The Palestra at 90
On Jan. 2, 1927, the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer sports section ran with the headline, “Quakers Dedicate Palestra With Win,” a recap of the previous day’s events: a Penn victory over Yale in a men’s basketball game and the grand opening of a new facility called the Palestra.
Nearly 9,000 rambunctious spectators, who paid 55 cents per ticket, filled the arena’s concrete stands on New Year’s Day, 1927, which the sports reporter noted was “the largest crowd that ever witnessed a basketball game in this city.” Before the opening tip, Sydney E. Hutchinson, chairman of the University’s Council of Athletics, presented the Palestra to Penn Provost Josiah Harmar Penniman.
Steered by the stellar defense of All-American guard “Menchy” Goldblatt and the offensive firepower of forward Paul “Pudge” Davenport, who led the Quakers with 11 points, Penn defeated Yale 26-15.
The Daily Pennsylvanian gave the Palestra high praise, calling it “one of the most momentous happenings within our confines in recent years,” and predicting that the building would increase interest in basketball, “revolutionize” winter activities on campus, and bring “a greater athletic prestige at Pennsylvania.”
Indeed, it did.
The Palestra today at 90 years old is routinely recognized as one of the most hallowed halls of college basketball—and has often been referred to as the “Cathedral” of the sport. Renowned locally and nationally, it is respected, beloved, and cherished for its intimate layout and old-school look and feel.
“This is one of the few places, if you grew up in Philadelphia, that you can go back to. It’s still there,” Dan Harrell, a former custodian at the Palestra for more than two decades, told ESPN. “Connie Mack Stadium, the Vet, they’re not there anymore, but the Palestra’s still here. You walk in the building here, you get the same feeling you did when you were 10 years old, 12 years old, 14 years old.”
San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich brought his team to the Palestra in February to practice before a game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“This is a real gym, not the NBA places we play,” Popovich told reporters. “This is for real. It would be great to play every game in a place like this with the history.”
The Palestra has been the headquarters of the Big 5 since the city series was founded in 1955. Attending Big 5 games at the arena is a favorite Philadelphia pastime, passed down through generations.
“I used to come down with my dad and my brothers, and we used to go to the Big 5 doubleheaders,” he says.
McLaughlin, who has led the women’s team since 2009, says his first game coaching at the Palestra, was “really, really special.”
“Every time I go into the Palestra, which is every day, it’s the same feeling,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was a young kid coming in here. It just never gets old. It’s unique, it’s special, and it means so much to so many people, and I’m just blessed to be able to be here every day.”
Steve Donahue, the John R. Rockwell Head Coach of Men’s Basketball, has experienced the Palestra as a fan, player, assistant Penn coach, opposing head coach, and head coach. His first visit to the building was on a trip with his Biddy Basketball team in sixth grade.
“We took in a doubleheader on a Saturday and I was just amazed at the whole carnival of the Palestra,” he says. “As a young kid who liked basketball, it was another step in my admiration of the game.”
While a student at Cardinal O’Hara High School, Donahue says he and his teammates wrote “The Palestra” on the back of their practice jerseys in order to motivate them to reach the Catholic League playoffs, which are held at the arena.
“We got here my junior and senior year, only to lose both times, but it was a thrill to be a part of it,” he says.
Donahue was an assistant on former head coach Fran Dunphy’s staff from 1990-2000. He says returning to Penn as head coach in 2015 and coaching his first game at the Palestra “felt like home.”
M. Grace Calhoun, director of athletics and recreation, made her first visit to the Palestra in the late 1990s when she was working with the Patriot League. She says walking into the building “feels like you are walking into history.”
“I absolutely adore the way that the concourse has been decorated to look very museum-like,” she says. “It so appropriately honors what amazing things have happened in that facility over the years.”
Moving about the country, with stops at Indiana University, Loyola University Chicago, Dartmouth College, Saint Francis University, and the University of Florida, Calhoun says she observed how different universities in various parts of the nation knew of and revered the Palestra, which really resonated with her.
“For the size of the arena, I will put it up against any arena in the country in that you feel like fans are sitting right on top of the court,” she says. “It’s such a great environment. I truly have not been in another basketball arena that I think recreates the atmosphere of the Palestra.”
Photo: Construction of the Palestra began in 1926 and the facility was open for play on Jan. 1, 1927.