Posted on: February 14, 2012 4:30 pm
Edited on: February 14, 2012 9:55 pm

The Religion and Community of The Palestra

You only get one chance to experience The Palestra for the first time. And you only get one chance to write and react about your first time at college basketball’s holiest of churches. So I wanted — had — to document it.

By Matt Norlander

I knew that had to be it. That oversized war memorial gym-looking, all-brick building set back behind the construction site. I quickened my gait up the only walkway available outside the abandoned-for-the-night patch of renovation in front of the historic building. I narrowed my eyes and made sure. I could barely make out the letters at the top; dusk challenged my scope. But that was it, all right, in such an unassuming, ordinary appearance. That made my hunch feel more rewarding — I guessed right. The rectangle cement sign engraved with the building’s name told me.



The anticipation for the trip was tingly and excruciating, like waiting for the package you know is coming in the mail that day. Under battleship-gray skies, I took the train from Stamford, Conn., and snaked approximately 140 miles down to Philadelphia. The Amtrak car slid through and under the thick slabs of New York City, then cruised by the repetition of architecture in northern New Jersey until the tracks were slipping behind the simple, Monopoly-looking houses along nearing border of Pennsylvania.

I got out at 30th Street Station, took a left and briskly made my way through Drexel’s campus, which serves as the buffer in walking from the Station to The Palestra. I too had a backpack on, and amid the end-of-day student shuffle, felt like an undergrad again as I made my way toward New Deck restaurant on Sansom Street. After inhaling the crab dip there, I quickly made my way toward the general direction of the reason I was in Philadelphia to begin with.


Walking into The Palestra was a blast of déjà vu. I’d never been, but there was familiarity in the moment I approached the 85-year-old monument to our sport. I couldn’t have picked a better time to enter into the arena. One small thing I love about going to game is the walk from the concourse, through the tunnel entrance and into the cavernous space where the action happens. No matter the venue, when transitioning from bowel to bowl, your eyes seek upward, the head coinciding as it tilts back in obligation or awe. This felt like both. It was aided by a soundcheck, the perfect one. As I walked through section 202’s tunnel and entrance, the Star-Spangled Banner was booming from the body of the 13-year-old girl who had the privilege of performing that night.

The room was bigger than I’d expected. Gray tint arches, 10 of them, support the structure across the top, below the baby-blue ceiling. There are no beams that block anyone’s view. Fifty — 51 if you count the Ivy League flag that hangs above at center — banners are draped, all of them related to Penn’s accomplishments. Temporarily, the Ivy and Big 5 banners/representation are not dangling from the wires. Although The Palestra is the Big 5’s home, the place belongs to Penn. The sliced P logo is at center court and all Penn home games are hosted here.

The single-floor concourse that surrounds the shell of the gymnasium is a Philadelphia basketball sports hall of fame. Dedications to Temple, La Salle, St. Joseph’s and Villanova are treated with equal esteem and respect as Penn. There is only one level to circumnavigate, and the white brick is covered every few feet by some sort of plaque, mounting, window encasement or dedication to teams, coaches, media and games past.

Structurally, there isn’t much to The Palestra; its simplicity is what makes it so embraceable. I was able to dip behind the bleachers and investigate every corner of the place in less than an hour prior to tip-off. The only rooms I didn’t walk into where the locker rooms, which I saw well after the game had finished. The officials’ locker room is tucked near a utility closet and is unguarded. The laundry room is four steps from the visitors’ locker room. The media room, which can’t be more than 100 square feet, is behind/underneath the bleachers on the “main side” of the gym. All storage rooms — rooms of any kind — are at court level. It’s a basic build. Simplistic and charming and economical.

Old-style radiators, at least 40 of them that have faded white paint cracking off, are aligned along the top of the seating rows. Not that you’d need them. The place bakes up pretty well once more than 6,000 bodies getting to clapping and yelling, which was the case for the Harvard game on this Friday night.

