a parochial phenomena. TMM: You won championships on that floor with the Penn's women's team. What was that like, that Dartmouth game in your senior year, are there any snapshots that stick out?MA:
I actually put together a 10-minute season highlight video with a teammate of mine after our season that year, so I get to respond that I literally carry snapshots with me all the time! Even if I hadn't put that video together though, that game would always remain engrained in my memory. It was the second time I had the honor of calling myself an Ivy League Champion, and it meant even more than the first go around (2000-2001) because it was the culmination of my senior year in which I was chosen to be a co-captain by my teammates and coaches. We weren't the most talented team in the Ivy League that year, but we just gelled so well.
I know it sounds corny, but those teammates were my best friends, so every play we fought for each other. Before the season started, my fellow senior, Jewel Clark, suggested that we all wear these blue wrist bands with the word "BELIEVE" stitched in. It still gets me choked up when I look at group pictures after games throughout that season to see all of us with medical tape wrapped around our left or right wrist...nobody wanted to take those things off, even during games!
So, to answer your question, winning that game against Dartmouth - clinching the Ivy League title for the second time in my career, and the second time in school history; all of that in my second home, The Palestra - it was absolute euphoria, basketball heaven for me. My classmate and I climbed on top of the rim, sat together and waved the net around our head. We felt as though we had added our own little chapter to the great book of basketball history that is the Palestra. TMM: Tell me a little about Ivy women's basketball, and how the Penn program fits there. There's been a lot of success on the women's side for schools like Dartmouth and Harvard in the past, places that haven't won the men's title since most of us were born.MA:
Ivy League women's basketball is very interesting in that regard. The teams that normally win on the women's side, are not the same as the men's side. I'd credit a lot of Harvard's success, particular in the last 10 years or so, to over-seas recruiting. During my four years (2000-2004), they're strongest players were foreigners, and man did they make our jobs miserable! How do you guard a 6 foot 2 post who can sink a pull up 3-pointer?!?! Our posts were always more "classic" posts - back to the basket, drop stepping powerhouses. I think our coach (Kelly Greenberg) was able to develop her own style for us, however, as we started transitioning the traditional Penn game into more of a run and gun during my Junior and Senior years. We had more "street smart" players those years, so that change in style was absolutely crucial to our success.
Funny story to that note - we were up at Harvard my freshman year, just before the game that would clinch us the programs first title in school history, and a spot in the post season tournament. A few of my younger teammates and I were walking up to the gym when a (snobby looking) couple stopped us and asked if were were from Penn. We responded, politely, "yes mam." To which she replied "Oh, look honey. This is Penn. You know, the blue-collar Ivy League school." We relayed this story to our coach and, much to my utter surprise, she proceeded to use it in her pep talk prior to the start of the game. She applauded our squad as true "blue-collar" student-athletics. We worked our you-know-whats off day in and day out, all season long. We were not going to be rewarded the Ivy League trophy that year, we were going to TAKE IT!
I took that lesson to heart, far beyond the basketball court, throughout my remaining four years at Penn, and to this day I still stand by it. If you really want something, you have to work hard and take it! TMM: Other than winning the Ivy, what are some of the other games, plays, moments that stand out in your mind from your years playing on the Palestra floor?MA:
A bit of an unconventional answer for you, but a fun one none-the-less...
When I first arrived at Penn, the upper-classmen used to tell us that the Palestra was haunted. Being a bit of a scaredy-cat, I made sure I was never the last to leave the building after a late night practice. By the time I got to be a sophomore however, I was a little too confident and had more or less come to the conclusion that the upper-classman were just yanking my chain. After all, I was a freshman from the west coast. By this time in school, I had taken up a passion for photography, carrying a class on my schedule in 35mm black & white. I don't exactly remember what the assignment was, but I decided the shoot would take place in the Palestra at night - late at night.
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! TMM: What does it sound like when you're on the floor during a game? There's the famous quote about the sound in there always being greater than the number of people present, and you can get that as a fan, but what's it like when you're playing?MA:
It is absolutely deafening. I can vouch for this experience both as a former player and now as a fan. Our games never generated the type of attendance that the Men's games would, but on an average night when we'd have a couple hundred fans, it honestly felt like the place was packed! The bottom layer of stands that resided around most of our eye levels would usually be pretty crowded, so the upper stands, which were largely empty for a women's game, managed to be lost in a sort of haze that comes over a player in the heat of a game. So, as far as we could tell, it still felt like the fans were just about ready to fall right on top of us as we ran the court!
