On Feb. 7, 2023, LeBron James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time NBA scoring record — which had stood for over 40 years. But before he made it there, he played in a very familiar site to Penn: the Palestra.
The arena, which has a storied history and numerous ties to basketball, has hosted James multiple times throughout his illustrious career. The first came when James was still a teenager, in a highly-anticipated matchup between his high school St. Vincent-St. Mary’s and Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion on Dec. 22, 2002.
The game sold out the Palestra and then-76ers star Allen Iverson sat right behind St. Vincent-St. Mary’s bench, which the players loved according to coach Dru Joyce II, the team’s head coach.
“We had a lot of fun; the game was good, the crowd was just electric,” Joyce said. “[Former players and I] talked about it over the years and that was always one of the more fun places to play.”
Part of the reason for its hype was how the game featured Strawberry Mansion, who was ranked at No. 9 nationally going into the game. They were led by Maurice Rice, a Philadelphia basketball legend most known for breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s high school scoring record, which stood for 47 years.
But Rice was no match for James, who scored 36 points — 30 of which were in the second half — in front of a Palestra crowd who booed and heckled at James every chance they got.
“From the opening tip, my players couldn’t hear a word I was hollering, it was that loud,” Joyce recalled. He also noted that the Palestra’s setup, which puts fans very close to the court, elevated the environment. “It was probably one of the most exciting places that I coached. It was a fun place and a game I’ll always remember coaching.”
Fans were treated to plenty of one-on-one moments between James and Rice. During the fourth quarter, Rice led the ball up the court after James drained a three-pointer over the roaring crowd. With a quick crossover to the right and back his left, Rice broke James’s ankles — sending him to the floor — and nearly blew the roof off the Palestra.
But this was ultimately a small consolation prize for Rice and Strawberry Mansion, as St. Vincent-St. Mary's cruised to an 85-47 victory.
However, the next time James suited up in the Palestra, he didn't walk away as cheerful.
This match took place on Sept. 25, 2011, in the midst of the NBA lockout, and was known as the Battle of I-95. Throughout the lockout, the NBA’s stars took to other ways to play basketball — whether through smaller leagues, like Drew League, or setting up exhibition games. The Battle of I-95 was an example of such.
The idea was conceived by two Syracuse alumni — Carmelo Anthony and Philadelphia native Hakim Warrick. Warrick argued that Philadelphia bred the best basketball players. Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. but raised in Baltimore, sought to prove him wrong. So he tapped into his NBA connections and called Chris Paul and James to play for his team.
The teams were formed — Team Philly and Team Melo. The date was set. The only question left was the venue.
“From our first conversation, the game had to be at the Palestra; there was no second option,” Warrick said at the time.
Thus, James made his return to the Palestra. The last time he had been there, he was 17 — a mere eight days shy of being an adult. This time, he was 26 — already Rookie of the Year, scoring champion, All-NBA first team recipient, and a two-time MVP. In an offense-driven game, James certainly played like an MVP.
He played all 48 minutes in front of another sold-out Palestra crowd and scored 43 points — the highest among any player in that game despite going 1-8 from the arc. He also snagged 23 rebounds, contributing to an impressive double-double. Despite James' heroics, Team Melo lost 132-122.
"James went way beyond my wildest expectations from when I first started coaching him at eleven years old,” Joyce said. But he never doubted the fact that he would be a star. Now with the all-time scoring record under his belt, there is no doubt that he has lived up to the title of the Chosen One.
“Getting the scoring record is great, but what it speaks to even greater is the longevity,” Joyce said. “Twenty years — playing that many games with the best players in the world and to play at that high level — speaks volumes to what he’s been able to do.”
While James never played an official NBA games in the Palestra, his two appearances there are historic ones that the city will always remember.