The building feels comforting in its haunt. It’s also fairly poorly lit, which is of course intentional. The lights that dip from vertical steel rods, and are spaced fairly far apart, give most of their energy to the floor, signaling to everyone in attendance: that’s all you need to concern yourself with. Not that you’d ever want to do this during a basketball game, but if you tried to read a book in the upper rafters behind either basket, it’d be impossible without a portable light of your own.

Still, there’s a clash of contemporary vs. fastened, old-style beliefs in The Palestra now. Players still sit on plastic bleachers, the way most of them not so long ago during AAU games. (Those things just kill your back after 30 minutes.) It still feels like you could be watching a game in 1964, except for one bright addition. There’s a new HD video board that’s been installed on the east side of the structure. I get the idea most think it’s completely unnecessary, like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park adding a monster screen. Just pay attention to what’s happening on the floor, lest you miss it, well, that’s your problem.


As the game gets underway, the first thing I notice is the constrained, swirling echoes of chants from the student section on the floor. In the elevated press box, the sound from down there is canned and tinny. In the second half, when Miles Cartwright hits a 3 for Penn to tie the game at 30 and complete a 7-0 Quakers run, the 7,000 (I’ll deduct the 462 other souls accounted for as Harvard fans, team members and media in attendance) people cheering hits me in the face and slams me in the ears. It’s the combustion I’d hope for all night long. I’d love for it to get louder, but Penn’s shooters won’t oblige me or the crowd.

Late in the second half, I couldn’t resist anymore. I’d been eyeing it all night, and I had to make the move. Row 1, Seat 13 on the opposite side of the benches and scorer’s table had been vacant since I arrived. During a timeout I scooted down there, asked the gentleman next to the seat if I could sit for a few, and he had no issue at all. He wanted to talk, I wanted to watch. I sat for about 12 minutes, essentially taking in the game as a spectator. You’re right there, a leg stretch from being a nuisance. It’s one of the best seats in the city. That photo is from Row 1, Seat 13.

Harvard went on to win, 56-50, continuing on its path toward the team’s first NCAA tournament berth in 66 years. The W in this building means as much to this team as any other non-tournament win it will get this year. Perhaps even as much.


After the game, fans filed out into the streets of Philadelphia, onto South 32nd or Walnut Street, driving or walking or training or cabbing their way home, to campus or a local bar. Thirty minutes of interviews went by, and then I moved from the upper press box down to court level to write my game story. I couldn’t concentrate. The buzz was still humming in my brain as much now as it was when I walked in four hours earlier. There were a dozen kids on the floor, just shooting on the hoop. About 100 bodies still occupied the arena and no one was in an obvious rush to leave. It was a scene many who attended high school basketball games would recognize.

I learned that’s the essence to The Palestra experience. You come, you watch, you stay afterward and get a few shots in. Anyone can. Fran Dunphy emphasized this sort of culture and community when he got to Penn in the late ’80s, and his vision has remained a principle of the Penn program and The Palestra ever since.

The Palestra is the world’s gymnasium. Doesn’t matter who you are — anyone can get some shots in on either one of the hoops. I wanted mine. But I wanted to wait. At 10:09, a bald black janitor strolled past me, a white towel tucked into his khakis, gray bucket in hand, filled with cleaning supplies. Three of Penn’s players shot on one hoop, and on the other, four children, a teenager and a grown man continued to toss jumpers.  He’s used to this.

“Nobody wants to go home,” he said to me.

No, we don’t. The bodies linger afterward for as long as they’d like. Eventually the crowd thinned out. A loose ball skipped my way and I didn’t wait any longer. While guys like Dick Jerardi from the Philly Daily News were squeezing in work on deadline, I snapped a few dribbles and took my first shot from about 22 feet out.


