The Palestra, the famous home of University of Pennsylvania basketball, has been the site of more college hoops games than anywhere else in the world. Its hallowed halls have hosted some of the sport's most iconic figures, witnessed some of its most historic moments.
On Saturday, for the first time in almost a century, its Quakers will welcome the Ursinus College Bears onto its fabled floor.
"This," said head coach Kevin Small, "is a dream come true for many of our guys."
The Palestra drips history out of every nook and cranny, so much so that its concourse is now a museum, with displays dedicated to the Big 5 schools, the Ivy League, and many of the legendary names who have played or coached there over the years.
Opened on New Year's Day in 1927, the Palestra owes its name to Dr. William N. Bates, who taught Greek studies in those days and chose the moniker as an homage to ancient Greece, where young men would compete in a rectangular enclosure (called a Palestra) in full view of spectators. Designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder, the Palestra was the nation's largest on-campus arena when it opened its doors. It was the site of the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, and since then has hosted more games, more visiting teams, and more NCAA Tournament games than any other arena in the United States – even though the NCAA hasn't used it since 1984. Ursinus, for its part, has held a piece of Palestra lore since the beginning.
The Bears and Quakers first faced off during the 1915-16 season, and met nine more times before Penn moved into its distinguished home. The Quakers welcomed Yale on January 1, 1927, officially marking the birth of the Palestra. Less than a year later, Ursinus played there for the first time – a 30-20 Penn victory on December 17 – and did so again the following year, falling by a 35-21 count. The teams did not meet again until 1945, when the Quakers came to Collegeville. Seventy years have passed since then, and the newest iteration of Ursinus' program can hardly wait to rekindle the long-dormant series.
"It's just a cool experience to be able to play against Division I athletes at the Palestra," said sophomore forward Joe LoStracco. "To me, the Palestra is the capital of college basketball. Just the history, how many players have played there and gone through those halls…it's really cool to think about."
Both LoStracco and sophomore guard Brian Rafferty have ties to the Palestra. Each played high-school basketball in the Philadelphia Catholic League – Rafferty at Lansdale Catholic, LoStracco at Archbishop Wood. Rafferty, whose father played for the legendary Herb Magee at Philadelphia University, worked at Penn's men's basketball camp this summer. Rafferty even played a CYO game at the Palestra in fifth grade, and has seen many years' worth of Catholic League playoff games there. Some of the first games he remembers seeing in the Palestra came when Saint Joseph's completed its perfect regular season in 2004.
"The atmosphere there, it's just an experience that you have to do for yourself," Rafferty said. "There's really no way to describe it when it's a packed house. All the seats are on top of the court; there's not a bad seat in the house. I get that feeling every time I go there."
The Palestra has been the home of the Catholic League playoffs since 1942. The arena currently hosts the semifinals and finals, often drawing capacity crowds to watch some of the city's top talent. The Vikings never made it there during LoStracco's career, but thanks to a fortunate set of circumstances, the 6-foot-7 forward will now get his chance on the biggest stage.
"It was always something that we were chasing," he said. "It was a dream to be able to play in the semifinals at the Palestra, just to get there and say you were one of the best teams in such a tough league. Now that we're able to play there at the next level, with me and Brian coming from the Catholic League, against Penn is just awesome."
Even before the Bears' schedule was made official, Rafferty knew this game was a possibility, even if he hardly dared to believe it would actually happen. Steve Donahue, a 1984 Ursinus graduate and member of the program's first Final Four team (1981), had taken over as Penn's head coach in March. Donahue had invited his alma mater to play a regular-season game at Cornell in 2009 – but that contest, while certainly a major moment for the program, pales in comparison to what awaits the Bears this weekend. Playing against Penn, in the Palestra, is as monumental as it gets for a Division III program.
"Once I saw that Coach Donahue got hired, inside I was hoping somehow we would get a game there," Rafferty recalled. "I was actually playing golf with (senior captain) Mark Wonderling and he said there was a chance. I was so pumped when he told me.
"I'm just excited to go out there and compete and see what happens."
Though more than half of the Bears' 12-man roster hails from Pennsylvania, three members – junior Patrick Mekongo (Cameroon), sophomore Remi Janicot (France), and freshman Paul Cottam (United Kingdom) – were born in other countries. With that in mind, Small will spend part of this week discussing the building's place in the sport's history – as well as the special significance of the opportunity to play there – with his team.
"I think once they get there and walk in for the first time, they're going to understand how special it is," Rafferty said.
Fans taking in a game at the Palestra for the first time will be treated to a one-of-a-kind game-watching experience. It is unlike any other sports arena – especially in today's age of technology and luxurious stadium amenities. Inside the Palestra's elegant brick façade and arched entryways lies a venue that seems to house the very heart and soul of the sport.
