With the 76ers ready to show out at the Palestra on Tuesday night for their second annual Blue x White Scrimmage, Penn is set to see some major talent. But even if stars like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are more accomplished than what most Red and Blue fans are used to watching, they’re far from the biggest sports stars to ever lace them up on campus.
Inspired by the 76ers’ arrival, The Daily Pennsylvanian did some research to determine the best athletes to have competed on Penn’s campus. We’re not talking about the best athletes who went to Penn, but rather the best around the globe who ever were in an official high school, college, or professional competition that took place on campus. Check out our findings, sorted in chronological order, below.
Jim Thorpe — Both a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field and an NFL first team All-Pro in the early 1900s, Jim Thorpe could do it all. And in 1907, Penn football found that out the hard way. Even a Quakers team that proceeded to finish 11-1 had no answer for Thorpe’s Carlisle Indian squad, which trounced Penn, 26-6.
Wilt Chamberlain — Not only has the dominant center played in the Palestra, but for a period of time, he was arguably the face of the Palestra. Before setting almost every NBA record that exists, Chamberlain starred for local Overbrook High School, where he played in the Palestra between 1953 and 1955. Across his junior and senior years, Wilt averaged 38.2 points in six 32-minute playoff games in the Cathedral of Basketball, in both seasons. More than sixty years later, Chamberlain and his outstretched arms in an Overbrook jersey remains one of the Palestra’s most iconic images.
Jerry West — Well before he was “The Logo,” Jerry West was the star player of a No. 1 West Virginia team that came into the Palestra for a showdown against Villanova in 1958. And the eventual Basketball Hall of Famer did not disappoint. West put up a game-high 37 points and 13 rebounds, and just about every single one of his contributions was needed, as the Mountaineers escaped Philly with a 76-75 win.
Oscar Robertson — Just like West the year before, Robertson came to the Palestra in 1959 with his college team, Cincinnati, to play against a team other than Penn. His Bearcats topped Temple, 80-60. The box score isn't available, but Robertson’s season line of 32.6 points, 16.3 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game is something to marvel at in its own right.
Jim Brown — Jim Brown is arguably the best running back in NFL history, and is certainly the best to have played at Franklin Field. Because the Browns and Eagles were in the same division at the time, Brown played at Franklin Field in every one of his nine years in the league. In those nine games, he tallied 1,093 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, including 153 rushing yards and a score in a win during the Eagles’ 1960 championship season.
Johnny Unitas — Joining Jim Brown, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady as the only players with at least three NFL MVP awards, “Johnny U” was the face of the NFL in the 1960s. His Baltimore Colts squad only played at Franklin Field once, but Unitas made sure the Philadelphia crowd wouldn’t forget it. He threw for 267 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions as Baltimore smoked Philadelphia, 38-6, in 1967.
Julius Erving — "Dr. J" is most famous for his time spent in Philly while wearing a 76ers uniform, but the above-the-rim sensation only played in the Palestra while in college. And, believe it or not, his University of Massachusetts squad actually lost to the Red and Blue. In 1970, while Penn was just starting a dynasty that included eight Ivy titles in one decade, the Quakers topped the Minutemen, 75-65.
Carl Lewis — With nine gold medals to his name across four different Olympic Games, jumper/sprinter Carl Lewis is one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. track and field history. But Lewis had not yet reached superstardom when he competed at Franklin Field in the , a track meet that was part of the famous 1980 U.S. Olympic protest against the Soviet Union. A 19-year-old Lewis placed third in his trademark event, the long jump.
David Robinson — Long before he was a 10-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion with the Spurs, “The Admiral” tore up college basketball for four years at Navy. Robinson never actually played against Penn, but he did bring his talents to the Palestra. Yet despite a huge stat line of 44 points, 14 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks, Robinson’s Midshipmen were actually upset by Drexel, 83-80, in 1987.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee — Named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the three-time Olympic gold medalist is one of several renowned track and field stars to have competed in the Penn Relays, having done so in 1995. Results from that year’s meet are not available, but the then 33-year-old was only 16 months away from earning a bronze medal in her final Olympics.
Kobe Bryant — Bryant is one of the best basketball players ever to come from Philadelphia, so naturally he spent some time at the Palestra. Playing at nearby Lower Merion High School, Bryant dominated Philadelphia basketball, including a few games in the Palestra, until he was drafted at age 17 in 1996. In one particularly impressive showing, in a playoff win as a senior.
Michael Johnson — One of the best sprinters of all-time, Johnson held world records in both the 200-meter and 400m for more than a decade. So it should come as no surprise that the American track star tore up Franklin Field in several appearances at the Penn Relays. Most notably, with a stellar anchor split of 43.7 seconds, Johnson helped set a still-standing meet record in the 4x400m in 2000.
LeBron James — Long before his illustrious NBA career, LeBron James was a high school phenom whose team toured the nation as hype built up surrounding him. In December 2002, when James was a senior, his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School squad headed to the Palestra to take on star Maureece Rice and his local Strawberry Mansion High School team. James dominated, putting up 26 points, eight rebounds, five assists and seven steals en route to a huge victory.
Usain Bolt — The Penn Relays sees big names arrive every year, but none have ever had quite the star power of Bolt. He was at his best when he came to the Relays in April 2010, only eight months after setting still-standing world records in the 100m and 200m in the 2009 World Championships. Bolt had actually also ran in the meet while in high school, but his 2010 showing was historic: on the anchor leg to set a meet record in the 4x100m.
Allyson Felix — Allyson Felix is one of the most decorated female sprinters of all time with six Olympic gold medals, and she gave fans a preview of two of them in 2012. Felix won both the 4x100m and 4x400m races at that year's Penn Relays, just four months before Team USA won Olympic gold in both of those races. The quartet of Tianna Madison, Felix, Bianca Knight, and Carmelita Jeter, who set a in the 4x100, ended up setting a world record in the same event in August.
Honorable mention — Chuck Bednarik, John Heisman, John Outland, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, Brandon Slay, Wilma Rudolph, Carmelita Jeter, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Patrick Ewing, Ken Dryden
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