I almost called it quits immediately. I could be 100 percent from the floor for my life at The Palestra. Fortunately, I’m not a perfect man. The dopamine rush had begun. Ball players know there’s not much better way of personal introspect and therapy than by shooting alone. I was getting my chance in a unique, cherished setting.

At first, though, it was a few of us shooting hoop. The grown man I mentioned above, his name is Charles Lanier. We immediately shared two things in common: an insatiable love of college basketball and our first trip to The Palestra. Lanier is in his ‘50s but on the court his energy, like mine, resembles an 11-year-old's. He attended the ’78 and ’82 Final Fours. He’s from North Carolina, and this is his vacation. His loving wife understood and made the trip with him after all those years of waiting. Lanier had a mean sweat going. He was squeezing as many shots into a 20-minute window as he could.

We exchanged stories. He’s the one who took that picture of me. Soon enough, he was off, as was almost everyone else. I had another 15 minutes of practice in me. I took off my sweater to see oval stains of sweat sopping parts of the arms of my dress shirt and felt more moisture in the middle of my back. It was more than a half hour of nonstop shooting. The silly fadeaway jumpers, mandatory half-court heaves, tempting 3-point shots and seriously paced free throws — a hoops fan’s dream. Eventually, second-year Penn coach Jerome Allen came onto the floor to take a few pictures with his son and his friends. I asked if he needed the final ball to be put away.

“Young man, you can shoot yourself to sleep,” he said.

I nearly did. I know I could have. I’d love to know what it’s like to sleep in that church. Eventually, I dribbled the ball into Penn’s quaint locker room and placed it back on the rack. I had a train to catch. I began to pack up my computer. I looked up and listened and had my first chance to stop and experience the place without a crowd around. Six janitors slowly milled about, the clinking and rattling of cans and ricocheting bouncing off the walls. Two hours after the game had finished, it was only me and them now. They were scattered. Two sat, slouched over in Section 116. Another hauled one of those big black garbage bags over his shoulder. I wasn’t outlasting them, nor should I.

I slowly showed myself out.

Posted on: February 11, 2012 2:27 am

Harvard a near lock for NCAAs -- but incomplete

Freshman Corbin Miller came off the bench and put in 17 against Penn. (AP)

By Matt Norlander

PHILADELPHIA — Now, it all seems a matter of arithmetic and inevitability.

Harvard got by against what’s considered to be its stiffest test of its Ivy League gantlet this season, playing Penn at the Palestra, with a 56-50 win Friday night. The Crimson are now a 7-0 Ivy team with a chokehold on the conference race and seem destined to represent the eight-team league in the NCAA tournament.

When it officially locks up the crown in a couple of weeks — or sooner; the team’s magic number is 5 — and earn the auto bid, it will be the first time Harvard’s gotten to the NCAA tournament since 1946, when the bracket had an iota of the cache then as it does now. It's a memorable year already in Cambridge, Mass. I'll inject straight opinion right here by stating what everyone in the Ivy knows. Nobody's catching Harvard now.

But there are kinks to this team that prevent it from being the giant-slayer that some thought it was/could be at the start of the season.

Against Penn, Harvard won the way it has so often this season: slow and ugly and through sheer force and unusual reliability of its relentless depth. This team’s doing well, yeah. It’s 21-2 overall and will finish with one of the best records in school history. But it’s not yet reached its potential. It's odd to see the Ivy favorite continue to win but to fail to run inferior foes out of the gym. Senior 6-8 forward Keith Wright, who was the Ivy Player of the Year last season, only managed two points against the Quakers. He’s failed to score in double digits in five of the past six games.

“I think I draw a lot of attention no matter who we play or wherever we go,” Wright said. “I knew that it probably wasn’t going to be my, but the game’s not all about scoring.”

Wright had 13 rebounds and two blocks. He took five shots.

“My head’s not down at all,” he added.