Now that I am a fan, I've had the opportunity to attend quite a few sold-out match-ups between Penn and an opposing Big 5 team, or Penn vs. Princeton. In those circumstances, when the sound releases from the crowd it travels up to the roof, ping-pongs amongst the rafters and steel trusses, then shoots right back down into your ears leaving you partially deaf hours after the game has ended. The place gets so hot from all the body heat being trapped and from rubbing elbows with the person next to you all game long (recall that most seats are designated with a number painted on a wooden bleacher), you honestly leave feeling as though you had just played! There's nothing else like it. TMM: One of the things I love about the Palestra is that it's usually unlocked during the day. Do you ever just go in there and sit and think?MA:
Absolutely, though not as much as I used to when I was a student at Penn unfortunately. My teammates and I used to always go in during the day between classes, sprawl out on the benches and pretend to do homework. Often we would stop by Frita's food cart just in front of the tennis courts on 33rd Street, grab a hoagie or a pretzel and bring it inside for lunch. Frita's cart is still there, and Frita is still cooking strong! Outside of attending games, I come up to Penn probably two or three times a month for meetings or documentary publicity matters and every time I make sure to stop by and say hi to Frita and then make my little pilgrimage into the Cathedral. If no one is around except for the custodians, I'll grab a ball from the women's locker room and shoot around a bit (sometimes it's not too pretty so I try not to let anybody see me!).
I don't see very many people doing this anymore. It's sad to think that we let our lives get so busy that we can't even stop and enjoy a simple pleasure such as that. TMM: What's your favorite part of the filmmaking process? Photography, editing, something else?MA:
I was extremely fortunate to have the Palestra Documentary as my first major project in that I was responsible for every single step in the production process, from concept to cutting room floor. The real technical aspects, such as filming and editing, were done by professional crew members, though they really let me dictate my vision through their respective expertise. Coming out of that experience with a solid understanding of the many, many, many components that go into making a film, I've identified my great passion as being the producer. I love brainstorming project ideas, conducting research, identifying funding sources, pulling together the appropriate crew and staying on throughout production and post-production to ensure that all the puzzle pieces come together just right. TMM:
Your followup is a movie about the frustrations of Philadelphia-area sports teams to win championships since the Sixers in 1983 and Villanova in 1985. Do you really think there's a curse?MA:
I actually worked on this documentary concurrently with the Palestra Documentary. It was an extremely low-budget project (as in whatever we could dig out of our pockets!), in which I served as co-writer, co-producer, director of photography and co-editor. As a California native who arrived at Penn in August 2000 with the strict intentions of getting an Ivy League education and playing D-1 basketball for four years before going back home, I really had no idea of the fervent sports scene in Philadelphia. After playing basketball for Penn, beginning work on the Palestra documentary and, at the same time, The Curse of William Penn
, I became absolutely intoxicated by the passion this town has for it's sports traditions!
My friends tease with me that I must have secretly been born in Philadelphia, that this town's blood runs coarse through my veins. I've been here for seven years now, and it feels like I never could have lived anywhere else! I felt the same pain and frustration as my Philadelphia native friends when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl in '05 and when the Phillies were swept out of the playoffs just this past October. For 24 long years we've waited for a sports championship in this city. We've been to the pearly white gates many times, and each time had them slammed in our faces! Whether you believe in curses or not, the fact remains that we broke a near-century long "gentlemen's agreement" that no building would rise above the four-story high statue of William Penn atop City Hall just after the Sixers won the NBA Championship back in 1983. Since then, nothing. Oh, the curse is real alright!TMM: Does that extend to the college teams too? Saint Joe's did the city proud a couple years back...MA:
This argument has actually been brought up on a number of occasions. The Curse of William Penn really just focuses on the professional sports scene here in Philly. Not to take anything away from Villanova's unbelievable 1985 Championship win (the only Philly team in Big 5 history to do so by the way), or Saint Joe's recent amazing season. Those runs generated a great rallying cry for all college hoops fans in the city. When a professional sports team in Philly goes the distance, however, it's a whole different ball game. The city turns green from head to toe, or red in the Phillie's case this year. Professional sports is not just a part of Philadelphia, as it is in New York or DC or Boston, or any other major metropolitan areas in the country. Professional sports DEFINES Philadelphia. Always has, always will. It's one of the aspect about this city that I love most, for better, or for worse... TMM: What are some of the other projects that you and Philly Philms are working on now?MA:
We've been developing a number of potential documentaries, most of which are home grown topics. I am also presently attached to a few dramatic features that will take place here as well, hopefully sometime early next year. The fellow filmmakers that I work with on Philly Philms projects are all extremely passionate about Philadelphia and all that it has to offer as a historical and cultural beacon. Through my various filmmaking endeavors, I aim to have Philly Philms help draw the attention our great city has so long deserved!!
If anyone is interested, I've been developing a website,
which will soon begin hosting information regarding these various projects.TMM: Tell people how they can see the Palestra film for themselves!MA: The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball
will be airing regionally in Philadelphia, and throughout areas in the Greater Delaware Valley, on Comcast SportsNet starting next Friday, November 23rd at 7pm ET. A full list of our CSN broadcast schedule is currently available on our official documentary website.
Another GREAT way to see the Palestra film for yourself is to order a copy of our recently released Special Collector's Edition DVD, as seen on ESPN with extended scenes and bonus features!! Those are currently available for sale, also on the documentary website noted above. You won't find a better holiday gift for that Philadelphia sports fan! Or any college basketball fan, really. Thanks again to Mikaelyn... TiVo the repeat showings on CSN, buy as many copies of the DVD as you can afford... and most importantly, make your very own pilgrimage to the Palestra sometime.