They say the Palestra gets so packed, the mob of fans filters all the way to the back corners of the stands.
When the people come, the legend goes, they swarm the players like gnats, their presence making the 9,000-seat arena shrink.
Palestra classics stand out for two reasons, they say: the deafening noise and the sweltering heat.
Sunday night, the folkore became reality. Here were some of the world’s greatest basketball players gracing the hardwood of our hoops Cathedral.
And here were the fans, a mass of them enveloping the building, gathered for the sole purpose of witnessing basketball magic. For a night, the Palestra transformed into the center of the basketball universe.
The gym had been quieter than usual lately, its allure dampened by a slumping Penn team and a spell of disinterest that has infected the student body. It’s a shame, too, because the building deserves better after all the history it’s housed.
With the “Battle for I-95,” Quakers’ basketball leaders and Palestra historians Steve Bilsky and Jerome Allen delivered a world-class showcase to 33rd Street.
Back came the fans — many of them Penn students — who began filing in 90 minutes before tip-off. Back came that pre-game wave of anticipation that soaked the building, eventually erupting into blaring shouts when royal visitor LeBron James and the “ProAm All-Stars” arrived.
Yes, the noise — and the heat — returned in full force.
“It was more hot than I remembered it,” said Kyle Lowry, a Palestra veteran from his Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova days.
Lowry was part of the parade of Philly stars who revisited the site of heated Big 5 battles. Mardy Collins, of Simon Gratz and Temple fame, could only muster a guess as to how many times he’s played at the Palestra — “at least 20-25,” he said.
From blue-collar pros like German league forward Mark Tyndale to the homegrown star, Chester native Tyreke Evans, the Team Philly squad had Palestra memories stashed deep in their minds.
Then there was Hakim Warrick, raised on a street mere blocks away, who pushed for the Palestra as host to this event when he dreamed it up earlier this month. Though he had only previously taken the floor for workouts, he knew of the building’s history, knew of the corner-fillers and the noise and the heat.
“That’s why I wanted to have it here,” Warrick said. “I had to get me a game here before I was done playing.”
After he finally checked that off his basketball bucket list, Warrick attempted to put the magic into words.
“It’s an intimate atmosphere,” he said. “It’s so tight, [the fans] are right on you.
“Like a Big 5 game.”
Like a Big 5 game for the other four local schools, but not for Penn in recent years. No, the sparse crowds that watch the Quakers have made for dull game nights. Students need to be pushed to make the trek to 33rd Street these days.
Until the Athletic Department put on an event like Sunday’s, and the students flocked to their Cathedral. Penn put its stamp on the “Battle for I-95” in the form of the split ‘P’ logo at center court, the band behind the basket and the voice of longtime PA announcer Rich Kahn. It took a group of NBA stars to bring back the casual fans that have gone missing and breathe life back into their home court.
The basketball titans were not the stars, however. The Palestra was the true star, its magic rekindled on a night that brought a resounding reminder:
So this is what the Palestra feels like.
BRIAN KOTLOFF is a senior communication major from Elkins Park, Pa. He is Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is kotloff@theDP.com.