The fact one of the team’s two best players could hit a nadir like this in the stretch of the toughest part of league play and still not hurt the team to the tune of an L is a good sign. Plus, Harvard got a career night out of freshman guard Corbin Miller, who lit it up with 17 points, matching star forward Kyle Casey’s 17, which also happens to be the number Harvard alum Jeremy Lin dons with the Knicks.

It was certainly noteworthy that Harvard got the definitive, toughest win of its conference season on the same night Lin’s reputation exploded at Madison Square Garden. Harvard's win did not bring the attention nor the appeal of Lin's magic up in New York, but the Palestra did have more than 7,500 in attendance to watch the most anticipated game in the Ivy this season, a game that wasn't available to be watched on television anywhere.

Back to what's wrong with Wright. He lacks aggression and nobody can tell me why this is. Fortunately, thanks to the bench, this still isn't an issue that's had to be nakedly addressed. That should change soon. If Harvard wants to be a team that can win in the NCAA tournament, even a game, it needs Wright to be dogmatic. If he’s able to corral control of the team’s post offense again, then it'll  see an uptick in offensive efficiency and respectability. Right now, this group looks good — a 10 seed at worst — but won’t alarm anyone.

“It’s scary to think about because coach Amaker talks about it all the time,” Wright said. “We haven’t put two halves together yet. We’ve gotta finish around the rim, including myself.”

This isn’t Cornell from a few years ago. It doesn’t have the size or consistent deep threats that team embodied. Now that the team's done what was expected and played half its league games without a scratch, addressing cosmetics and needs down low should become top priority. Casey admitted as much outside the locker room after the win.

“I think we have to finish down low and punish teams when we can,” he said. “This is what we came here for. Everyone in this program essentially came here to make history and do what we’re doing right now. We remain hungry and fight each other harder than opponents are going to fight us.”

The Casey-Wright dynamic last year was what made Harvard not only interesting as a budding program but also so damn hard to defend and contain. Some of that's been lost. Casey gets better as his teammate complements him, but he's not concerned.

“We’ve (he and Wright) got a really good relationship on the court and feel for what we can do with each other and play off each other,” Casey said. “We’re going to definitely need him if we’re going to do what we say we want to do.”

What they want goes beyond getting to the first tournament in 68 years. They want at least an NCAA win. They want to be heroes at Harvard and that requires reaching a Saturday or Sunday March game. Ivy schools that snatch a W or two immediately become something of legend in that league and in the eyes of the public who watch the always-endearing smart schools "overachieve" on the big stage. Wright's a senior. Time's running out. Harvard can get by now without his top-level play, but they can't be their best, something the NCAA tournament mandates from almost every underdog.
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: December 21, 2011 11:38 am
Edited on: December 21, 2011 11:55 am

Rosen's hard work and leadership transform Penn

Jeff Borzello

Inside Zack Rosen’s locker, he keeps a classic Aristotle quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

“That came from a student on a trip to Rwanda,” Rosen said, referencing his Interfaith Service Trip over the summer. “It registered with me. I try to do that anyway.”

For many players, having that quote is mostly for show. Not for Rosen.

The Pennsylvania guard plays more than 39 minutes per game and has become one of the most productive players in the country.

“Zack lives in the gym,” said Penn assistant Michael Martin, who has been on staff for Rosen’s entire career. “In the 11 years I’ve been involved in college hoops, only Earl Hunt matches Zack’s work ethic.”

Hunt, who played for Brown in the early 2000s, finished fourth all-time in Ivy scoring with 2041 points. Not bad company.

Rosen has ranked near the top of the national rankings in minutes played for each of the past three seasons, while also steadily improving his scoring, shooting, distributing and every other facet of his game. This season, he’s averaging 20.8 points and 6.0 assists, shooting 53 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range. Oh, and nearly 93 percent from the free-throw line.

Rosen has played at least 36 minutes in every game this season, including 40 or more on four separate occasions.

“I don’t like coming out, I’m not a really good bench guy,” Rosen said. “It’s probably too much. But if that’s what the team needs, I’ll do it.”

