Putting the Palestra on film

Mikaelyn Austin remembers visiting the Palestra as a high school senior, during her Penn recruiting trip, and seeing a photo of former Penn basketball star Michael Jordan sitting atop one of the arena’s hoops, swinging the recently cut net over his head after a momentus win.

“I want to do that someday,” Austin remembers thinking. Four years later, after Penn’s women’s basketball team wrapped up the Ivy League championship, she got to live her dream—she hopped on top of the rim and, following Jordan’s lead, commenced swinging. “I guess it’s kind of a cliché moment,” she says. “But I’ll always remember that.”

The moment was the highlight of Austin’s career at Penn. But it was just one of the countless moments that have played out at the Palestra, considered by many basketball insiders to be the most perfect arena on the planet. Now Austin, an aspiring filmmaker, is making a documentary she hopes will make the case that, when it comes to basketball, there really is no place like the Palestra.

“There’s just so many people who grew up here, who made their career here. It fascinates me,” says Austin, who studied film at Penn and was a star shooting guard for the Quakers. “People like Dr. J—it’s almost too much. And I’ve seen quote after quote from these people, who have played all over and in the pros, in places like Madison Square Garden, and they’ll say, ‘Hands down, nothing ever matches playing in the Palestra.’”

Austin has been working on the film, to be called “The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball,” for about six months, during which she’s touched base with such hoops luminaries as Sen. Bill Bradley (a former Princeton star) and Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli. Austin hopes to wrap up work in another half year, if all goes as planned.

Which is no sure thing. This is Austin’s first major project, and though she’s pulled together a crew to help her along, she says she’s basically doing “everything.”

She’s the producer, director, writer and editor. “When I started conceptualizing the film, I knew I didn’t want to rush through it,” she says. “I didn’t want to take a half-hearted approach, because I feel the building deserves more than that.”

The film, Austin says, will tell the history of the Palestra and the great players who played there, as well as what the building means to Philadelphia and how it helped make the game of college basketball so popular, both here in Philadelphia and nationwide.

But the film will also take a look at how, once the game hit the big time—college basketball today is a billion-dollar industry—the Palestra, and the purity it exemplifies, was pushed aside.

The famous Big 5—the Philadelphia basketball powers of Penn, Temple, LaSalle, Villanova and Saint Joseph’s—no longer play all their games at the building, and college basketball as a whole has become much more business than merely sport. Modern arenas with luxury boxes and corporate sponsorships have replaced many historic gyms like the Palestra.

“It’s going to be a kind of exploration of the ways in which college basketball has changed, and how the Palestra was left behind,” Austin says. “People are still playing in this building, yes, but it’s not what it used to be.”

Even so, says Austin, for anyone who has played there the Palestra remains the ultimate basketball experience.

She hopes her film will make that clear.

“It’s something you can’t explain,” she says. “This place feels like basketball. It smells like basketball.”