"What makes the building truly special isn't so much the history — although that's a factor — as the building itself," wrote John Feinstein of the Washington Post in 2014, when ESPN College Gameday was on hand to broadcast a noon clash between Temple and La Salle. "It's so small, with the court below street level, that it's easy to drive past the entrance on 33rd Street without even noticing it. Because of its rectangular shape and because it's so small, there are no bad seats in the Palestra.
"It is a place," he wrote in his book A Season Inside, "where you feel the game from the moment you step inside."
The Palestra is full of quirky tradition. It has been the home of the Big 5 – the yearly competition between Penn, La Salle, Temple, St. Joseph's, and Villanova – since its inception in 1955, although its use for such games has dwindled in an age when athletic directors are loath to give up home games. Until 1985, all Big 5 games were played there, and fans used to rain down streamers onto the court after their team's first basket. The practice was banned in the early 90s, technical fouls assessed for objects thrown onto the floor. But when Temple and La Salle brought College GameDay to Philadelphia last year, the streamers returned – and both coaches instructed their players to put their foot on the foul line as they shot the technical free throws, ensuring that they would not count.
When the Palestra's 8,722 seats are filled to capacity, the building is often described as having "corners," meaning even the seats at the arena's edges are occupied. With Saturday's game falling during winter break, the corners aren't likely to see much use, but simply being able to cheer for their team on such a stage – and in such a place – provides Ursinus fans the opportunity to take part in perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event.
"I grew up tagging along with my dad to Big 5 doubleheaders at the Palestra, so I knew at an early age just how truly special it is," said Small, a graduate of Saint Joseph's University and, before that, Catholic League member Saint Joseph's Prep. "I can remember streamers flying, cow bells ringing, and a packed Palestra literally shaking with deafening noise. My friends and I would sneak out early from school to watch the Atlantic 10 Tournament there in the mid-80s. Who wouldn't grow up dreaming of being a college basketball coach after their first visit to the Palestra?"
Among the countless legends who have played and coached in the Palestra, many have said that the sound of the building is one of its most remarkable qualities.
"The Palestra is unique," Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli once said, "because it's the only empty building in America that you can go in to and there's sound."
The Palestra, then and now (photos courtesy of Pennathletics.com)
With each new game there, the cries of today's fans mix with the echoes of yesteryear, the sheer breadth of history to which the arena has borne witness. That atmosphere has proved conducive to monumental upsets over the years, a legacy to which Ursinus hopes to add an unforgettable chapter.
"There is a distinct roar here when the underdog ties it or takes the lead," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after his Wildcats defeated the Quakers there in January. "I don't know that I can explain it. But when I hear it, I know.
"You don't want to hear that when you're the visitor."
That puts Ursinus in a unique spot, as both visitor and underdog. Heavy underdogs they will be – only 19 times has a Division III team upset a Division I opponent, though it happened just a month ago when Louisiana College shocked McNeese State. But the Bears are embracing their moment.
"It's a great litmus test for us," said LoStracco, "a chance to see where we stack up against the best athletes we're going to see all year."
Playing in the Palestra is a seminal moment for a Division III program, or anyone for that matter; former Temple great Jim Williams once said "if you were privileged enough to suit up there, you had hit the epitome of basketball." But the Bears did so several times in the late 90s, most recently a 1999 Centennial Conference tilt with Swarthmore. What makes Saturday's game special, in large part, is the opponent.
The Bears last faced a Division I opponent in 2013 (Colgate), and will battle an Ivy League program for the first time since that trip to Cornell six years ago. Penn's place in college basketball history, however, is rivaled by only a few programs. The Quakers entered the 2015-16 campaign with 1,723 victories to their credit, a mark that places them 15th in Division I. Only 20 programs at the sport's highest level have reached the 1,700-win milestone – and Ursinus gets to share the same court, the same legendary building, with one of them, if only for a day.
"When I was a player with Ursinus, we practiced here on a bus trip down to Virginia," Donahue recently told the Daily Pennsylvanian. "And I remember thinking how cool it was just to practice in the Palestra.
"If I could give someone an opportunity in Division III (to play at the Palestra), it would be Ursinus."
Within the Palestra's tiny lobby is a plaque that reads: "To win the game is great…To play the game is greater…But to love the game is the greatest of all." For Ursinus, winning this game is, admittedly, unlikely. Playing in it will be an honor. And when the Bears share the hallowed hardwood with the Quakers, waking up nearly a century's worth of echoes, loving the game will be no challenge.
"Playing in the Cathedral of College Basketball, against one of the truly storied programs in the sport, is a dream come true for many of our guys," Small said. "They understand how fortunate they are to play against a storied Division I program in one of the truly special sports venues in the world.
"I'm just incredibly grateful to Steve for offering this opportunity to our players."
Coming tomorrow: A look back at the 1981 Final Four team, its indelible legacy, and the bond its members still share.