The snow crunched under my feet on a January evening along 33rd Street. I watched the sky turn from cobalt to indigo blue as evening descended, but my mind was on a different shade of blue — a cerulean blue ceiling crossed by 10 arched steel trusses. I was standing outside the Palestra, the “Cathedral of Basketball,” but I longed to be inside.

For over 30 years since moving to Philadelphia, the Palestra has been as much a part of my winters as cold temperatures, holidays, and snow, but the pandemic changed that. The Ivy League winter season was canceled, nor would it be the site of any Big 5 clashes or high school championships. The arena that is believed to have housed more college basketball games than any other venue was taking the winter off.

The Palestra was not without any activity. Penn teams still practiced on the court, rehearsals for a performance that would not take place this season. The northeastern concourse was used as one of Penn’s COVID-19 testing sites where students tested twice a week. But a game had not been played at the Palestra since March 7, 2020, when Penn defeated Columbia 85-65 to earn a spot in the four-team Ivy League playoffs. A.J. Brodeur had broken Penn’s career scoring record that Ernie Beck had held for 67 years. The Ivy League Tournament was canceled three days later.

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I used to play noontime pickup games on the historic court. Following the games, I would sit in the bleachers and stare at the cerulean blue above me, as others might stare up at the Sistine Chapel to feel the divine. It has become my church, my basilica, my mosque, my sacred land. Fellow church member Dan Harrell, the former longtime caretaker of the Palestra known as “Palestra Dan,” once said to me, “If you ever need her, reach out to her and she’ll be there for you.” Now the access, the rejuvenation of my spirit that I counted on, was not to be had.

Following evening games I photographed for The Inquirer and Daily News, I always enjoyed being the last to leave. Many people speak of the Palestra’s ghosts, but they have never bothered me. Maybe they know I will one day join them. Their numbers must be growing. The Big 5 that was my era is quickly disappearing with the passing of sportswriter Jack Scheuer, who organized those noon pickup games, longtime Temple Sports Information Director Al Shrier, and Hall of Fame Coach John Chaney. (Phil Martelli is now at the University of Michigan and Fran Dunphy is retired from coaching.) The pandemic has made us all feel our mortality. The number of basketball games to watch, the number of pickup games to play in, no longer seem infinite. A winter of inactivity at the Palestra seems like a lost opportunity that can never be reclaimed.

On a March afternoon, a reunion took place. I was granted access inside to take photographs. It had been one year (and two days) since that last Palestra game. Sunlight from the overhead windows moved slowly across the empty bleachers. Each beam of light illuminated a memory, and from each shadow, a voice from the past called. The glory of victories, the tears of losses, the haunting of missed shots, and the unlikely comebacks were all part of the place long ago labeled, “Panicsville, USA” by broadcaster Les Keiter. In six years, the building will turn 100. It has aged gracefully. It has no pretensions and requires no gimmicks. The building’s dignity stands as a monument to the love of the game.

Inside the main entrance, a plaque serves as a reminder of its spirit for all that enter:

“To win the game is great …

To play the game is greater …

But to love the game is the greatest of all.”

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