The Palestra, known as the “Cathedral of College Basketball,” is the iconic home for Penn's basketball teams. Built in 1927, the Palestra acquired its name from Greek professor William N. Bates after the ancient Greek term “palæstra,” a rectangular enclosure connected to a gymnasium in which athletes would compete in front of an audience.
Well-known for its bleachers being close to the court and for having no barriers separating the players and coaches from the spectators, the Palestra originally sat 10,000 fans. When it was constructed, it was one of the largest arenas in the world. In addition, it was one of the first arenas in the United States to be constructed out of steel and concrete, and one of the first to be constructed without interior pillars blocking the fans’ view during games.
On Jan. 1, 1927, the Palestra hosted its first-ever basketball game — a matchup between the Penn Quakers and the Yale Bulldogs. Led by Paul “Pudge” Davenport’s 11 points, the Quakers defeated the Bulldogs 26-15. Fans paid 55 cents per ticket to attend.
Although the Palestra was a state-of-the-art stadium, for the first 25 or so years of its existence, there was little excitement to report on inside because Penn men’s basketball was struggling.
Their woes continued until 1954 when the Quakers were able to make their first-ever NCAA men’s tournament appearance, finishing third in their region after beating DePaul 90-70 and dropping a tough game to Notre Dame 69-57 in the Sweet Sixteen. The Red and Blue would not return to the tournament until 1970.
On Nov. 23, 1954, however, the entire history of the Palestra changed forever when Penn Athletics Director Jerry Ford — along with the athletics directors from St. Joseph’s, Temple, La Salle, and Villanova — brought their basketball programs together to create the Big 5, one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. At the center of it all was the Palestra, hosting all Big 5 games.
In the words of St. Joseph’s former Athletics Director Don DiJulia, “the Big 5 was part of the fabric of life in Philadelphia; there’s no other way to describe it.”
The Palestra soon became one of the loudest and raucous venues in America, with officials often allowing the players to be more physical with each other to both stir up the crowd’s reaction and create stronger rivalries between the Philadelphia schools.
“I don’t think there’s a place on Earth comparable to [the Palestra]," Les Keiter, the broadcasting voice of the Big 5 during the 1960s, said. "I’ve broadcasted games all over the world, and no matter where I was, I would always say, ‘you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve walked into the Palestra.’”
In his book A Season Inside, John Feinstein compared the Palestra’s relationship with college basketball to that of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park to baseball in terms of their historical nature and their spectator-friendly atmosphere.
The Palestra was one of the first gymnasiums constructed solely for the purpose of college basketball. Prior to the construction of the Palestra, college basketball teams would not have a permanent home gymnasium and would frequently play their games at a local public court which was unoccupied at the time.
In addition, the Palestra used to host many professional games of the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers.Today, the Palestra has hosted more games, visiting teams, and NCAA tournaments than any other venue in college basketball history.