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The Palestra returns to basketball life for the first time in 619 days | Mike Jensen

The Quakers men's and women's teams played at the historic arena for the first time since March 2020.

Max Lorca-Lloyd of Penn dunks in the first half against Lafayette.
Max Lorca-Lloyd of Penn dunks in the first half against Lafayette.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Now where were we?

When the Palestra opened its doors Tuesday, the old barn off 33rd Street was back in the college basketball business for the first time in 619 days, it all feeling both fresh and typically nostalgic. Mostly, it all felt … normal.

“It was actually 996 days since my last game,” said Jonah Charles, officially a junior, but making his Palestra debut. “My last game was high school my senior year, state final game.”

Charles had broken both his feet freshman year, before the pandemic took last season fully away from the Quakers.

“No one really got to say their goodbyes,” co-captain Lucas Monroe had said about Penn’s 2019-20 season being cut short before the Ivy League tournament, before Penn’s 2020-21 season was completely knocked out.

Saying a quick hello, Monroe got things started, scoring inside in the first minute for the first official intercollegiate men’s basketball game in those 619 days.

Jelani Williams has them all beat ... 1,789 days without an official game. In his fifth year, Williams has now played (and started) a Palestra game.

“It was great to do the fight song at the end with some sweat on my back,” Williams said. “I’ve done it so many times supporting my guys.”

By the end, Charles had made four three-pointers, led the Quakers with 18 points. Williams made 3 of his 5 shots. Penn took out Lafayette, 85-57.

This homecoming wasn’t even just about the players. Dan Harrell, who always forgets he doesn’t work at the Palestra anymore, got to his familiar Southeast corner 35 minutes before Penn’s women tipped off late in the afternoon.

“I got teary-eyed, swear to God,” said Harrell, who used to sweep the playing surface and got a degree from the place at the same time, and somehow came into possession of a door key. “Home sweet home.”

Let the record show that the first Palestra basket that counted in 619 days was scored by a King’s College guard, junior Emily Morano, from Olyphant, Pa. Morano drove the left side on her team’s first possession. Mia Lakstigala quickly followed with the first Quakers hoop.

Kings is a Division III school, with only two players listed taller than 5-9 — everyone else on the squad officially called a guard. Nevertheless, the visitors hung around for a quarter, down only 20-16, until the Quakers gradually pulled away, to a 13-point halftime lead, up to 91-55 by the end. Penn sophomore forward Jordan Obi stood above, scoring 29 points, adding 12 rebounds.

The Penn women’s team wasn’t at full capacity and won’t be over the Quakers’ first eight games, with all the juniors and the seniors each serving out four-game suspensions for what is officially a violation of university policy. Three starters sat out this game. According to a source close to the program, hazing was the issue causing the suspensions.

“Let me say this … these are unbelievably high-character kids,” said Penn women’s coach Mike McLaughlin afterward. “These are amazing students here, they’re amazing athletes, they’re caring. They have an unbelievable basketball culture here. They’re great kids. They had a misstep. It was all to be a good teammate and it went sideways for them. We’re dealing with it. … They are not malicious kids. They did not make a life-changing bad decision. They will learn from it. They will grow from it.”

As a team, McLaughlin added, “We will grow from it. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We’re going to end up on the right side of it.”

They’d scrimmaged at the Palestra already, “but it was a long way away,” McLaughlin said of the time without basketball here. “The band here. Everything we’re doing is a step, step, step. They missed a step last year. But everything, the band playing, some type of atmosphere, you can’t beat it.”

It wasn’t a huge crowd, but, as always, folks were roaming the halls early, checking out the history. If those concourse walls could talk, they’d have to talk fast. There are not just photos of Wilt and Kobe and Jerry West and Patrick Ewing, who had all once showed up, but you can look at 1937 EIL title-winning Penn captain Francis Murray — what, you didn’t know the Quakers used to play in the Eastern Intercollegiate League? Did you know Lon Jourdet, who coached the Quakers from 1914 to 1920 and again from ‘30 to ‘45, is given credit for inventing the zone defense?

The Quakers men, who had gotten smoked at Florida State and George Mason to get started before winning Sunday at Bucknell, looked comfortable in their friendly confines almost immediately, scoring the first nine points. The first five buckets were scored by each of the five starters. Eventually, 11 Quakers scored. Then they sang the fight song. It all felt ... normal.