Martin said the coaching staff constantly discusses how to cut Rosen’s minutes and give him more rest, but he looks fresher and less fatigued than everyone else at the end of the game. Moreover, with the way Rosen is playing, it’s tough to sit him on the bench for even a few minutes.

What makes the story even better is that Rosen wasn’t sold on the idea of playing in the Ivy League when Penn first began recruiting him at St. Benedict’s (N.J.), where he was valedictorian in 2008. After all, he was playing on one of the best high school teams in the country, alongside Samardo Samuels, Greg Echenique, Chris Gaston, Dwan McMillan and others. With multiple teammates heading to the Big East, Rosen wanted to do the same thing. He wanted to play on TV, to be in the spotlight.

Eventually, “after a lot of smart conversations with people,” Rosen chose the Quakers and head coach Glen Miller over varying interest from high- and mid-major schools.

Penn went 16-40 in Rosen’s first two years in the program, but he was a starter from day one and never regretted his decision. Not after Miller left the program, not after Jerome Allen was taken on as head coach, not even after a third consecutive losing season in 2010-11.

“This is exactly what I expected,” Rosen deadpanned. “It’s a really good life lesson. You go in with expectations, but more often than not, it’s not going to turn out as expected. It’s been a crazy ride.”

Losses piling up never halted Rosen’s work ethic, either. He developed into a leader and someone everyone looked to on the court, upperclassmen and underclassmen alike.

“He’s battled through tons of adversity as we’ve struggled,” Martin said. “He never stopped working. There was plenty of frustration but his approach to working never changed.”

Despite the struggles, Penn is on its way back up in the Ivy League – and a lot of the credit has to go to Rosen. The Quakers did go 7-7 in the league last season, and they’re expected to compete with Princeton for second place this year. Moreover, Allen has a tremendous recruiting class coming in next season.

This season, Penn nearly knocked off Temple and UCLA, hung tight with Villanova and also beat a very good Robert Morris team.

“Coach Allen said you have to commit to a process,” Rosen said. “You may not see signs of the work for two years, but you have to keep the faith.”

Without Rosen, Penn would be in the cellar of the Ivy, just beginning the rebuilding process. Moreover, the Quakers wouldn’t be keeping up with Harvard in the arms race of Ivy recruiting. He was part of the program’s darkest days, but he’s also jumpstarted its return to prominence.

“I’m not the most talented, athletic, gifted guy, but I would consider work ethic a gift,” Rosen said. “I have a huge capacity for working.”

Which brings to mind another Aristotle quote: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

And Rosen certainly loves what he’s doing.

Photo: US Presswire

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 8, 2011 9:13 pm
Edited on: March 8, 2011 9:31 pm

Princeton win forces Saturday playoff for Ivy bid

Kareem Maddox had a huge game to keep Princeton's season alive

Posted by Eric Angevine

Harvard and Princeton are co-champions of the Ivy League. Let’s get that straight from the get-go. Tonight’s 70-58 Tiger win over Penn made that an indelible fact.

Nonetheless, there’s an auto-bid to be decided, so there will be an additional game added to the schedule on Saturday. It’s a one-game playoff, with the winner gaining automatic entry into the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers went with a short bench in the league's final regular-season game, garnering a huge 23 point, 5 board, 5 assist game from senior forward Kareem Maddox in a truly must-win game. Ian Hummer (14 points, 6 rebounds) and Dan Mavraides (10 points, 7 rebounds) were the highest-scoring starters for Princeton.

The playoff will take place on neutral but familiar ground. The league has set the huge finale for Saturday, March 12 at Yale's John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, Conn. at 4 p.m. ET.

The last time a playoff was needed, it was a fascinating three-way between Yale, Penn and Princeton in 2002. This season's tie makes this the seventh time a tiebreaker game has been required to decide the league's postseason picture.

Photo: US Presswire

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Category: NCAAB
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