Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky was taking a trip with his family to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a few years ago when he got an idea. "I really liked it up there, and I asked myself, why not do a history of the Palestra and Philadelphia college basketball with that as an inspiration," Bilsky said. Now, a couple of years and $2 million later, Bilsky has done it. With tonight's Penn-La Salle men's and women's doubleheader, the public will get its first chance to feast its eyes on a new look for college basketball's most storied gymnasium -- Palestra 2000. Although no changes have been made to the interior of the arena, the concourses around the Palestra have been renovated to act as a de facto Hall of Fame for Philadelphia college basketball. Each of the four main hallways have been outfitted with well-lit, exciting displays that express the rich splendor of the 73-year old cathedral of hoops. The project came in with a price tag of about $2 million, a higher total than originally planned. Donations from three main sources -- the Robert L. Banse Family, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and Bill and Louise Meiklejohn -- were critical in funding the renovations. The changes to the building are striking to all who walk into the refurbished main entrance, set back from 33rd Street. Gone is the old ticket window, and in its place sits a sleek ticket counter with a number of separate windows. "The old system of getting a ticket was pretty tough," Bilsky said of the improvement. "This will help out with lines and with will call." The west concourse -- directly behind the new ticket counter -- is dedicated to the other four schools of the Philadelphia Big 5. Always the home of the City Series' Hall of Fame plaques, the hallway now features separate colorful displays that focus on Temple, St. Joseph's, Villanova and La Salle. On the inside wall, the Big 5 Hall of Fame plaques remain, but they are enclosed in a handsome new case that will allow for the future expansion of the list of honorees. On the remainder of that wall are displays that focus on one of each of the four other schools. For example, the 'Nova display naturally showcases its 1985 NCAA Championship, while La Salle's exhibit concerns player, coach and athletic director Tom Gola. "The other schools all worked with us," Bilsky said. "We came to them with ideas and made sure that it was something they agreed with." On the outside wall, one finds the real treat of the hallway -- large formica displays that depict the great players and moments in the history of each of the four programs. The south concourse is devoted to the long and storied history of Penn basketball. Along the inside wall, there are areas dedicated to prominent periods over the past 30 years of Quakers history. Beginning with a section dubbed "Top Ten" that focuses on the Dick Harter-led squads of the early 70's, the inside wall covers all the major twists and turns of the Red and Blue up until today. Impossible to miss are large photos of 2000 graduate Michael Jordan atop the Palestra rim last year in celebration of an Ivy crown and a picture of the pre-Final Four pep rally that attracted 20,000 people to Franklin Field in 1979. The outside wall, meanwhile, details a decade-by-decade history of Penn basketball, complete with photos dating back nearly a century. It also includes a section on the history of Penn women's basketball. The east concourse is more of a hodgepodge than the other hallways, but it begins with a bang. Around the corner from the south concourse, a section of the project dedicated to the Penn-Princeton rivalry awaits. A collage of quotes and photos from the long history of the rivalry is displayed on the outside wall, while a scoreboard indicating total wins currently reads Penn 109, Princeton 93, on the inside. The rest of the concourse is dedicated to the best in the history of the Ivy League, to the media luminaries that have frequented the Palestra, to other uses for the arena besides sporting events, and to the Penn volleyball and wrestling teams -- the two other squads that call the Palestra their home. The final concourse, the north hallway, is a joy to behold. The entire hall contains images of the great players and coaches that have graced the Palestra hardwood. They are the ones that run the gamut, from a young, slightly unstable-looking picture of Bob Knight coaching Army, to a giant photo of the outstretched arms of Wilt Chamberlain in his Overbrook High School uniform. This concourse is not one to be missed. Gathering these photos was a difficult task, as Bilsky and project point person Audrey Schnur confirm, but it was worth it in the end. "Personally, it's a little more of a labor of love," former Quakers star Bilsky said. That, after all, is what this building is about. As the plaque near the entrance of the Palestra has always said, "to love the game is the greatest of all."Comments powered by Disqus
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