The Palestra in the University City section of Philadelphia is to college basketball as Fenway and Wrigley are to baseball.
Where else but the Greek-named Philadelphia would the most historic sports venue in a city carry a name chosen by a professor of Greek?
Palestra means a four-sided enclosure attached to a gym, which of course, is accurate, but that quirky name doesn’t explain what makes this gem of a sports arena so different. The Palestra is so much more than a rectangle. Sportswriters routinely and herald the Palestra as “the cathedral of college basketball.”
The storied fieldhouse has a remarkable record. The Palestra has hosted the most:
- Regular season and post-season NCAA men’s basketball games
- Visiting teams
- NCAA tournaments
Upcoming games at the Palestra
While it is the home court for the Penn Quakers, the Palestra also routinely hosts college basketball games for the rest of Philadelphia’s Big 5 – Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Temple and Villanova.
No. 7 Villanova (3-2) faces La Salle (3-3) on Nov. 28 at 6 p.m. at the Palestra. Then, on Dec. 1 the Palestra hosts Villanova vs. Penn.
But there are other Big 5 rivalries on tap for the Palestra. Temple will be there on Dec. 4, St. Joe’s on Dec. 8, and La Salle on Dec. 8.
Penn also hosts a run of games against Ivy League rivals beginning Jan. 7. The first game ever in the steel and concrete building featured Penn beating Yale, 26-15.
Penn State University has sometimes played a “home” game at the Palestra to cater to the many fans from the Southeast corner of PA. But not this season.
Villanova vs. University of Penn betting lines Dec. 1 betting lines
What makes the Palestra special? History and intimacy
Prolific sportswriter John Feinstein has said of the Palestra:
“It is a place where you feel the game the moment you step inside.”
Feinstein just recently hailed the return of basketball to the Palestra after an absence of 619 days due to COVID-19 in a Washington Post column.
His warm and loving piece summed up the building’s appeal:
“But the Palestra isn’t about numbers. It’s about feel. Nothing feels quite like the Palestra for anyone who loves basketball and has spent any time here — as a player, a coach, a fan or a sportswriter.“
Former Penn player explains the appeal of the Palestra
The Palestra opened at 235 South 33rd Street on Jan.1, 1927, and while spruced up over the decades, those nearly century-old bones impart an unmistakable atmosphere missing from today’s soulless mega courts.
“That’s what I love about it,” said former University of Penn player Scott Kegler. He played forward for the Quakers from 91-95., who still routinely organizes and plays pick-up games there, often several times a week.
“The first time I saw it was an emotional experience. It just has soul, not like the newer arenas. There are so many stories,” he said, especially since every Philly hoop team plays at least some games here.
His advice is simple:
“Ya gotta do it once. Buy the tickets and go. “
Today, the arena seats just under 9,000, with bleacher seats running right to the floor, making for a unique experience.
“When you play there, the crowd is right on top of you,” said Kegler.
Recalling a quote he heard long ago, Kegler explained what that intimacy of the place sounds like:
“The acoustics of the Palestra sound like a big bass drum, where 10 people sound like a hundred, a thousand sound like 10,000 and 10,000 sound like nothing you have ever heard.”
‘Like 9,000 drunk relatives screaming’
Stephen Danley, a Rutgers Univerity-Camden professor who played for Penn from 2003-07 during for coach Fran Dunphy, recalled his experiences:
“I’ve played basketball all across the world, and there’s nothing like the Palestra during a sold out Big 5 game. From tip-off to final buzzer, the gym is loud — that’s because the rivalries are local and they often split the ticket sales in half. There’s fans from both teams and bands from both teams packed into the gym. Every time someone scores, half the place is going crazy. You never have a moment to catch your breath.
“To make things more intense, most of the players work out together and play against each other during the summer — so everyone knows each other. It’s like playing at a family BBQ, but with 9,000 drunk relatives screaming. It’s the best place I’ve ever played, and the most unique experience in college basketball.”
Top coaches in Philadelphia college basketball at the Palestra
The Palestra is known for the stand-out coaches from Penn and their Quaker City rivals, who have faced off there.
Most notable for Penn was Dunphy, head coach of the Quakers for 17 seasons. He’s now the interim athletic director at Temple. Notably, he’d come up in basketball as a player for La Salle.
During his run with Penn, he won ten Ivy League titles and 310 games — the most by any Penn coach. The team reached the NCAA Tournament nine times under Dunphy.
The Palestra has hosted two especially notable Villanova coaches, Rollie Massimino and current head coach Jay Wright. The AP named Wright Coach of the Decade last year.
Other prominent Philly coaches whose teams have played the Palestra are Temple’s John Chaney and Dawn Staley, William “Speedy” Morris at La Salle, and Philip Martelli Sr. for St. Joe’s.
Just buy the tickets and go.
Lead image Chris Szagola/AP