Since 1942, the Palestra has played host to the playoffs of the Philadelphia Catholic League, the city’s athletic organization for Archdiocesan schools.
The 89-year-old arena hosts the boys’ varsity semifinals and finals as well as the girls’ varsity finals. The games are spread out over two nights in February, generally a Wednesday and subsequent Monday, with near-capacity crowds consistently filling the gym.
The boys’ semifinal games take place in a doubleheader format on Wednesday, as do the girls’ and boys’ championship games a few days later.
Philadelphia Catholic League chair Joe Sette said that this year’s boys’ championship between Roman Catholic High School and Neumann-Goretti High School nearly sold out the entire venue.
“They sold out general admission tickets and were only a couple short of selling out reserved [seats],” Sette said. “There were people sitting in the aisles.”
While Sette admits “it is very expensive to rent out the Palestra,” he thinks the revered venue best accommodates the league’s sizable amount of supporters.
“The crowds are such that we can’t go anywhere else but the Palestra,” he said.
The Catholic League has a storied history in the city, having produced dozens of professional football and basketball players, including two NBA Hall of Famers — Tom Gola and Paul Arizin. And in February, three boys’ basketball teams — Roman, Neumann and Archbishop Carroll High School — were ranked among USA Today’s top 50 teams in the country.
This year, Roman triumphed over Neumann in the final, breaking the Saints stunning six-year record of league titles.
The girls’ league was also wildly competitive this season, with stalwart Neumann holding the No. 1 ranking in USA Today’s nationwide list. The Saints took down rival Archbishop Wood High School in the championship on Feb. 23, a game Sette said “was as watched as the boys’ championship.”
While this year’s PCL playoffs were competitive all-around, the Palestra has also hosted some legendary Catholic League contests in years past.
In the 1953 city title game, held between the victors of Philadelphia’s Public and Catholic Leagues, West Catholic High School beat Overbrook High School, 54-42. Overbrook was led by future Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, and went on to beat South Catholic High in the city title game the following season.
In 1968, the now-closed North Catholic High School played a quarterfinal matchup against Bishop McDevitt High School. On the morning of the game, North Catholic coach and school disciplinarian Jack Friel suspended the entire varsity squad for cutting class. That night, Friel played the JV squad instead.
“The youngsters, booed by North’s fans during warmups and hit with chants of ‘We want the varsity!’ had not played for eight days,” longtime Philadelphia Daily News scribe Ted Silary wrote.
But in a stunning upset, North’s JV players carried the day with a 77-60 victory.
While the Palestra has been the predominant venue of choice for Catholic League postseason games, there were some years in which the circumstances surrounding high school contests led to controversy.
In March 1998, Anthony “Tupac” Davis was shot upon leaving the Palestra after the Public League Championship. After the shooting, Penn did not schedule Catholic League games at the arena again until the 2007 playoffs.
Despite the break, PCL fans have flooded the Palestra since then with equivocal fanfare. Joe Parisi, former Catholic League boys’ basketball moderator, still remembers the “great high school games complete with streamers and rollout messages.”
For Parisi, the Palestra brings not only a historical aura but the chance for a large volume of ticket sales.
“It’s been great the past couple of years [with] sellouts [and] near sellouts,” he said.
Moreover, Parisi said that the “phenomenal job Penn does with their employees” makes for a comfortable game environment for league administrators. Sette affirmed the arena’s many benefits.
“Over the years, we tried Temple and La Salle, and [their] buildings are very nice,” Sette said. “It’s just something about the Palestra that just brings out everybody.”
Respect for the Palestra even extends to league coaches.
Class of 1999 Wharton graduate and former Penn basketball player Paul Romanczuk is now the head coach at Archbishop Carroll. Romanczuk’s team has made the Catholic League semifinals — and has therefore played in the Palestra — for the past seven years.
“It never gets old for me,” he said. “There’s nothing like getting your name announced as a starter in that building.”
Like his players, Romanczuk loves the arena and the presence of PCL playoff games at the venue.
“It stands for so much tradition and history,” Romanczuk said. “There’s not a bad seat in the house.”Comments powered by Disqus
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