Tony | The Battle of 33rd Street: When nobody wins
September 17, 2013, 12:18 am·
Mike Wisniewski | DP
What’s that game where both sides have a point but nobody wins?
Oh, right. The Battle of 33rd Street.
It’s all too easy to forget about the hoops rivalry between Penn and Drexel these days, especially since it’s not an annual thing anymore. The Red and Blue will not square off with the Blue and Gold in 2013-14, just like they didn’t in 2011-12.
It’s only nine-tenths of a mile long, but the bridge separating the Dragons and the Quakers is too treacherous for either side to cross.
But the Palestra has to be the trump card here, right? It’s the Cathedral of College Basketball. It’s the home and pride of the Big 5, forever preserved in steel, concrete and red and blue benches.
Drexel’s arena, the Daskalakis Athletic Center, is better known as the DAC, and Penn Athletics Director Steve Bilsky knows it’s no Palestra. In fact, just comparing the two brings another ‘D’-initialed three-letter word to Bilsky’s mind.
“How would you compare Marilyn Monroe and a dog?” Bilsky asked. “There’s nothing like the Palestra. I’m really truly not saying that to demean their facility or their program. I’m just saying you have two schools that are within walking distance from the facility. Is there anyone else who can make that statement in the country?”
Bilsky’s “and yet so far away” began back in 1997, when both sides agreed that the series would be played exclusively at the Palestra. Penn wasn’t that far removed from its run of 48 straight Ivy victories from March 1992 to February 1996, and Drexel had posted three straight NCAA tournament appearances in the four years prior to the 1997-98 season. The Palestra was a timeless lure for a couple of programs that were loving the ’90s.
And then time ran out. As the notion of the Palestra being the scheduling hub for Philadelphia basketball faded into history, Drexel coach Bruiser Flint realized that, hey, maybe his program is good enough to merit a home-and-home with its closest rival.
“I understand what coaches have to deal with,” Bilsky said. “They’re under a lot of pressure to win or they get fired. It’s a business. I’m not knocking Bruiser by not wanting to play the game at his place. He’s very passionate about it, but he also played Big 5 basketball in the Palestra [Flint is a St. Joseph’s graduate].
“And it’s the Palestra, they’re closer to the Palestra than our students are. It works!”
Drexel Athletic Director Eric Zillmer knows it works to Penn’s advantage here, too. A professor of neuropsychology, Zillmer himself is a Palestra historian, even lending his insights on the Greek origins of the arena for the 2007 ESPN documentary “The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball.”
So what does Zillmer think of the DAC?
“It is a quirky, boutique-like arena. Because of its intimacy the fans are part of the game,” Zillmer wrote in an email. “There have been some great men’s and women’s teams that have visited the DAC including Florida, Saint Joseph’s, Utah, UMass, N.C. State, VCU, Creighton, Princeton and Cornell among many others. The DAC is not the Palestra, but in my opinion you won’t find a more intimate setting for college basketball in the nation.”
It’s true — the DAC seats a capacity crowd of 2,532, while the Palestra seats 8,722 at full capacity. A Palestra crowd of 5,608 watched Drexel down Penn for the fifth straight time last November, more than twice the number of fans who could squeeze into the DAC. Indeed, 6,879 watched the Dragons steamroll Penn, 77-56, at the height of the rivalry in November 2010. Flint’s digs can’t compete with that.
But why should they? The atmosphere was great for Penn’s lone stroll to the DAC in November 2008 — a game that drew a national television audience and a 10 a.m. tip-off as part of ESPN’s Hoop Marathon.
And oh, by the way — Drexel won that game too. Notice a trend? When a team loses to another team five straight times, maybe the loser shouldn’t be hosting the winner every single year anymore. Maybe the pride in bolstering a natural City Six rivalry supersedes the pride of the Palestra every other year.
Sure, Penn can continue to flaunt its Marilyn Monroe, and sure, there are very valid arguments as to why Drexel ought to just swallow its pride and worship at the Cathedral. The Palestra is bigger and better, and it’s a reasonable defense against future home-and-homes with Drexel.
But not quite reasonable enough. It’s a good fence that makes for two awkward neighbors and one watered-down excuse for a hoops rivalry.
And far too often, no winners.