Penn’s Beloved Palestra Turns 90 Years Old

The legendary basketball gym opened on January 1, 1927. Teams love it so much that last weekend Penn State played a home game there.

Palestra

A packed Palestra on Saturday afternoon. | Photo: Dan McQuade

The first thing Tom Izzo did was apologize.

It was Saturday afternoon. His Michigan State Spartans had just lost to the Penn State Nittany Lions, 72-63. The game was played at Penn’s Palestra, with Penn State giving up a home game in order to get a better foothold in the rich Philadelphia high school basketball recruiting environment. Lions fans packed the building for the season’s first sellout — despite Villanova playing there twice last fall — and Izzo’s team came out flat. Penn State shot 60 percent in the first half; the 12-point halftime lead was enough that Michigan State never got closer than 5 in the second.

“I’m embarrassed that in a city where basketball is like this that my team would play like they did that first half,” said Izzo, who has led Michigan State to seven Final Fours and one title. “We guarded nobody. I was totally frustrated with the way we played, and I guess I’m going to have to live with some of it … this was humiliating for me to be in such a great city and a great basketball venue and I did not have my players ready to play.”

Later, he actually apologized to the building itself. “My apologizes to this magnificent facility,” he said.

It sounds silly, except that Izzo was in the Palestra — Penn’s storied basketball gym that opened 90 years ago this month. If I were coaching a team that allowed its opponents to shoot 60 percent, I’d apologize to the gym, too. Many teams have put on great performances in the Palestra, and Izzo — in a place he always wanted to coach a game in — couldn’t get his team to come up with one.

People speak about the Palestra in mythical tones. “This is a basketball cathedral,” longtime Philly and New York scribe Dick “Hoops” Weiss has said. “The Palestra is unique,” said St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli, “because it’s the only empty building in America that you can go into and there’s sound.” Et cetera.

What’s great about it is the building still feels 90 years old. The renovations of 2000 turned the concourses into a museum exhibit, with exhibits on the history of Penn and Big 5 basketball (which somehow still includes a photo of Bill Conlin).

And when you walk to your seat, the arena almost seems like it’s stuck in 1927. Penn has added a video scoreboard, and chairback seats in the lower levels. But the majority of the seats are still bleachers. When you go to a sold-out game, like it was on Saturday, you’re basically going to end up sharing your seat with the person next to you. Sure, most of the other basketball venues in the city are nicer. But none match up.

“To walk in the locker room and not see any jacks for wi-fi and phones and Twitter — God, it was great, you know?” Izzo said. “I told our guys we’d probably have to hang our coats on hooks. We didn’t even have hooks in there! It was awesome. It was just awesome. I threw my damn coat on the floor and said, ‘This is where it belongs.’”

Pat Chambers, Penn State’s coach and a Radnor native, came to the postgame press conference in a hoodie. He was asked what he liked about the gym: “The lighting. The smell. It’s a gym. It’s a gym,” he said, emphasizing that the Palestra is not really an arena. “I was drenched. I had to get changed. I was drenched underneath my coat. And you just love it. You love every second, every sweat, every drop.”

Yeah, the gym’s radiator heat makes you sweat, even in the winter. And yeah, it doesn’t have all the best amenities. But who cares? Here’s to 90 more years.

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