The Palestra was built for basketball. Balls bouncing, sneakers squeaking, bands playing, and fans roaring are its soundtrack.
The simple, majestic structure opened its doors 91 years ago and close to 10,000 fans, the largest basketball crowd ever at the time, watched Penn beat Yale. Since then the Palestra has hosted thousands of contests, hundreds of nail biters – Ivy League, Big 5, Catholic League, Public League, PIAA, A-10, NBA. Wilt, Kobe, and Lebron played there. Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, and Gregg Popovich are three of the many famous coaches who've brought their teams to the Palestra to experience it.
Although it is now home to more than basketball, the Palestra is a showcase for the game it was built for. It has perfect sight lines from every seat. The rows are raked so you sit above the court and not away from it. The sound engulfs you. A few thousand fans with a college band can clear your sinuses. Sell out the building, and it pulses with excitement and will leave your ears ringing.
The Palestra has its own lifeblood, history, mystique, ghosts – choose your own magic word. Over the hundreds of games I've seen there, the Palestra has pissed me off, cheered me up, made me lightheaded, caused me to momentarily, literally lose my mind. At its worst, it's fun. At its best, it's cathartic.
The late PA announcer John McAdams proclaimed it "College basketball's most historic gym." These days it's referred to as "the Cathedral of College Basketball."
Now, the cathedral is being desecrated.
I'm not a basketball Luddite. The time-out contests with students costumed in giant coffee cups can be amusing. The new video scoreboard offers replays, highlights, and classic Palestra moments. The flashing lights during the team introduction are NBA-silly, but the students and players seem to like it.
But at the Palestra, the game and the court should be sacrosanct. That's why the Penn administration's decision to sell naming rights to the Palestra court this season is so disappointing, so tone deaf to the arena's place in basketball history. Penn has an endowment of nearly $14 billion and yet felt the need to take endowment pocket change to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa? To quote former Eagle Ricky Watters: "For who? For what?"
The Palestra is a "cathedral," a historic asset, not a brothel. No one needs to drink from the Starbucks Communion Cup at the Capital One Basilica.
It's all part of a disturbing trend. A couple years ago, Penn decided that more on-court hype and canned DJ music, in place of the Penn Band, would make the Palestra more like … every other arena. The administration said the goal was to appeal to students, but the Palestra doesn't need that nonsense, just as it never needed "Who Let the Dogs Out?" to fire up the crowd. When you have one of the nation's most unique basketball experiences, that should be the selling point.
Besides, it doesn't work. As a friend said, "The 76ers played canned music for years, and the Wells Fargo Center was half empty. They filled the place when they started winning."
Penn's basketball teams are winning – the men are the defending Ivy League champs, and the women, with three Ivy titles in the past five years, are enjoying an unprecedented run of success. Promote that – the players, the game, and the history – not a financial services firm that slapped its logo on hallowed ground.
The Palestra was built for basketball. Appreciate its greatness.