In January of 1970, a wide-eyed 19-year-old by the name of Julius Winfield Erving, Jr., walked through the doors of the Palestra for the first time. "It was pretty special," said the incomparable Dr. J, then a sophomore forward at the University of Massachusetts. He returned to Penn last night for Palestra 2000, an event celebrating the grand history of what's frequently been called college basketball's most historic gym. "It was very intense." Intense doesn't begin to describe it. "If I lost any hearing, it had to be because of this place," said sportscaster Al Meltzer, who began broadcasting Big Five games at the Palestra 36 years ago. Back then, the five schools -- La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova -- didn't just meet for an annual round-robin. They played just about all their home games at the Palestra, with two or three doubleheaders a week at the gym made legendary for its unparalleled acoustics and stands that come right up on top of the action. It made the Big Five something magical. "It's difficult putting it into words," said Meltzer, who has called championship games in the NBA and NFL. "But nothing ever compared to a Palestra Big Five doubleheader." For years, the Palesta's musty concourses were home to dimly lit display cases, where faded jerseys and old trophies gathered dust. Last night, though, Penn unveiled a sparkling new concourse shrine, the walls boasting information-packed photo boards honoring the history of Penn basketball and the Big Five. And during breaks in the action of the Penn-La Salle game, a host of hoops legends were brought out to meet applause from the crowd and receive commemorative crystal plaques. "I think that I had probably either seen or coached or worked with more people up on the walls than anybody else," said Dick Harter, who played at Penn in the '50s and coached the Quakers to national prominence in the early '70s. Now an assistant with the NBA's Indiana Pacers, Harter walked onto the court side-by-side with his Penn successors, Chuck Daly and Bob Weinhauer. While Daly may be better known for steering the Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles than for gushing with emotion, that's exactly what he did last night. "It's like having warm maple syrup poured all over you," he said of stepping back into the Palestra. "It's got a charisma that you just don't find anywhere else in the country today. It's a throwback, and it's incredible." For a night, that patch of real estate in the northeast corner of the Palestra in front of the Class of '71 Lounge, set back between the La Salle bench and the La Salle band, played host to a who's who of some of the greatest names in Philly basketball -- and basketball, period. Like some kind of Friars Club of hoops, the likes of Daly and Dr. J mingled, and the man credited by Sports Illustrated as the inventor of the jump shot -- Charles Diven, Penn '39 -- took it all in, as everyone from Corky Calhoun to the legendary Tom Gola watched the game and waited for their turn to be called onto to the court. "This facility has so much heritage because of the Big Five," said Gola, an NBA All-Star who carried La Salle to an NCAA and an NIT title before graduating in '54, two seasons before the Big Five doubleheaders began. Behind Gola sat, for the moment, Harter and Ernie Beck, former Quakers teammates who suffered a 17-point loss to Gola's top-ranked team in '52. Beck, who played six NBA seasons, received his plaque at halfcourt alongside current Penn women's basketball star Diana Caramanico, who recently broke Beck's school scoring record. A mix-up in the presentation had Caramanico heading to the women's locker room with the wrong trophy. "First you take my records, now you're taking my trophy," Beck joked as a blushing Caramanico returned his trophy. Beck was delighted to meet Caramanico, but the real highlight came in reuniting with so many friends. "It's like visiting an old home you used to live in years ago," Beck said. "The only thing is, it hasn't changed, and it looks beautiful here." Diven recalled once dropping 10 points on Dartmouth in what was then a high-scoring affair -- a 40-38 double-overtime win in 1938. That's the same number of points La Salle scored last night in the final 77 seconds, roaring back from a 59-51 deficit to steal a 61-59 victory. "Well, we almost had a perfect day, didn't we?" Bilsky wondered, staring in disbelief after the game. Except, somehow you have to believe that the gods of basketball were smiling, that they wouldn't have had it any other way. Doubleheaders are a thing of the past; streamers and rollout banners, so long synonymous with the Big Five and the Palestra, were banned in the '80s. But the lasting legacy is that all the Big Five games seemed to be battles. And last night's down-to-the-wire affair was no exception, capping a perfect tribute to the Palestra, 74 and still going strong. "The building is one of a kind," Meltzer said, "and there aren't many one-of-a-kinds left in the world."Comments powered by Disqus
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